What was most immediately interesting, to me, about The Straits Times’ report on Monday (A6, Jan 14) was not what it reported, but what it didn’t.
Because what it did report was not really new – that a survey by Terence Chong and Hui Yew-Foong, both well-regarded sociological researchers, showed that megachurches appeared to attract an “emergent middle class”; that they saw financial growth as “signs of divine blessing” is also pretty common knowledge these days.
This has become true especially in the last few years, after New Creation announced pans to build a multi-million dollar retail complex in Buona Vista, and the more recent City Harvest scandal, where its top leaders are accused of using millions in church funds to promote its founder’s wife’s fledgling music career in Hollywood.
Among the religious community, megachurches are notorious for recruiting aggressively, compared to mainline churches such as the Anglicans or the Methodists.
If more members of the megachurches are from the working class, it is also because their recruitment efforts have always targeted almost exclusively at the younger generation whose parents are either Taoist or Buddhist, or a combination of the two Chinese faiths.
That’s another reason why church service at megachurches always seem like rock concerts – to attract angsty teenagers.
In fact what the researchers themselves found more interesting was this: That in their survey, conducted from December 2009 to January 2011, they found that mainline church leaders tended to be dismissive of their megachurch counterparts when the subject of its prosperity gospel came up.
In June last year, Dr Chong wrote in the commentary website, New Republic Asia: “Perhaps more interesting for us was the dismissive, even sneering, attitude of some mainline church leaders we spoke to whenever the topic of prosperity gospels was brought up.
“It was not uncommon to see Methodist or Anglican leaders, in private of course, roll their eyes or let fly a rude quip at the expense of megachurch-goers.”
The researcher further noted that because of the megachurches’ tendency to articulate Christianity in the language of business, it was no wonder that they spent so much time and money on branding and packaging.
“The entry of the church into the market as a corporation is the next logical step. The rise of what some have called “pastorpreneurs” is entirely in keeping with the charisma and cult of the CEO,” Dr Chong wrote.
He concluded: “A sober discussion of how the local Protestant middle class community is fragmented is needed. Hopefully, such a discussion will throw some light on the tensions between mainline denominations and the megachurches, and more broadly, on the deeper divisions within our heterogeneous middle class.”
This deeper – and far more interesting – analysis of the two researchers’ survey was completely missing from the Straits Times’ report, which is a shame because it could have sparked exactly the kind of discussion the researchers were hoping would happen.
This is especially relevant given the City Harvest trial is expected to start sometime later this year, and as the religious community in Singapore – not just the Christians, but the Buddhists and other faiths – becomes increasingly diverse.