By Tommy Lee
The Gospel Coalition published an article a few months ago with the heading How the Gospel Takes Root in 'Crazy Rich' Singapore. The title nods to this summer's hit movie Crazy Rich Asians, but also recognizes the amazing strides this small nation has made transforming from a Third World island to a First World country in just one generation.
In 1963, Singapore gained its independence from the United Kingdom and joined with other former British territories to form Malaysia. Due to ideological differences, Singapore separated from Malaysia just two years later to became its own sovereign nation. The first few years were turbulent for the new country, but under the leadership of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's founding father, the nation began to stabilize and experienced rapid development. Just fifty years later, Singapore is now ranked very highly in numerous international rankings. For example, Singapore is recognized as the most "technology-ready" nation, the top international-meetings city, the city with the "best investment potential", the world's smartest city, the world's safest country, the second-most competitive country, the third-largest foreign exchange market, the third-largest financial center, the third-largest oil refining and trading center, the fifth-most innovative country, the second-busiest container port, a tax haven, and the only country in Asia with an AAA sovereign rating from all major rating agencies (one of only eleven worldwide). (Wikipedia)
This remarkable accomplishment is due, no doubt, to the determination and ingenuity of its people. But can affluence and piety coexist? Unfortunately, the same attributes needed to succeed at nation-building—self-reliance, pragmatism, and materialism, for example—also make it difficult for people to accept their need for the Gospel message.
Pastor Guana Raman of Agape Baptist Church has been open about challenges in preaching the Gospel and making disciples in Singapore. On the surface, he says, Singapore looks like a well "Christianized" nation. There are more than 800 churches in 278 square miles. While several high-profile mega-churches have gained international fame and recognition, Pastor Raman fears that there are many churches in Singapore that are theologically weak and shallow. "Many churches preach heavily moralistic sermons or, on the other hand, proclaim "hyper-grace," subtly (if not overtly) proclaiming the prosperity gospel," says Pastor Raman. "There is a great need in Singapore for more theological depth."
While Pastor Simon Murphy of Redemption Hill agrees with Pastor Raman's experience that Christianity in Singapore often exhibits the extremes of hyper-moralism or hyper-grace, he also believes that the majority of the nation's churches are preaching God's Word correctly, but that there is a disconnect in the way that it is being received by the people. "While most churches earnestly strive to preach the Word and display the love of Christ, the Gospel is merely assumed in some churches, and the way it intersects with one's life and circumstances is not clearly grasped," says Pastor Murphy. "This disconnect easily leads to Christianity being seen as either a moralistic religion, where the approval of God needs to and can be earned, or as a contract between God and man, where faith and/or works results in security and prosperity."
The culture and history of Singapore may be a major reason why many of the country's people struggle to grasp the true nature of the Gospel. Christians in Singapore are used to an easy, comfortable life. According to Pastor Raman, because the nation has not seen a major catastrophe or major economic downturn, many Christians have not experienced suffering and have come to believe that God is a god of love but not a god of wrath. Many Singaporeans are more interested in a god that heals and blesses people than the true God of the Bible because the country's culture places value on things that bring in more money, more comfort, and more convenience. "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," says Pastor Raman.
Singapore's multi-ethnic and multi-religious society also has an effect on Christianity in the country. While the harmony that exists between different races and different religions is a shining example to the world of multiculturalism at its best, Pastor Murphy sees it as a double edged sword. "While this means there is a need to be extremely aware of religious sensitivities in the city's context, the tolerance for other religions actually forces a generosity of spirit and charity that is helpful as others seek to understand Christianity (and other religions)," says Pastor Murphy. "The downside is that the insistence on truth can, without proper dialogue, make Christianity seem intolerant, exclusive, and even detrimental to society."
In Singapore, as in most other Asian countries, great value is placed on the family unit, and individualism is often expected to yield to family honor, reputation, and harmony. "This can cause challenges for a Christian with unbelieving parents or a Christian trying to live by countercultural biblical principles," says Pastor Murphy. "Also, because Christianity came to Singapore through foreign missionaries of colonial powers, Christianity can still be perceived as a Western religion that is fundamentally incompatible with ethnic identity."
Pastor Huai Tze Tan of One Covenant Church uses just three words to describe Singaporean culture: pluralistic, pragmatic, and secular. Pluralistic refers to the nation's multiculturalism, while pragmatic refers to the particular ideologies instilled in the people by their founding father, Lee Kuan Yew. A pragmatic attitude toward life means that Singaporean Christians tend to be more concerned about "the sensible thing" than actual biblical doctrine. "Oftentimes, it is what works, rather than what is true, that is of greatest concern," says Pastor Tan. While all major religions are represented in Singapore, statistics show that secularism is a rising trend. More than 18 percent of the population identifies as having "no religion.' There is also a growing view that religious institutions are ideologically regressive, disconnected from people's lifestyle and needs, and slow to engage young people. Other Singaporeans see high-profile scandals involving religious leaders as having compromised the credibility of religious groups as a moral voice.
Singaporeans work incredibly hard and are very busy, so many believers struggle to make time for church. When people perceive God as being irrelevant or inconvenient when faced with the other pressures of life, giving priority to their faith becomes a challenge. Being a pragmatic and materialistic society, Singaporeans take pride in being able to work things out for themselves and are often more preoccupied with the "here and now" than with reflecting on the meaning and purpose of their lives and their existence. Because society places so much focus on living a successful, convenient, comfortable life, Singaporean Christians are not prepared to suffer persecution and can feel like God is punishing them when tragedy strikes.
The pressure in society to build and maintain a certain image, reputation, or lifestyle makes the prosperity gospel appealing to many people. Singaporeans feel that their performance is being constantly assessed, and there is a prevailing mindset throughout society that what they have is what they deserve, whether good or bad. "Receiving grace and extending it therefore becomes extremely counterintuitive, countercultural, and even offensive in a culture that places so much emphasis on the idea that only the deserving are rewarded," says Pastor Murphy. Because Christianity is widely understood to be a religion based on moral values, even if the Gospel is explained and understood at the point of salvation, many Singaporeans slip into legalism because of the cultural mindset that it is only through their works, service, and behavior that they can become acceptable to God.
The nation's pastors have found that the message of God's grace is empowering to Singaporeans because it means that they can be accepted by God—not on the basis of what they have done right, but on the basis of what Christ has done right, in their place. While salvation by grace alone is countercultural, many people are attracted to a God who does not assess their worth based on their performance. Singapore's pragmatic society also leads people to hunger for deep, meaningful relationships. Through the Gospel, God promises to make us His children and we become part of His family. In a culture that is relationally cold, this promise is especially appealing.
"The harmony that exists among different races and religions is zealously guarded and ardently protected (both by the government and also by society itself)," says Pastor Murphy. The city's tolerance for religious diversity means that there is no detriment to Singaporeans for being transparent about their Christian faith. As countercultural as the Gospel and Christianity can be to the established lifestyle of Singaporeans, the nation's true believers are committed to living according to God's Word and encouraging other brothers and sisters in Christ to do the same.
Many Christian networking groups for businesspeople in the city give believers opportunities for community and accountability. Several groups use Meetup to advertise their networking meetings. The "Young Professionals in Christ" group hosts young professional networking events, Bible discussions from guest speakers, and fun hangouts. They advertise themselves as a gathering of young Christian professionals who strive to know God and make God known. The "God and the Business" group is for business owners who are passionate about building God's kingdom together. Every two weeks, members meet to support each other through the daily challenges they face in their businesses. Some Christian networking groups, like City Harvest Church's Marketplace Ministry, are run by Singaporean churches, while other groups, like GBN Marketplace Ministry and FGB Gatekeepers Singapore, operate independently from a specific church or denomination. All groups share a common goal of impacting the marketplace for Christ and are committed to creating communities of Christian marketplace leaders that are supportive of each other and of being a light in their workplaces.