Book Review

CHONG, Terence (ed.). Pentecostal Megachurches in Southeast Asia: Negotiating Class, Consumption and the Nation. Singapore: ISES Publishing, 2018. 255pp. Pbk. ISBN: 9789814786881. US$29.90.

Reviewed by: Gabriel Faimau, University of Botswana, Botswana. Email: [email protected]

The idea that Pentecostalism can adapt theologies and religious practices to local conditions is at the heart of Pentecostal Megachurches in Southeast Asia: Negotiating Class, Consumption and the Nation, edited by Terence Chong. Chapters in this book generally focus on examining and interrogating the extent to which Pentecostalism intertwines with class negotiation, consumption ethos and religious nationalism in the context of Southeast Asia. Presenting case studies from Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Singapore, the book offers rich historical and ethnographic details as well as theoretically nuanced analysis on the extraordinary growth of the Pentecostal movement and how this influences the religious landscape and cultural manifestations in the region, particularly in major cities such as Jakarta, Kualalumpur, Manila and Singapore.

The introductory chapter of the book, written by Chong, provides a context for the case studies presented in the book. While presenting a brief historical account of Pentecostalism in Southeast Asia, the chapter underlines the dynamics of megachurches and how they navigate through the contested religious, social and political space of Southeast Asia. Chong suggests that the rise of independent Pentecostal megachurches (defined as having more than 2,000 members) in Southeast Asia has generally been attributed to three main reasons. First, unlike Pentecostalism in other world regions, the Pentecostal movement in Southeast Asia has an ethnic face as the majority of Pentecostals in urban centres of Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Singapore are generally mobile, middle-class ethnic Chinese. Second, like the global Pentecostal movement, Pentecostalism in Southeast Asia has an economic appeal as its core message includes a critical response to economic concerns and aspirations among the middle class, working class and the poor. Third, the charismatic appeal of the Pentecostal movement in Southeast Asia is embodied by the presence of a charismatic leader who becomes the identity maker and identity marker of the Pentecostals and their optimistic outlook.

Chapters 2 (Hoon) and 3 (Chao) focus on the growing popularity of megachurches in Indonesia. Generally known as a country with the largest Muslim population in the world, Indonesia presents a unique religious landscape, climate and marketplace. Although the country has long embraced the principle of unity in diversity and religious freedom is constitutionally guaranteed, the growth of radicalism and religious intolerance has often resulted in religious violence and persecutions. Despite these challenges, the rapid proliferation of Pentecostal churches in Indonesia in the past five decades or so has been notable. In particular, both chapters examine how popular Pentecostal churches in Indonesia negotiate their presence in an intensely competitive religious marketplace in Indonesia.

Like Indonesia, Malaysia is also a Muslim majority country with a notable multi-ethnic and multi-religious landscape. Focusing on Pentecostalism and the presence of megachurches in Malaysia, Chapters 4 (Yip) and 5 (Choong) highlight the strategic positioning of megachurches such as Calvary Church and Bethesda Church. This strategic positioning is advanced through capitalizing from the existing religio-cultural traditions and popular discourses to produce and cultivate Pentecostal practices and experiences that reflect and resonate with the middle-class aspirations in Malaysia. As such, it helps in marking both individual and collective religious identity that in many ways, provide a sense of empowerment, personal relationship with God and transformational change among the Pentecostals.

Adding new insights to this collection, Chapters 6 (Cornelio) and 7 (Tejedo)
discuss the innovative indigenization strategies adopted by independent Pentecostal megachurches in the Philippines. Perhaps indigenization of Pentecostalism is one of the unique contributions of megachurches in the Philippines to the global Pentecostal movement. Both chapters are centered around the notion that while embracing theological positions of global Pentecostalism, the success of megachurches in the Philippines involves the integration of local culture into Pentecostal practices, adoption of an indigenized organizational structure and civic engagement in shaping the collective imagination of the Philippines as a nation.

The final two chapters, Chapters 8 (Goh) and 9 (Chong), present critical observations relating to the regional expansion of Pentecostalism in the pragmatic society of Singapore. Focusing on popular megachurches such as the Faith Community Baptist Church, New Creation Church and City Harvest Church, these chapters note the engagement of megachurches in Singapore with modernity, globalization, capitalism and popular culture. The growth of megachurches in Singapore is primarily credited to the doctrinal flexibility of megachurches, openness to modernity and accommodation or adoption of contemporary popular culture. While this approach adds popularity to the independent Pentecostal megachurches in Singapore, these chapters also suggest that such flexibility consequently produces a moral economy of megachurches that clearly blurs the line between the sacred and the secular.

The growth of the global Pentecostal movement has drawn considerable attention of scholars in the past few decades. The case of Pentecostalism with its megachurches in Southeast Asia analysed in this book offers a unique perspective as the book highlights how the Pentecostal movement attracts some segments of the population in the majority Muslim societies of Indonesia and Malaysia, Catholic society of the Philipines and pragmatic society of Singapore. As such, the case studies and critical analysis of Southeast Asian Pentecostal megachurches presented in this book will undoubtedly benefit students of religion and world Christianity, scholars of Pentecostal and Charismatic studies and those who are interested in the intersection between religion and modernity.