Singapore's mega churches offer salvation at a price

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 September, 2012, 3:42am

At "Miracle Seed Sunday" in Singapore's New Creation Church last month, the pastor's sermon was preceded by PowerPoint and video presentations, and donations were overseen by auditors.

Singaporeans are flocking to a new species of church that makes appeals more in common with Material Girl pop-singer Madonna than the Jesuits. Wearing a white leather jacket and jeans, senior pastor Joseph Prince asked God to reward a crowd of 1,200 with houses, cars, jobs, pay raises and holidays if they contributed to New Creation's multimillion-dollar funding drive.

Prince's 24,000-member congregation belong to a flourishing breed of churches winning followers with a focus on personal well-being. As the rise of so-called mega churches helps make Christians the fastest-growing religious group in Singapore, their fund raising allows groups such as New Creation and City Harvest Church to invest in some of the island's biggest commercial properties.

"Mega churches have been able to articulate Christianity in a very contemporary manner," says Terence Chong, a senior fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, who has researched such groups.

At the New Creation service, PowerPoint slides show how to write cheques to the church, while armed security guards watch the cash. RSM Chio Lim provides the auditors overseeing the donations, according to E-Sah Woo, an audit partner at the Singapore-based accounting company, and Kelly Lim, a New Creation spokeswoman.

Worship and Holy Communion were followed by a video about a woman who donated on Miracle Seed Sundays even when her husband's cancer treatments left the couple in debt. Images of a Volkswagen and a condominium showed the rewards for giving.

"As they come forth Lord to sow, release upon them Father the power to get, to create, to receive wealth in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ," Prince says in the Rock Auditorium at the Suntec City Mall. "Prosperity is right. Amen."

The session sought to raise funds for the church's half of a S$976 million (HK$6 billion) retail and entertainment complex. The venue, which will double as New Creation's meeting place, is set to open in November, with concerts by musician and producer David Foster, Chaka Khan and Babyface, according to the theatre.

The joint venture with CapitaLand will be among the 10 largest commercial properties by value and the biggest investment by a religious organisation in Singapore, according to Nicholas Mak, executive director at SLP International Property Consultants.

The Miracle Seed event in 2010 raised S$21 million in one day from 22,272 attendees, according to New Creation's website, and the church plans three such sessions this year. It has raised S$348 million for the property project as of July 2012.

It's not alone. City Harvest Church, a non-denominational church founded by pastor Kong Hee, 48, has attracted more than 20,000 members. It proposed in 2010 to spend S$310 million for a stake in the Suntec Singapore International Convention & Exhibition Centre and related rents and renovation costs. It was the venue for the 2009 Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit.

At a July 21 service, executive pastor Aries Zulkarnain said the group raised a record S$22 million for its building fund last year, and had doubled its stake in the property for an additional S$54 million.

These churches are "beyond any doubt" the fastest fund raisers among religious organisations here, says Gerard Ee, former president of the National Council of Social Service. "The message is: the more you give, the more you get back from God. It's like an investment."

New Creation, whose website reports 24,000 members, convenes at several locations every week because it's outgrown the Rock Auditorium. At the Suntec City Mall, tickets are given out starting at 6.45am on Sundays for those wishing to see Prince in person.

Those who don't have tickets watch remotely via video feeds from other venues. Prince, who sports a black leather jacket and bronze highlights on the church's website, speaks at four sessions during the day, and recordings of his sermons reach millions across around the world, according to his podcast's iTunes page. Unaffiliated websites put his age at 49, though New Creation declined to confirm that.

These groups attract followers by making services enjoyable and embracing prosperity, says Jeaney Yip, a lecturer at the University of Sydney Business School, who has studied mega churches.

"Market-friendly ideologies associated with individualism and self-empowerment are blended with selective Christian theologies to emphasise positive living and blessings, while deflecting negative doctrines such as judgment, sacrifice, hell or death from sin," Yip says. "Their church services are scripted and 'produced' with deliberate use of contemporary music, sound and lighting."

Faith Community Baptist Church, founded in 1986 by Senior Pastor Apostle Lawrence Khong, provides "celebration services" for its 10,000 members, according to its website. Khong, born in 1952, is pictured on the site with gelled hair and a black leather jacket and matching bracelet. He also fronts the group's entertainment arm, staging shows that "combine magic, music, drama and dance to establish God's Kingdom in the marketplace".

The communications divisions of City Harvest, New Creation and Faith Community all rejected interview requests.

Mega churches thrive in newly developed countries where they create networking opportunities and a sense of identity, says Hoon Chang Yau, an assistant professor of Asian Studies at Singapore Management University who researches Christianity in Indonesia.

At the July 21 City Harvest service, singers led the congregation in song during the worship session, featuring contemporary-styled music backed by a band with drums, electric guitar and bass. The founder, Kong, read Bible verses from an iPad and then invited the crowd to talk to God "in tongues".

The boom in fund raising has been accompanied by concern over how the money is used. Kong and five other City Harvest officers were charged this year with conspiracy to misuse S$50.6 million of the church's funds, including using a portion of the money to finance the music career of Ho Yeow Sun, Kong's wife. Kong denied the charges. The church has said it stands by the accused leaders.

Religious groups in Singapore don't criticise those in power. The laws "provide a framework to ensure that pastors stay away from politics of the day," says Mathew Mathews, a research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies in Singapore. The Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act allows authorities to stop religious leaders addressing or advising groups, to prevent them from inciting hostility between different religions and disaffection against the government.

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said in June that the City Harvest case involved charges against the individuals, not the church, adding that the group was free to continue its activities.