Pentecostalism in Southeast Asia: growing and adjusting to local environments

Economic development in Southeast Asia over the last three decades has been accompanied by a growth of Christianity, with Pentecostalism proving uniquely successful, write Terence Chong (ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute) and Daniel Goh (National University of Singapore) in the Newsletter of the International Institute for Asian Studies (Spring). Based on research conducted since 2017 in Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Singapore, the researchers find that independent megachurches building upon previous waves of Protestant growth and “fueled by Christian growth among urban youth became Christian success stories.” This started at the turn of the millennium, as churches no longer looked to the West for inspiration but preferred to learn from each other, leading the authors to describe this phase as an “inter-Asian wave.” By the 2010s, Pentecostals met with backlash, especially when dealing—not always in a sensitive way—with Muslim populations that they were eager to convert in Malaysia and Indonesia at the very time Islamization made its influence felt.

Some churches have persevered with intensified missionary efforts in their own countries, targeting specific groups or young Christians dissatisfied with their old churches in cities. Other churches focus on international expansion (and Singapore is a convenient place where they can find many regional migrant workers) while often aspiring to promote an inter-Asian rather than national approach. In a section in Indonesia, Chong and Goh nuance the assessment that what they call the “mall Christianity” increasingly found there is a mere expression of affinity with the prosperity gospel and consumer capitalism. There are religious reasons for spiritualizing the shopping malls as well as practical reasons related to the Indonesian environment, where Muslim-majority neighborhoods do not welcome new church buildings and impose a strenuous bureaucratic process for getting a building permit. Moreover, some churches choose shopping malls as strategic locations for reaching young people who are familiar with such environments since childhood. In those areas where there is less hostility, there are also megachurches building their own large centers. In Indonesia, some younger evangelical pastors have been invited to become the local board members of political parties that want to present a pluralistic image. In order to cultivate goodwill, a number of churches provide aid to local Muslim communities. Looking across the countries under examination in their research, Chong and Goh remark that while evangelicals prefer to focus on church growth, they will engage in associational or political activism to the extent that they perceive a potential threat, the nature of which will vary from one country to another.

(IIAS Newsletter,

Source: Pentecostal World Fellowship.