Saturday, 7 July 2012

The rise of mega-churches in Singapore

There are several mega-churches in Singapore with evangelical fund-raising zeal, posing potential problems for this multi-religious country.

THE city is abuzz with anticipation over the coming trial of leaders of the largest and richest charismatic church on charges of misuse of charity funds.

It is the result of two years of the biggest investigation of a religious institution.

Five leaders of the City Harvest Church (CHC) – including co-founder pastor Kong Hee who preached a form of money-generating prosperity gospel – were charged with criminal breach of trust.

Generic photograph of the Parliament building in Singapore. A question touching on the City Harvest Church saga has been tabled for the next Parliament sitting on Monday, July 9, along with others on voters, transport, education, health and manpower issues. -- ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Singapore is often stereotyped as a society that only worships money.

“Now, some pastors are cashing in on it being true,” said a banker.

Over the past week, the case stirred up a hot public debate on and offline, with most supporting the court action.

Altogether eight leaders, including the arrested five, were suspended from charity duties, but the church itself was unaffected and allowed to carry on.

It could shape up into a judiciary benchmark of sorts because the new church leadership – with two pastors from abroad – and the majority of CHC followers have thrown their support behind their leaders.

A statement released by executive pastor Aries Zulkarnain said the church was standing by the five men.

“The people are our pastors and trusted staff and leaders who have always put God and CHC first,” he said.

“As a church we stand with them and I believe fully in their integrity.”

In two weekend services, 14,000 placard-carrying followers gave Kong Hee a standing ovation and a show of support.

Looking haggard, the pastor told his cheering supporters that there were two sides of the story and he would give his in court, adding: “I maintain my integrity.”

The five were charged with misconduct and mismanagement of tax-free charity funds amounting to at least S$23mil (RM57.6mil).

According to an official report, the money was intended for use to finance the music career of the pastor’s wife, Sun Ho, with the objective of winning more converts.

The case shows how vulnerable tiny Singapore is to foreign, especially Western, norms.

Many social trends from abroad end up in Singapore, including this form of money- raising religion.

City Harvest was co-founded by Kong Hee more than 20 years ago and now has about 24,000 followers, according to a Wikipedia report.

A father, who attended one of its early ser­vices with his daughter, said what he saw shocked him.

“There was a pop-style band playing deafening music – more like a rock concert than a church service.

“The congregation would dance trance-like and pop their tongues in and out in quick succession, like monitor lizards, making strange animal-like noises.

“The band music would be interspersed with instalments of a sermon, during which the pastor would cajole the congregation to donate generously, preaching that their donations would be rewarded – repaid exponentially by God.

“I saw the congregation members, mostly young men and women in their 20s and 30s, depositing cash into the donation box.”

The ultra modern City Harvest uses bright flashing lights, loud music and modern stage technology to appeal to young Singaporeans who feel bored by the quiet sermons of traditional churches.

Most of its followers are in their mid-twenties. Pre-university and undergraduates are targeted for recruitment.

Videos of past sermons show charismatic preachers such as Kong Hee conduct services like a master performer at work raising funds.

Once, he took the microphone to thank recent contributors, who included a couple selling their five-room public flat to downgrade to a three-roomer and offered S$20,000 (RM50,091) of the proceeds to the church building fund.

Another was a young man who sold his motorcycle and donated the entire proceedings. With each name mentioned, the audience cheered.

It led a cynic to comment: “They have turned religion into show business, like America’s TV evangelism.”

Prosperity theology began in the USA decades ago. It claims that financial donations were needed as proof of faith and they would increase the giver’s material wealth many times over.

In the 60s, some US mega-churches resorted to TV evangelism to reach its mass following, raking in large amounts of money.

There are several similar mega-churches here with evangelical fund-raising zeal, posing potential problems for this multi-religious country.

One is The New Creation Church, which plans to invest S$280mil (RM701mil) to build a mega-complex with a lifestyle-entertainment-cultural theme.

With some 22,000 members, the church raised eyebrows when it was reported that its charismatic preacher was paid a salary of S$500,000 (RM1.2mil).

The investigation into CHC came seven months after a top Buddhist monk, Venerable Shi Ming Yi, was convicted of misusing donated money and sentenced to nine months’ imprisonment (reduced to six on appeal).

The 2009 trial of the English-educated, high-living Buddhist monk who owned three properties and loved luxury cars showed how far the money culture had spread in Singapore.

In his trial, the 48-year-old monk told the Court that “we live in a modern world ... no longer like what it was in the past”.

When asked to elaborate, the monk said: “If people earn more, they will spend more. Many religious people, not just myself, are very different now.”


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