Asian Tigers and Megachurches

By Philip Jenkins

Is Christian faith a by-product of poverty and under-development? Although the idea seems to make intuitive sense, a map of the emerging Christian world shows that it is simply not true.

Over the past century, Christian numbers have boomed outside the faith's traditional heartlands in Europe and North America. The most spectacular change has occurred in black Africa, which now accounts for almost a quarter of believers worldwide. Far less noticed, though, has been the expansion in East and South-East Asia, where Christianity is associated not with dire poverty but with upward mobility, middle class aspirations, and technological sophistication. Christian populations have become crucially important to a region central to the global economy. The Pacific Rim is building a Christian Arc.

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The region's nations are usually divided according to levels of economic activity. China and Japan stand apart, followed by the Four Tigers, the Dragon nations of South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong, which together enjoyed such a spectacular boom in the second half of the last century. A group of more recently emerging countries -- Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam -- are Tiger Cubs. (I'm leaving Japan and Thailand out of this discussion, as Christianity has made very few inroads in either country in modern times).

The remaining nine nations combined have a total population of 1.8 billion, and Christians of various denominations make up at least 12 percent of that figure. Although that sounds like a small minority, actual numbers are impressive -- at the very least 220 million Christians in all, more than ten percent of the world's total. By far the largest Christians concentrations are found in two countries, namely the Philippines (85 million) and China (at least 75 million, and possibly many more). Only in the Philippines do Christians constitute a solid majority, but they make up a third of South Koreans, and a fifth of Singaporeans. Christian minorities in Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia run at eight or ten percent.

The Christian presence is obvious to anyone traveling in these regions, chiefly through the vast megachurches. With their hundreds of thousands of members, Korea's are the most spectacular, but huge congregations also thrive in Singapore, the world's wealthiest nation. Among other giants, the island state is home to New Creation Church, with its 24,000 members, and the City Harvest Church (the latter is currently involved in a corruption scandal on familiar Elmer Gantry lines). Hong Kong has its Tung Fook megachurch, and its Remembrance of Grace. Even Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim nation, is home to Jakarta's Messiah Cathedral and Surabaya's vast Mawar Sharon Church.

Such teeming numbers are drawn from a wide cross-section of society. The poor are drawn by the promise of healing and miracle in everyday life, which is uniquely appealing to disoriented migrants to overwhelming megacities. But congregations also have plenty of professionals and skilled workers, particularly among Chinese communities. Most visible are believers from the moneyed elites. "Boss Christians" are regularly heard in the media declaring that they owe their wealth to Christian and Biblical principles, and proclaiming their duties of stewardship much like their American counterparts did in the Gilded Age.

In China above all, Christianity possesses an impressive aura of personal improvement, social development, and modernization. When potential believers also consider the possibility of gaining social connections with influential members of the right church, it's easy to understand what an attractive package Christianity offers.

Pacific Rim Christianity is, of its nature, transnational. Originally, the churches that became so popular spread from North America and Europe, although they have long been thoroughly domesticated. In later years, though, Asian churches have themselves become major exporters of creeds and worship styles.

Partly, this is a matter of conscious missionary enterprise. Koreans today are behind only Americans as the world's largest senders of mission, and newer Chinese churches are rising fast. The future of Christian mission is South-South: from new Asian churches to potential converts across the Global South, in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Also critical has been the mass migration driven by globalization, and trading contacts around the Pacific Rim region. As Christianity grew in Korea, it was reinforced by contacts with Korean communities in the US, so that American styles of evangelism and Pentecostalism became wildly popular throughout the Korean world. A similar kind of religious interchange marks the Chinese diaspora, in Indonesia, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore, as well as the US, Canada and Australia. Family contacts carry these traditions, and churches, across the broader Chinese world.

We see the impact of migration within North America, where Asian-derived churches have become so vitally important for the Christian future. Such congregations proliferate throughout both Canada and the US. Among Korean-Americans, Christians outnumber Buddhists by ten or twenty to one, and there are at least four thousand Korean congregations. Large Chinese churches and even megachurches flourish -- in the West, naturally, in Vancouver, Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area, but also in Texas and Toronto, New York and New Jersey.

If their numbers are presently small, Asian-American churches have a huge potential for future growth. In any typical US university today, East Asians dominate the campus's Christian societies and religious life, and presumably they will become leaders of the next generation. Koreans and Vietnamese play a special role in the Roman Catholic Church, where they account for a disproportionate number of the seminarians and new clergy. By 2050, people of Asian descent will make up at least nine percent of the US population.

The Pacific Rim experience makes nonsense of some familiar stereotypes of newer Christian churches outside the West. If in fact such churches are marked by poverty and primitive superstition, then that faith will evaporate with the spread of prosperity and education. What the Asian experience shows us, though, is that Christianity is flourishing magnificently in some of the world's wealthiest and most sophisticated regions. Far from being a vestige of superstition, this kind of religion looks eminently suited for a thriving globalized economy.

Philip Jenkins is a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University and a columnist for RealClearReligion. His latest book is Laying Down the Sword.

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