Growing multi-ethnic makeup of Pentecostal megachurches in Southeast Asia

Benefitting from the expansion of charismatic Christianity across Southeast Asia since the 1980s, Pentecostal megachurches have also appeared in urban centers of various countries in the area, according to ethnographic studies gathered in an edited volume to be published by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS), based in Singapore. Excerpts have been published in the Newsletter of the International Institute for Asian Studies (Autumn). The majority of Pentecostals in urban centers such as Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Jakarta, or Manila are ethnic Chinese, although Chinese only make a minority of the population of those countries. Thus, churches may also serve networking and identity purposes, writes Terence Chong (ISEAS). There are notable exceptions, though, including multiethnic congregations as well as churches based on other identities.

At the largest Assembly of God church in Malaysia, besides ethnic Indian members who had joined the Chinese there are now transnational workers too (Filipinos, Nigerians, Cambodians, and Dutch), reports Jeaney Yip (University of Sydney). One of the biggest megachurches in the Philippines, Jesus is Lord, maintains a Filipino identity while sharing features with counterparts elsewhere, writes Jayeel Serrano Cornelio (Ateneo de Manila University). Use of the Filipino language is prevalent, the church produces its own songs, its leadership “is very Filipino,” and it sees itself as a prophetic movement shaping the future of the Filipino nation, which includes political ambitions as well. While megachurches are associated with middle class, there are also those going beyond this social segment and attracting poorer people. In the Philippines, the Jesus is Lord movement caters to the working class Filipino.

There may be 6 million Pentecostals in Indonesia according to research conducted by En-Chieh Chao (National Sun Yat-Sen University, Taiwan). Indonesia’s second-largest city, Surabaya, where there were attacks against churches in 1996 and 1998, has seen the growth of larger congregations gathering in protected malls or commercial buildings “for collective healing and sense of security.” Beyond religious programming, Pentecostals in Surabaya also conduct self-help and other practical workshops, but they are not alone, since Muslims do the same. The atmosphere, however, is much more joyful at Christian events.

Chang observes, “Asian Pentecostalism has both transnationalising and indigenising characteristics,” drawing from abroad while also being able to craft contextual theologies. Yip warns against the tendency to homogenize Pentecostal churches; while recognizable as a global faith, Asian Pentecostalism is also “specific to locality with clear indigenous characteristics.”