A Beginner’s Guide to Megachurches in Asia

Thou shalt be informed
The JUNK GuideApril 10, 2018
The things/facts/anecdotes/gossip we’ve all heard about megachurches’ most high-profile scandals could fill a best-selling book and then perhaps be turned into a Netflix Original documentary or something, but when it comes down to the basic questions – What is a megachurch? Where did they come from? Are they all connected? What do they preach? – we tend to be more fuzzy on the details.

And though we do love a good, strong opinion at JUNK, we love a good, strong, informed and contextualised opinion a little bit more. To that end, we give you some key facts and information about the institutions popularly known as megachurches. All opinions and feelings derived thereafter are entirely your own.

Let’s start at the very beginning. (A very good place to start.)

So what is a megachurch and how is it different from a regular church?

The most basic difference is volume. The threshold for what makes a church “mega” is usually a congregation of 2,000 or more people at weekly worship, although one Singaporean research paper posits a much higher minimum of 10,000 worshippers.

The Hartford Institute for Religion Research also adds that mega churches generally have “a charismatic, authoritative senior minister”, “a multitude of diverse social and outreach ministries”, “an intentional small group system or other structures of intimacy and accountability”, plus an “innovative and often contemporary worship format”.

The term megachurch is also usually applied to Protestant churches, and Asian megachurches are commonly aligned with the Pentecostal, Charismatic, or Evangelical branches of Protestantism.

What is Pentecostal Christianity?

There are people who literally spend their lives arguing what does or does not constitute this or that kind of Christianity, but a few generally agreed-upon principles of Pentecostal Christianity are:
– Belief in the “experienced presence of the Holy Spirit
– Affirmation of a “Spirit-filled life” (the Holy Spirit, of course, not other kinds of spirits)
– The manifestation of the Spirit’s presence through “Spiritual gifts” such as divine healing, or speaking in tongues

Pentecostal denominations include Assemblies of God, United Pentecostal Church International, and Church of God in Christ.

What does it have to do with the Charismatic Movement?

Remember the aforementioned spiritual gifts? The Greek word for that is charism – so the Charismatic Movement isn’t actually a Christian movement populated by a bunch of really charming, poised, and well-spoken people. (Or maybe it is, but not by official definition, anyway.) It actually just refers to a movement in the Church that is centered around the experience of these spiritual gifts. The Charismatic Movement is closely related to Pentecostal Christianity but pops up in other Protestant Christian denominations too.

What is Evangelism?

Similar to the Charismatic Movement, Evangelism is a movement found amongst many Protestant denominations. There isn’t a specific definition of what Evangelical Christianity is, so we are just going to give you a link to an article that kinda tells you what it is, but not really.

Where did Pentecostal Christianity come from?

It’s like a mad long story, but some part of how Pentecostal Christianity came to our part of the world has to do with the missionary work of the Assemblies of God church. The first Assembly of God church in Singapore was established in 1928 by missionaries Rev Cecil M and Edith Jackson; today it is known as Elim Church. Scholars also say that Pentecostalism arrived in Malaysia around the same time, and grew in parallel with the “global charismatic movement of the 1970s”.

What does Pentecostal Christianity have to do with Asian Megachurches?

The four largest churches in Singapore are:
– City Harvest Church (16,482 worshippers)
– New Creation Church (33,000 worshippers)
– Lighthouse Evangelism (18,000 worshippers)
– Faith Community Baptist Church (10,000 worshippers)

All of these churches actually identify as non-denominational, (except Faith Community Baptist, which, confusingly, isn’t Baptist but transitioned into more of a Charismatic/Evangelical church under the global G12 church umbrella).

As independent churches, these churches are not connected to each other and preach different doctrines, but, they do share some common traits. According to this paper, “These four churches share common characteristics such as a demographically youthful congregation, a charismatic leader or leadership, Pentecostal leanings, practice of glossolalia, inspiration-based sermons, experiential worship sessions and, of course, doctrinal and denominational autonomy.”

Other Pentecostal Megachurches from around the region include:
– Calvary Church, Malaysia
– Mawar Sharon Church, Indonesia
– Jesus Is Lord (JIL) Movement, Philippines
– Yoidi Full Gospel Church, South Korea

Why is Pentecostal Christianity (or Pentecostal-influenced Christianity) so popular in Asia?

Every person will have their own individual reasons for choosing a particular religious organisation to belong to, but in general, a few broad factors seem to hold true. To paraphrase/interpret a bunch of intelligent analysis on the subject, in simple terms:

– Religious commentators note that Pentecostal-style worship in particular is a very ‘feeling’ experience, “carefully planned with an eye to the emotional effect on the worshipper”. And if there’s one thing we know from karaoke, it’s that people of all ages love to get together and sing catchy, uplifting songs. So it’s kind of the same thing in megachurches, except you get high on the Holy Spirit, not alcoholic spirits. And in a big congregation you also won’t feel so paiseh to sing as loud as you want because nobody will arrow you to hold the microphone.

– People also really like good news. The Bible generally has a lot of Good News (what Christians call the Gospel; it’s all about being saved by Jesus and going to heaven) but it also does contain a lot of fire and brimstone (what Christians call the wrath of God, usually inflicted by God as a penalty for sin, especially prevalent in the Old Testament). However, it has been observed that megachurches tend to preach more of the good parts “to emphasize positive living and blessings, while deflecting overly negative Christian doctrines such as suffering, judgment, sacrifice, hell or death from sin.” Naturally, this makes the teachings more likeable. Because judgment and hell is really not fun!

Spiritual gifts! Healings! Miracles! Prophecies! God give you gifts, who don’t like?!?

– Another key factor is the sense of community and belonging fostered by religious groups in general, and via the intimate small-group structures (usually called cell groups) often employed by megachurches, in particular. If you’re willing to participate, churches are generally a good place to feel connected to other people, and megachurches have the benefit of allowing you to experience the ecstatic heights of a large-scale religious event (through services), as well as the deep connections of a close-knit community (through cell-groups). This makes people feel happy, and places that make people feel happy are generally popular.

What does Pentecostal Christianity’s following look like?

According to research from the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, “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.”

With regards to City Harvest in particular, Reddit says that go church confirm got a lot of chiobus, lah.

What are some examples of megachurch doctrines/teachings?

A key Christian principle is the idea of “grace through faith” – that faith in God alone is what saves a Christian believer, and this salvation cannot be otherwise gained by personal merit or works.

This extends itself to a common teaching in Singapore’s megachurches, which is that faith doesn’t just gain believers heavenly reward, but also results in divine favour in their present lives too. For instance:

– Pastor Joseph Prince, the charismatic founder of New Creation Church and leader of Joseph Prince Ministries, posits that faith leads to many gifts, including;God’s favour, health and healing, provision, and protection. In his book, 100 Days of Favor, Prince describes how by “personalizing the love of Jesus”, a young member of his congregation won a “stunning black Lamborghini Gallardo” from a promotional credit card draw. The gifts of faith, Prince writes on his website, are freely given by God; and as such “the days of trying, striving and earning are over. The days of take, take and take more have come. Take and you will bring pleasure to God’s heart!”

– Lighthouse Evangelism Church embraces the belief that the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross brings “salvation, healing, deliverance, victory, success, blessings [and] the fruit and gifts of the Spirit” for Christians. These also include miraculous healings (held weekly at Woodlands and Tampines) that can deliver sufferers from all sorts of conditions ranging from anger and gambling problems, to ovarian tumours and strokes. (Unfortunately for Cyrus Teo, however, he could not be cured of his delusional disorder – if he had been, ostensibly he would not have committed arson against the Church, and gone to jail for it.)

– Kong Hee, the former leader of City Harvest church, preached the message that faith releases “miraculous acts of signs and wonders” in a believer’s life. These miracles range from being cured of acute viral hepatitis, to overcoming income-threatening business problems. They also include healing cancer and fund-raising for the church’s annual Arise and Build building fund.

How much money does a megachurch earn?

Under the Charities Act, a charity is required to prepare and submit an annual report to the Commissioner of Charities for each financial year. All the financial information below was retrieved from Charity Portal, where they are publicly available. Numbers have been rounded to the nearest million.

New Creation Church
For the year 2016, New Creation Church received around $126 million, of which about $105 million was donations in cash, and around $4k was government grants. It logged around $21.8 million worth of expenses relating to charitable activities, and $74.1 million worth of other expenses for a total expenditure of almost $96 million. In addition, it holds $561 million worth of assets, including land and buildings worth around $393.4 million.

Faith Community Baptist Church
For the year 2016, FCBC received around $27 million, of which $24.9 million was donations in cash and almost $200k was government grants. Total charitable expenses amounted to about $4.8 million, and other expenses cost about $26 million for a total expenditure of around $31 million. At the same time, FCBC also held around $92 million worth of assets, including $52 million in land and buildings.

Lighthouse Evangelism Church
Lighthouse Evangelism received almost $15 million in 2016, of which $12.7 million was donations in cash, and $161k was government grants. The church logged $0 on charitable activities/programmes, and almost $9.3 million on other expenses for a total expenditure of about $9.3 million. (In the previous two years, Lighthouse Evangelism actually reported a total expenditure of $0, which covered charitable activities and other expenses.)

In 2016, Lighthouse Evangelism also held around $127.2 million worth of assets, including about $26 million worth of land and buildings. The bulk of the church’s assets are held in cash and deposits – a reported $86.5 million worth in total.

City Harvest Church
City Harvest’s financial records were not available on the Charities portal.

What’s the financial status of a Church? Does it pay taxes?

According to the IRAS, “A charity’s main purpose is to provide public benefits through its charitable activities. Hence the incomes of registered charities are tax exempt.

Some charities have chosen to engage in business activities to generate additional income. However, such business activities must be done in the best interest of the charity and not subject the charity’s assets and resources to unacceptable risk. Further, any business carried out by a charity under a separate legal entity does not enjoy tax-exempt status and is subject to normal corporate income tax.”

And that’s our beginner’s guide to megachurches in Asia! If you’d like to read more coverage on megachurches, check out our profile of Sun Ho here.

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