by Lawson Lau
Singapore’s vibrant political, social, and economic climate has nurtured an ever increasing number of Christians over the past decades.
Singapore’s vibrant political, social, and economic climate has nurtured an ever increasing number of Christians over the past decades. Churches and parachurch organizations now team with youthful manpower, bathe in middle-class wealth, and demonstrate an indefatigable stamina in the organization of conferences, renewal seminars, retreats, and Bible study groups. But its rich soil has attracted weeds as well: complacency, materialism, an entrenched leadership, and conflict.
This Southeast Asian nation is small. It is nothing more than a pinhead on a world map. A foreign politician once stressed the island’s insignificant size-a mere 224 square miles. He ad-libbed that he wasn’t too sure if that is its land area at high or low tide.
But Singapore means Lion City. And it continues to have a lion’s share of importance well out of proportion to its size. just before the outbreak of the Second World War, it was hailed as the Gibraltar of the East, the British empire’s impregnable fortress. It is now the second busiest port in the world, after Rotterdam. Tourism is a flourishing industry, and the country attracts as many tourists each year as its 2.4 million population. Four thousand acres of swampland have been transformed into a thriving industrial complex within the last 20 years. A massive housing program has led to the relocation of over 70 percent of its population into towns of high-rise apartment buildings, one of which is built on land reclaimed from the sea.
Relentlessly rapid change is such a certainty that its bulldozing countenance no longer shocks. In the midst of this upheaval is a youthful population in search of a niche.
The Singapore government’s 1980 Census of Population provides overwhelming statistical confirmation of observations Christian leaders have been making concerning the high percentage of Christian students attending university. Out of 6,853 students, 2,465 are Christians (35.9 percent), with 1,850 Protestants and 615 Roman Catholics. (As many as 2,083 students said they have no religion.) This percentage of Christian students is sizeable as only 10 percent of the population are Christian (5.5 percent Protestants and 4.5 percent Catholics).
Several factors, indicative of dynamic Christianity, account for this large number of Protestant students. First, the evangelistic and discipling work of parachurch organizations including the Varsity Christian Fellowship, the Navigators, and Campus Crusade for Christ. Second, the high number of Christian professors in the National University of Singapore, especially in the medical faculty, many of whom are involved in Christian witness. Third, students turning away from the traditional beliefs of their parents, mainly Buddhism and Taoism (56. percent of the population profess these religions). Fourth, the influence of mission schools established and run primarily by the Anglican, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches. Fifth, evangelistic campaigns of Sunday schools in the churches.
Openness to change is a hallmark of many of these Christian students. Their responsiveness to suggestions,, willingness to commit themselves to a worthwhile cause, and hunger for in-depth Bible study render them a rewarding group to work with.
Both the Western missionary and the local leader are given an equal opportunity to be heard. What matters is not color of skin; it is whether they have anything compelling to impart. Banners are not of prime consideration either, so long as they are theologically sound.
Challenges to enter full-time ministry have not fallen on stony hearts. Most denominations can boast of recently ordained young men. Even the Brethren church in Singapore, which has traditionally emphasized lay leadership and looked askance at the thought of having a clergy, has relaxed. It actually has called pastors in several of its autonomous congregations within the last decade.
Volunteers augment the ranks of the clergy. The Pentecostal churches have a core of young adults involved in a thriving work in Indonesia, assisting in evangelism and church planting.
Mission-minded churches also encourage their members to consider the mission field. One of the fastest growing denominations exemplary in demonstrating this concern is the Bible Presbyterian church. One of its founder elders, Quek Kiok Chiang, said all its 22 congregations give to missions, some as much as 50 percent of their annual budget.
But the majority of young people committed to full-time ministry are not serving in the church. Parachurch organizations with their more flexible organizational structure, comparatively young directors, more forceful recruitment, better salary, readiness to accept women on par with men, and the possibility of short-term stints have appealed to a far greater number.
Eagles Evangelism, a parachurch organization founded by a group of students 13 years ago, has nearly 20 staff members. It has drawn capacity crowds of young adults, sometimes over 3,000, to its seminars on apologetics, concerts, evangelistic meetings. Its training and evangelism objectives meet its members’ needs.
The island’s young people are on the move in more ways than one. Operation Mobilization’s two ships have a few dozen Singaporeans serving on them, short-term.
There are also those who have joined missions, such as the Overseas Missionary Fellowship and the Sudan Interior Mission, and are now in Japan, Indonesia, India, Africa.
Two organizations set up in Singapore in the 60s that have overseas impact are the Asian Evangelistic Fellowship and the Discipleship Training Center. AEF founder G.D. James had started it to assist churches in Asia. It now has over 50 evangelists and nationals working in Australia, India, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia. David Adeney had established DTC to promote commitment of Christian graduates in Asia to a life of discipleship. Its graduates now serve in about 20 countries.
A love for forming fellowship is evident in professional and office circles. Structured ones include the Teachers’ Christian Fellowship, Lawyers" Christian Fellowship, and Airport Christian Fellowship. Innumerable unstructured ones meet informally in offices. A key feature of these groups is Bible study.
Singapore, moreover, is the headquarters of the Overseas Missionary Fellowship and its training center for the orientation of recruits, and Youth for Christ International. Haggai Institute’s newly-acquired training school for Third World leaders is also located on the island. The presence of several youth organizations has moreover not deterred Youth With A Mission from starting a ministry recently.
The Christian scene bustles with ceaseless activity, but much remains to be done, both nationally and internationally. Only a comparative trickle of its reservoir of manpower and financial resources is effectively harnessed. Churches, parachurch organizations, and Western missionaries have neglected basic areas of need over the past century: work among the lower income group that has a meager education, and among the Malays.
Turning to another two sets of statistics, it may be noted that a significantly high percentage of Christians have received university education (35.8 percent), and live in houses (26 percent) rather than apartments. This reveals an affluent Christian community that belongs to the middle or upper middle class.
Affluence, however, tends to have its accomplices: materialism and complacency, and an exercise of authority that safeguards the status quo.
Materialism spawns many a hedonistic philosophy of life. A popular one that promises paradise on earth is: a five-figure monthly salary, four wheels, a three-bedroom apartment, two kids, and one wife. Left unchecked, the attainment of these self-centered objectives is placed before vital Christian living. The tragedy is that such secular values are seldom questioned by church leaders. The tragedy is heightened when young Christians see them being indiscriminately practiced by their spiritual elders. It spills over when perceptive Western missionaries speak out against embracing such values.
Missionaries need to count the cost of rocking the richlyladen boat. One missionary, respected by university students because his uncompromising views on materialism help them examine their motives, met with a different reception when he gave a similar message in a church. A number of lay leaders, angered by what they construed to be unwarranted and biting sarcasm toward their lifestyle, and a negative attitude in the missionary, struck him off their speakers’ list.
Sensitivity needs be exercised in other areas as well. Two prominent ones are, first, superior-subordinate conflict. A comparative handful of Western missionaries still hold key leadership positions with Singaporeans as their subordinates. Personality conflicts and even disagreements sometimes degenerate into racial squabbles. One Singaporean, though trained in the States, maintained an anti-white attitude and was anxious to be rid of his American boss.
Second, personal and nationalistic pride. Who or what makes a better yardstick than a six-foot Caucasian? He can be so conveniently sliced into two one-yard measuring rods. The Singaporean leader who organized the Asian Leadership Conference on Evangelism in November, 1978, said, "This has been a very big challenge for me. Considering that in the 1968 congress (the Asia-South Pacific Congress on Evangelism) they had a full-time staff of several international coordinators and a whole battery of secretaries. This shows me that Asians can do just as good a job with far less expenses. . . This conference is totally led, guided and supported by Asians." He was the sole fulltime coordinator.
Another Singaporean leader reflected a somewhat similar spirit. As executive chairman of a national rally held last June with Korean pastor Cho Yong-gi as evangelist, he said one of the unique features of the rally is that "it is solely organized and led by local leaders without any help from foreign experienced ministries."
Such reactions to the foreign missionary are not unnatural after centuries of colonial rule, but they are objectionable when they become excessive. The foreigner has been completely removed from the local political arena since Singapore became an independent nation in 1965. The church, however, faces the danger of emulating its political leadership, forgetting that its spiritual heritage and vitality transcend political boundaries.
If the portrayal appears negative, it is because the situation can turn unpleasant if mishandled by either missionary or local leader. The moderate majority moreover have remained largely silent and often do not have the clout of the vocal minority.
Two other undercurrents may be noted. First, the liberal-evangelical tension. Though it seldom ruffles the calm surface of relationships, it nevertheless flows very near the surface. Manifestations of this tension were most evident in the 50s. It saw the formation of the Singapore Bible College, a direct reaction against the liberal theological position of most of the lecturers in Trinity Theological College, Singapore. The college is still considered liberal, although few evangelicals would say so out loud in order that peace may prevail.
The Varsity Christian Fellowship also came into being in the 50s, to counter the liberal Student Christian Movement. Another major occurrence was the formation of the Bible Presbyterian church by a handful of leaders who left the Presbyterian church over the latter’s ties with ecumenical organizations.
Those tumultuous days are past but not forgotten. The recent formation of the Evangelical Fellowship of Singapore as a national body arose primarily out of a desire to counter the National Council of Churches of Singapore which has links with the World Council of Churches.
Second, the charismatic-conservative tension. The charismatic movement had its first reported appearances in 1972. Since then it has gained momentum because a number of key Anglican and Methodist leaders have identified with it. It is, nevertheless, still not widely accepted. For a few denominations, such as the Bible Presbyterian and Brethren, charismatics are virtually anathema.
Luxuriant diversity is a mark of the complex church scene in Singapore. Since the churches are planted in the rich soil of an equatorial isle, and exposed to torrential rain and blistering heat, uniformity is perhaps not to be expected. But they still need much pruning by sensitive, perceptive, committed evangelicals, local and foreign.
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