Opinion Asia This Week Religion in the front lines of protests and in burgeoning megachurches

Religion in the front lines of protests and in burgeoning megachurches

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The Faithful on the Frontlines: Christian protestors in Hong Kong

Amidst the massive protests that have rocked Hong Kong stands out what may be for some, an incongruous sight. A 1974 hymn called “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord” has become the de facto protest anthem of the demonstrations that have not only rocked Hong Kong but has caught the attention of the rest of the world. Clips of protestors have been widely circulated in social media, as well as written about in Time, and BBC News.

While some parts of church history have seen believers taking part in social justice endeavours, to a larger extent, a large segment of Christians have been encouraged to submit to governing authorities, to meekly accept the difficulties of this life, since, after all, the ultimate reward is in the next life.

But the exact opposite is happening with the demonstrations in Hong Kong, with both Catholics and evangelicals simply showing up by the hundreds at the Legislative Council complex to pray and worship. A South China Morning Post (SCMP) report says that the Christians have helped defuse tensions by standing between the police and the protestors, and have also helped allow such gatherings to happen since gatherings of a religious nature need no permit under Hong Kong’s laws.

But for many believers, going to the protests are a matter of deep conviction. The SCMP article recounts how 20-year-old university student Sunny Wong Hoi-ching describes her political awakening as akin to the conversion experience. “They both require that moment of epiphany and a change of heart, and cannot be forced.”

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But this is not the first time that Christians have been part of large demonstrations in Hong Kong. Five years ago, in the occupy movement of 2014, a number of Christians were among the key leaders of the movement, including Reverend Chu Yiu-ming, and Benny Tai Yiu-ting, Chan Kin-man, and student activist Joshua Wong, who professed openly that their beliefs were integral to their participation in the protests.

Mr Wong told World magazine in May, “We need to be bringing heaven down to earth,” he said. “That seems like a totally idealistic dream, but if we want that dream to come true, how should we let people know that, as Christians, we don’t focus only on trying to increase our salaries and better our careers? We ask, ‘How can we do more for the people around us?’”

Many analysts also believe that Christians have joined the demonstrations because there is a lot at stake for their future with regards to China, since, if the extradition bill were passed, if they were deemed as dissidents they could be sent to the mainland, and Beijing has already carried out a crackdown on Christian churches.

Read related: Beijing’s Crackdown on Churches Is a Bad Omen for Chinese Christians

UCA News reports that Bishop Joseph Ha Chi-shing promised to stay with the protestors as long as they occupied Hong Kong’s streets.

“No matter how long they stay, I will continue to stay with them. The shepherd should not just be with the sheep but also guide them. Although we won this battle, we need to continue to use peace, love, and justice to arouse society and Christ will stand by us.”

Meanwhile in Singapore, the megachurch phenomenon continues

Christianity has been growing in Singapore in the last few decades. Today, nearly one in 5 Singaporeans identify as Christian (18.8 percent), up from 12.7% in 1990 and 14.6% in 2000. In contrast, in Hong Kong, 11.8 percent, or less than 900,000 people identify as Christians.

The growth of megachurches in the country, with congregants or members numbering more than 10,000, has been a phenomenon written about all over the world, especially in comparison to Western countries, where more and more people identify as having no religion.

Many Christian leaders in Singapore believe that the devout in the country are, by and large, comfortable in their faith.

Guna Raman, the leader of Agape Baptist Church, said in September of last year, “Singapore has become very affluent in the last 30 years, largely due to the government’s pragmatic thinking. By and large, Singaporeans don’t care for what is of intrinsic value as opposed to what works and can bring in more money, more success, more comfort, and more convenience.

This approach has spilled into the church. Churches in Singapore tend toward the easy and comfortable life. The nation has not seen a major catastrophe (except for SARS for a brief period in 2003) or a major economic downturn. As a result, many Christians here are averse to suffering. Many believe God is a god of love but not of wrath. There is little understanding of the doctrine of sin and, therefore, little appreciation for the work of the cross and the grace that comes to us from the finished work of Christ. Christians are often more interested in a god of healing and a god of blessing than the God of the Bible.”

For Simon Murphy, the pastor of Redemption Hill, how much Singaporeans value meritocracy can actually have a detrimental effect on their faith. “Meritocracy is a deeply held and revered value, long considered integral to its success and development. Singaporeans constantly feel assessed by their performance, and there is a prevailing mindset that people deserve the outcomes they’ve been dealt. Further, the society is incredibly competitive, and the cost of living is high. It’s easy for Christianity to be received only insofar as it does not impinge on these mundane realities in people’s lives. Faith becomes a challenge as people feel God is irrelevant or inconvenient when the pressures of life become real,” he said.

As for the megachurch phenomenon, these institutions seem to pose no threat to the Government, but rather share in its beliefs and methods. As one commentator writes, “Therein lies the genius and the success of the megachurches in Singapore – their beliefs are totally in harmony with the State and are popular with the “emerging” middle class. The provision of KPI(s) to followers, recruiting of additional members, the creation of networks, and the amount of megachurch merchandise are consistent with Singapore’s capitalist system. These attributes are familiar to the emerging middle class, not fancily-dressed pastors swinging around incense, and through this, membership in the megachurches are surging.”

Christianity in Hong Kong and Singapore shares divergent roots and experiences, which gives rise to the question: if the Singaporean faithful were called upon to stand up against the Government in the same way that those in Hong Kong have, would this fit with their belief systems? Would they respond with the same conviction and take to the streets?/ TISG

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