Different Under God

Different Under God reveals the outcomes of a major survey of Protestant church-goers in Singapore. Conducted by Terence Chong and Hui Yew-Foong, between December 2009 and January 2011, this is a survey of 2663 people from 24 churches, consisting of Anglican, Methodist and Bible-Presbyterian, as well as independent churches and megachurches. (10)

Ostensibly, this survey is an attempt to profile the demographic, as well as value attitudes of these Protestants in relation to public/policy issues, sexuality and financial opinions. But it is also a timely effort to get to the heart of the rapid rise of the megachurch phenomenon in Singapore, particularly because of many recent high-profile public controversies involving this sector of the religious space.

These include the Ong Kian Cheong/ Dorothy Chan pamphlet case, the Rony Tan reincarnation testimonials and, most famously, the AWARE saga. In fact, at the time of this writing, six leaders of the City Harvest Church, perhaps the largest of Singapore’s megachurches, are preparing to stand trial for conspiring to cheat the church in excess of S$20 million.

Apart from questions already publicly aired about the social and ethical considerations of these incidents, it is also easy to dismiss the misguided teachings of some of the more radical churches, as well as how church members can be led along dubious understandings of religion and, more importantly, how some can be persuaded to contribute financially to schemes, such as City Harvest’s Crossover project, which is part of the criminal investigation.

And yet, as Different Under God reveals, the average church-goers, including megachurch attendees, are clear-minded adherents of the faith. With these new churches especially, given that many members are first-generation converts from a variety of social and educational backgrounds, there is a discernible level of moderate sensibility and objective understanding of the larger context of multiculturalism in Singapore. The disparate constitution of the megachurch landscape is one that points to dynamism and tolerance, with respondents indicating their ability to accept differences in cultural-religious practice, as well as policy matters that differ from their own values and beliefs – matters of sexuality or abortion, say. (94-115)

While these tempered attitudes belie the stereotyped impression of fanatic worshipping associated with some charismatic quarters of Christianity, the survey does reveal manifest differences between members of these newer churches and those of the so-called mainline church (the more traditional institutions). For example, those from mainline churches are relatively more inclined to take part in civil society activities, and more given to contribute to the public discourse on matters of moral and political concern. Megachurch members, on the other hand, tend to be more reticent about these matters and express a tendency to limit articulation within more private spheres. (84-90)

One other aspect that does stand out from this survey is the question of money and finances. Different Under God reveals that, with megachurch Christians, there is a more acute awareness of the connections between religious and material considerations. For them, there is a deeper association and projected meaningfulness between growth (financial, congregation size) and God’s blessings, with issues of personal faithfulness also a contributing factor to the equation. (71-80) This strong connection between materiality and spirituality, the authors explain, could be due to the tendency for megachurches to deploy the rhetoric of the market place, and of corporate sensibilities, as part of the theological discourse, which in turn appeal to the church-goers as a matter of familiarity. (81-83) There is, by extension, a correspondent tendency to associate church growth with group, as well as personal, sense of upward mobility.

While it is easy here to make connections between these beliefs about wealth and materiality and the so-called prosperity gospels – favoured by similarly ascendant megachurches in other countries such as America and Australia – the authors are fairly clear about the inconclusiveness of such a relationship. (82-83)

Another interesting finding that emerges from Different Under God is the more pronounced sensitivity of megachurch members towards reactions to the evangelistic impetus. (119-123) The authors suggest a possible explanation for this: as a larger proportion of megachurch members are more recent converts from non-Christian backgrounds, they may have more awareness of how religious differences (and the expression therein) can be socially sensitive, or considered so by non-Christians. (133)

This, of course, finds correspondence with the earlier point about the general reluctance by megachurch Christians to wear their beliefs and moral values on their sleeves. In turn, it suggests that the kind of public courting of controversy in cases such as the seditious pamphlets and the AWARE steeplejacking are, and will hopefully continue to be, rare in spite of the continual growth of new churches (mega or otherwise) in Singapore.

Different Under God is an important contribution to the ongoing public and academic interests in the place of Christianity within the landscape of Singaporean multiculturalism. The project has managed to do so by setting out to explore – and explore comprehensively – the multifaceted character of the Protestant faith, as well as that of its adherents. The survey’s achievements lay in its approach to the inquiry with no preconceived notions, as indeed some of the more surprising revelations that emerged from the data have indicated. As such, it has certainly secured its place as a dependable resource for scholars of the subject.

Different Under God: A Survey of Church-going in Singapore. Terence Chong and Hui Yew-Foong. Singapore: ISEAS Publishing, 2012.

Lim Lee Ching

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