The City Harvest Church (CHC) saga has thrown up a number of issues for public discussion. As matters for civic debate, the notion of corporate governance, the ambit of charity-religious hybrids, and the cult of the personality will be juicy fodder for deliberation. However, for those of us who have an academic or deeper spiritual interest in Christianity, the saga has offered the opportunity to contextualise the so-called “prosperity gospels” and the “cultural mandate” with our hyper-capitalist middle class society.
Although strongly associated with independent Pentecostal churches, especially megachurches, the prosperity gospels and cultural mandate were not always expressed with such conviction by CHC. After Kong Hee left the Anglican fold back in the late 1980s, he and his small group of followers shared premises with Augustine Tan’s Hephzibah Christian Fellowship before moving on to the World Trade Centre. Back then, in the early 1990s, CHC was known as Ecclesia with a strong emphasis on youth and readying the church for the second coming of Christ.
In researching the local Protestant community, my colleague and I found that megachurch respondents saw a strong relationship between market logic and spirituality. In other words, highly quantifiable criteria such as numerical and financial growth were more likely to be seen by megachurch respondents as signs of divine blessing and personal faithfulness. (Note: However, it is unclear as to whether megachurch respondents see the lack of money or wealth as signs of a person’s lack of faithfulness or absence of God’s blessings.)
Conversely, we found that Anglicans and Methodists were less likely to see a relationship between market logic and spiritual matters. In sum, megachurch-goers demonstrated less compartmentalisation between the material and spiritual, while Anglicans and Methodists were more likely to compartmentalise these two. We found that this compartmentalising was practiced selectively depending on the issues in question.
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. Returning to our data on the socio-economic profiles of our respondents, we found that Methodists and Anglicans were more likely to have inherited their middle class status, suggesting greater cultural and symbolic capital at their disposal, while megachurch-goers, though highly educated and well represented in professional occupations, were more likely to have come from working or lower-middle class backgrounds. This suggests that megachurch-goers were new entrants into the Singapore middle class.
We realised that the phenomenal growth of the megachurch in Singapore was partly down to its ability to express Christianity in the language of market logic, thus appealing to the economic aspirations and consumer habits of many young upwardly mobile Singaporeans. In sociological terms, the mantra of the megachurch shares “elective affinity” with the aspirations of young upwardly mobile Singaporeans. The dismissive attitude of mainline denominations towards the megachurch and the so-called prosperity gospels may find some explanation in the tension that arises from the on-going social distinction between the established and emerging middle class.
Another key feature of the megachurch and CHC in particular is the notion of cultural mandate. Most churches throughout history have sought to go out into the ‘real world’ to spread the gospel. The cultural mandate carries this further by calling followers to ride the crest of contemporary culture in order to shape it according to God’s will. It is less of the old adage of “being in this world but not of it”, and more “being at the top of this world in order to change it”. This is nicely reconciled by the “seeker church” mentality of megachurches which strives to reduce the proximity between the marketplace and the church.
Followers are encouraged to do business and to be part of the world. It is when they are recognised players in business (or pop culture in Sun Ho’s case) that they can pivot on their positions of power to make a difference. That’s the theory anyway. No wonder then that megachurches around the world from Hillsong Church in Australia and Lakewood Church in Texas, to CHC and New Creation in Singapore spend so much 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.
The CHC saga is important in so many ways. 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.
“Different under God: A Survey of Church-going Protestants in Singapore” by Terence Chong and Hui Yew-Foong will be published soon.
Photo courtesy of Channel News Asia