The Newsletter 75 Autumn 2016

Reaching the city of Kuala Lumpur and beyond: being a Pentecostal megachurch in Malaysia

Jeaney Yip

<p>Pentecostalism is said to have arrived in Malaysia in the 1930s and its domestic growth has been consistent with the global charismatic movement of the 1970s. Pentecostal churches have flourished among ‘those from the margins of society’, but have also increasingly resonated with the middle and upper classes. In Malaysia, the political marginalisation of the ethnic Chinese has seen Pentecostalism become a vehicle for the consolidation of the Chinese identity as a modern, individualised subject in the Malaysian state.</p>

Calvary Church is a Pentecostal church based in the capital city, Kuala Lumpur. Established in 1960 as a mission church, it is the largest Assembly of God (AOG) church in Malaysia. However, the Second Malaysia Plan in the early 1970s restricted the stay of foreign missionaries to no longer than ten years, resulting in the appointment of Prince and Petrina Guneratnam as Calvary’s first Malaysian senior pastors in 1972; positions they hold up to the present time.

Calvary Church’s congregation comprise middle and upper middle-class ethnic Chinese, with a demographic profile that is predominantly made up of middle-aged and baby-boomer cohorts. Diversity among the church is evident with the presence of ethnic Indian members, while newer members include transnational workers like Filipinos, Nigerians, Cambodians and Dutch. As of 2014, the church had sixteen ministries that catered to all segments of its congregation. Cell groups are an essential building block for the church structure and are held in highly urban areas in Kuala Lumpur. The church conducts services in English, Chinese and Bahasa Malaysia. Operating in multiracial, multiethnic and multi-religious Malaysia, Calvary Church caters to and facilitates this diversity. Broadly though, the church views itself as having a higher calling and takes its role in nation-building seriously.

According to estimates Calvary Church has a congregation of 3000 members and its latest venue – the Calvary Convention Centre - is claimed to be the largest in Southeast Asia with a seating capacity of 5000. According to the church’s website, it is dedicated to the pursuit of  “holistic activities”, and the convention centre was built as a “non-profit project”. The church regards ‘holistic activities’ to mean conventions, banquets, seminars, musicals, creative art productions, educational and vocational training, in addition to spiritual development that “aim to develop our nation’s young, and people of all ages and from all walks of life into useful and exemplary citizens of Malaysia”. It is noteworthy that the Pentecostal church blurs the distinction between sacred and secular, and frames its new venue and itself as a contribution to the project of nation-building. In engaging with notions of nationhood and community-building, the church is thus able to indigenise itself and exude a non-threatening image to the rest of the non-Christian communities.

Embedded in Malaysia’s multicultural but increasingly Islamic-dominant setting, Pentecostal churches like Calvary Church offer non-Malay Muslims resources that enable believers to position and re-script their identities in ways that provide a sense of empowerment and personal transformation in alignment with middle class aspirations. The megachurch’s ability to justify the possession of wealth and well-being as a symbol of God’s favour, which can be contributed back to community and nation building, has made it popular with the Malaysian Chinese middle-class.

Pentecostalism is known to be adaptable to the local culture in which it is located. While it is important to recognise this adaptability, it is equally important to refrain from the tendency to homogenise Pentecostal churches based on common traits. Asian Pentecostalism, for example, has been argued to be recognisable as a global faith yet specific to locality with clear indigenous characteristics, while politically and historically different from ‘Western’ or ‘American’ models. Calvary Church in Kuala Lumpur is certainly evidence of this. It has grown over the years by capitalising on its transnational origins and network while operating under a locally sensitive religious environment by incorporating theologies (both religious and organisational) that have been meaningful to its middle-class ethnic Chinese and Indian congregation.

Jeaney Yip, Lecturer, University of Sydney, Australia (