The Newsletter 75 Autumn 2016

Pentecostal megachurches in Southeast Asia

Terence Chong

<p>The articles presented here are ethnographic studies commissioned by the Regional Social and Cultural Studies Programme at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute on Pentecostalism in Southeast Asia. Part of an edited volume to be published by ISEAS, these articles are excerpts from chapters which examine the growth of Pentecostal megachurches in urban centres in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore as well as their congregations and the politics and history from which they have emerged and flourished. Indeed the independent Pentecostal movement has been growing rapidly in Southeast Asia in recent decades, benefitting from the broader expansion of charismatic Christianity from the 1980s onwards in Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as further afield in Taiwan and South Korea.</p>

The conventional definition of ‘Pentecostalism’ is the emphasis on the deeply personal spiritual experience of God, baptism of the Holy Spirit, expressive worship, belief in signs and miracles, and glossolalia. According to estimates, there are 7.3 million Pentecostals in Indonesia; 2.2 million Pentecostals in Philippines; 206 thousand Pentecostals in Malaysia; and 150 thousand Charismatic Pentecostals in Singapore.

A 2011 Pew Research Centre study estimated that there are 279 million Pentecostals worldwide, comprising 12.8 per cent of all Christians. There are no accurate estimates for the number of Pentecostals in Southeast Asia but the percentage of Christians (including Catholics) in Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines and Singapore are 13.2 per cent, 8.8 per cent, 85 per cent, and 18 per cent, respectively. The exact number of Pentecostals are difficult to pin down because most country censuses do not differentiate Pentecostals from the larger Christian community. In addition, Pentecostalism does not have strict doctrines or hierarchy, and may manifest as standalone churches or as fringe congregations in mainline denominations.

There are several reasons why Pentecostal growth in this region is important. Firstly, to a large extent the Pentecostal movement has an ethnic face. The majority of Pentecostals in urban centres like Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Surabaya, Jakarta and Manila are, with some notable exceptions, upwardly mobile, middle-class ethnic Chinese. In countries where the ethnic Chinese are in the minority, Pentecostal churches and cell groups are crucial spaces for social networking, business contacts and identity-making. Secondly, it has a wide economic appeal suggesting an ability to tap into different concerns and aspirations. For while the Pentecostal megachurch is often associated with the middle classes, it has great attraction for the poor and the working class in urban centres like Manila. Thirdly, the central figure of the charismatic leader in Pentecostal churches means that senior pastors enjoy great deference and sway over large congregations. In actual terms, this has meant the ability to mobilise financial capital; and the conflation of politics, business and religion to varying degrees raises the spectre of religious nationalism. 

Perhaps most crucially, these studies will demonstrate that Asian Pentecostalism has both transnationalising and indigenising characteristics. Drawing from the west and other parts of the world, Asian Pentecostalism is also driven by local prophetic preachers who are able to craft contextual theologies. As such, Asian Pentecostalism is simultaneously recognisable as a part of a global phenomenon and available for examination only as a politically and historically specific movement. These articles, together with the other chapters in the edited volume will offer an updated ethnographic survey of Pentecostalism in Southeast Asia.

Terence Chong, Senior Fellow, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute; and regional editor for the News from Southeast Asia section in the Newsletter