Singapore, Christianity and the Marketplace

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.

Called to Work

Called to Work

"Marketplace leaders." We hear this term often, but you may be wondering, what does it mean and why are nonprofits suddenly jumping to help these people?

I recently had a conversation with someone at church. He told me, "I feel really guilty when I'm at work. I feel like if I'm obedient to God, I should quit my job and either go into full-time ministry or go into missions." It was an interesting thought, and one that left me wondering why he could not be obedient to God in his work. What this individual did not recognize, and what many people fail to realize, is that he put his faith in a box by believing that serving God is limited to church work.

"What is it that God has gifted you in?" I asked him, adding, "God has gifted you with different passions, just like he has gifted the designer with certain skills and passions, or a banker or an accountant." It was important for me to help him understand and see that his career was, in fact, bringing glory to God and enhancing the Gospel. I encouraged him to identify the characteristics that have led him to excel in his current work and consider how they might be used by God in other capacities. "What do you like about your job?" I asked him. "What are the things you are doing at work that you just love, where time flies by and you enjoy every moment of it?" This, I told him, could be God slowly showing him what He has created him to be. I then took it a step further: "How do you begin to use those skills and those passions and what he has given you to not only serve your work and make your work and your city better, but use those skills to also serve the church, your family, and all of this?"

Looking into the Old and New Testaments, we are reminded that the life stories God writes for us are tied to the unique abilities we have been given. Zacchaeus was a tax collector. He interacted with Jesus, and stayed a tax collector. What changed was how he used his gifting. A self-serving attitude shifted to a desire to serve the poor.

Nehemiah was a cupbearer to the king; he was a government official. When he received news that the walls of Jerusalem were down, he took leave to use his skills to organize his people to rebuild the wall. When the task was done, he returned to his responsibilities in the palace. The interesting thing to note is that Nehemiah would not have been able to do what he did if he was not a government official.

Peter was a fisherman.

Daniel and Joseph both worked in the government. The list goes on.

Marketplace leaders are Christian business professionals.

"How can we mobilize these individuals towards ministry in the marketplace?" is a question that is inspiring nonprofit organizations around the world to not just support the spiritual growth of young global leaders, but to encourage them to pursue marketplace careers that create opportunities for evangelism and discipleship in secular fields.

A marketplace leader is born out of an individual actively seeking to discover and pursue their God-given purpose.

In a recent radio interview I did with Dr. Michael Easley, my former boss and the former President of Moody Bible Institute, he said to me, "I'm one of these outliers that doesn't believe in a specific call from God." This view can, and does, upset some people. "I didn't have some experience, or some, you know, intervention, or some, 'Boy, I think God wants me to be a pastor.'"  Instead, Dr. Easley points to our innate, God-given wiring as an indicator for what we are created to do. "I do think we have gifts, calling, abilities, talents, interests, passions, wiring, and when you put all that together and you have a sense of 'I was made to do X,'...I think we need to pay attention to those basic things." Dr. Easley has reminded me time and again, "Tommy, just do the next thing and the next thing."

Careful personal consideration and insight from other people are valuable tools. Sometimes we want something so much that we confuse God's calling with our own desires. I think we have all been there. We have to continually ask ourselves, is it His will, or did I just convince myself that this is God's will for me because I want it so much for myself?

This even happens to people who know they are called into full-time ministry. Take Pastor Mark Jobe's story as an example. Pastor Mark is the Senior Pastor of New Life Community Church in Chicago. When Mark was 21 years old, attending Moody Bible Institute in Chicago in 1986, he received an invitation from God that he knew he could not turn down. "A pastor had planted a seed in my heart," Mark explained to me during an UpNext radio interview. "He said, 'Mark, you know, the nations have come to the city. If we can reach the cities, we can reach the nations.'" Mark was not crazy about Chicago and longed to return to his family in Northern Spain, but God challenged him during a personal prayer time, saying, "I love people. I love the city. Would you love the city?" God softened his heart, and soon Mark began to see the people of Chicago as individuals that God loved. He accepted a call to pastor a small church of 18 people. Now, thirty years later, he is the lead and founding pastor of New Life Community Church, and his congregation has planted 24 other churches with over 40 services in multiple languages. Today Mark says, "I see a city that Jesus loves, that has tremendous potential to be a turnaround city that shows the whole world that there is a powerful God at work in Chicago."

Marketplace leaders have the potential to change the world, too.

If God has called you to serve in the marketplace, he has bestowed upon you a great honor. Almost all non-Christian Americans are in the marketplace. This is not to say that they are unreached with the Gospel, but instead have access to churches and Christians, yet are still living in darkness. As Theology of Business ( describes it, "The local church is like the showroom for Christianity. The marketplace is the test drive." Consider your daily life and how you react under pressure, how you treat your neighbors, coworkers, family, and friends, because the people around you are watching.

If you are in the marketplace, or considering entering the marketplace, because you have considered your "gifts, calling, abilities, talents, interests, passions, and wiring" and found that that is where God wants you, then I want to assure you that you have no reason to feel guilty like the individual I talked to at my church for not being in full-time ministry. As Theology of Business so aptly puts it, "The marketplace is where our unbelieving co-workers get to see if they really want what we have."

Tommy Lee