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Understanding the rapid rise of Charismatic Christianity in Southeast Asia

Published: 
31 May 2010

While church attendances across Europe are dipping as people embrace modernism, capitalism and secularism, more and more people in Southeast Asia are converting to Christianity. But these new converts – mostly ethnic Chinese – are drawn particularly to charismatic Christianity.

This new wave of religious fervour accounts for the rise of “mega churches” in this part of the world. Juliette Koning and her colleague, Heidi Dahles of VU University Amsterdam, had been studying Indonesia and Malaysia respectively when they first took notice of how many ethnic Chinese business managers were embracing charismatic Christianity. They decided to study this phenomenon through an anthropological lens and presented their findings in their paper, 'Spiritual Power: Ethnic Chinese Managers and the Rise of Charismatic Christianity in Southeast Asia'.

Koning, a visiting professor at SMU's School of Social Sciences, shared her insights at a university seminar.

Spiritual turn

Koning noted that there was a rapid expansion of charismatic Christianity from the 1980s onwards. Singapore, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Indonesia and Malaysia are said to have the fastest-growing Christian communities and the majority of the new believers are “upwardly mobile, urban, middle-class Chinese”. Asia has the second largest Pentecostal-charismatic Christians of any continent, with the number growing from 10 million to 135 million between 1970 and 2000.

The growth in Pentecostal-charismatic churches facilitated new groups that explicitly “recognise God’s blessings in business activities, contribute to Christian business leadership and care for spirituality among businessmen”. Koning noted that the rapid expansion of charismatic Christianity coincided with the exuberant economic growth that a number of Southeast Asian countries experienced in the 1980s. However, even when the Asian economic crisis struck in the late 1990s, there was still “an influx of people into charismatic churches”. Koning noted that “the explicit prosperity narrative found in many charismatic churches worldwide” seems to work both “in times of plenty (endorsing wealth creation) and in times of hardship (giving guidance in times of insecurity)”. But, such explanations reduce complex realities to an economic imperative.

Life contexts

Instead, Koning decided that it was instructive to look at the “life world” of the ethnic Chinese managers in Southeast Asia turned charismatic Christians. This is to bring the analysis beyond the “goal-oriented management and leadership literature”. In so doing, Koning, too, wanted to establish that the spiritual turn among managers “may have divergent meanings to actors in different contexts”.

In her research, two inter-related questions that are addressed: First, how do you interpret the appeal that charismatic churches exert on ethnic Chinese managers in Muslim-majority regions like Malaysia and Indonesia? Second, how do you account for the differences in its appeal between the ethnic Chinese of Malaysia and Indonesia? The answers to these questions serve a two-fold aim: First, it gives an in-depth understanding of the meaning of religion-based spirituality in the economic lives of the managers. Second, it makes a case for more context-embedded leadership studies, which challenges the prevailing notion that leadership and management represent universal principles as perceived in Western economies.

Empirical data was gathered through fieldwork carried out in 2004-2005 in Yogyakarta in Indonesia and in Petaling Jaya in Malaysia. These locations were chosen because of the researchers’ own longstanding research background. It was in the early 2000s that they took notice of the “religious turn among the ethnic Chinese business community in both countries”. The research population was contacted via the snowball method – in both locations, people were approached through the local churches, religious organisations and charismatic groups, and from thereon, other possible interviewees were sussed out. In total, 20 managers and professionals, mainly male, were interviewed on different occasions.

Research interest

The theme of spirituality in business and management literature has increased in the last two decades. The majority of the literature paints spirituality as the “next best step” for leadership development and organisational practices given the current climate of growing global competition, problems of downsizing, workplaces as sources of community, the demise of the dominant formalised bureaucratic organizational structures, and the general interest in relationships between the mind, body and spirit. But, Koning’s research seeks to enrich the literature by including the context in the study of spirituality and leadership as well as zooming in on the experiences of the actors themselves.

Global Charismatic Christianity

Koning noted that there are about 500 million charismatic Christians worldwide although nobody really knows the exact figure. Gifts of the Holy Spirit such as speaking in tongues, healing powers, prophesy and supernatural miracles are some of the trademarks associated with charismatic churches. They are also noted for their exuberant worship which includes music, sing-a-longs, and moving around. Their worship services are also usually emotional. Some people described “feeling electricity going through their hands”. The global attraction of charismatic Christianity also lies in the ‘theology of practice’, whereby theology is acted out rather than philosophised.

Charismatic churches differ from more mainstream ones in that they “explicitly endorse success, wealth and prosperity as expressions of both meritocratic achievements and divine approval”. It is understandable that such teachings resonate well in places with booming economies where charismatic churches give expression to a ‘new capitalist culture’.

Renowned sociologist Stephen Hunt calls it simultaneously anti-modern (traditional literal interpretation of the Bible), modern (grassroots) and post-modern (economic goals, individualisation). Others call it a global or transnational movement. What actually makes charismatic Christian movement global? Koning offers several pointers. First, it easily adapts to local circumstances. Second, it offers solutions to individual and collective problems. It gives a sense of purpose that is beyond self-actualisation; as there is the charity aspect (tithe) of it. Third, the theology of practice is directly applicable (caring, repairing, but also, personal goals). Finally, there is a sense of identity, being the “born again” people of God – this is the unifying factor.

Ethnic Chinese

Koning noted the history of Chinese people in Southeast Asia, most of whom are descendants of migrants born in the southern provinces of China who had left the ‘mainland’ because of work opportunities or because of war, poverty, hunger, natural disasters or even political turmoil. It is estimated about 75% of all Chinese outside of China, Hong Kong and Taiwan reside in Southeast Asia and that many can be found in private sectors of the economy. There are three million ethnic Chinese in Indonesia, six million in Malaysia.

Koning noted that the ethnic Chinese are “pillars of the Indonesian and Malaysian economies” but their citizenships in the respective countries remain contested. For one, Koning noted that these ethnic Chinese are confronted with “socio-economic and socio-cultural discrimination”. This can be in the form of selective economic policies like Malaysia’s New Economic Policy, under which, Chinese companies have to take on local business partners to address the economic imbalance between Chinese and local groups. It can also be a total assimilation policy as was the case in Indonesia, whereby they are forced to “erase” their “Chineseness”.

Conversion points

By having in-depth interviews with their research subjects, Koning and her colleague sought to understand the ongoing conversion among ethnic Chinese managers in Indonesia and Malaysia by looking at two main questions: Why did they convert and how was this charismatic turn experienced at the professional level? They addressed these questions by looking at the “turning point moment” that made them convert, the manner in which the new-found spiritual power relates to their professional lives, and participation in religious business groups and charity activities.

The main trigger that they found seemed to be “business and personal problems”. There are also signs that the conversion is not restricted to the personal 'self' as these subjects also mentioned the wider social context in which they lived in, i.e. the problems associated with their minority statuses in their respective countries. Finally, there is also the element of sharing with like-minded people – sharing the same values and sharing their life burdens with God.

Upon conversion, praying and worshiping become an integral part of an ethnic Chinese manager’s life. Apart from regular Sunday masses or prayer sessions during specific business group meetings, these managers have also taken up the habit of daily prayers, usually at the start of the workday. Through this newfound faith, they feel empowered to become “better and more successful leaders”.

Almost all of the managers that were interviewed in the study are involved in Christian business organisations and also, in forms of charity. Such charity within the charismatic context has various meanings – from giving with an expected return and blessings, to converting others, which is closely related to reconverting the self. Koning also noted that Christian business meetings and charity activities present themselves as occasions for professional networking, including, “sharing interesting knowledge among business leaders and meeting prospective trustworthy partners”.

Managers and spirituality

The conversion of the ethnic Chinese managers to charismatic Christians could be easily interpreted as “yet another way for managers to reinvent themselves as managers in order to improve organisational effectiveness, workplace well-being and success”, noted Koning. But her research sought to uncover the important dimension in terms of the contextual settings of these conversions – that the manner in which this religious turn is indeed empowering for these ethnic Chinese managers at a larger societal level. She noted, “it is the minority status of the ethnic Chinese, which strongly contrasts with their economic position, that encourages their move to the charismatic movement”. But the empowerment is different for the ethnic Chinese in Malaysia and for those in Indonesia.

Ethnic Chinese managers in Malaysia belong to the social category of “social climbers who have to establish themselves vis-à-vis the established ethnic Chinese intellectual elite who remain members of the traditional Christian churches”. The charismatic movement conveys the status ambitions of the new middle class, which gives expression to its wealth through participation in the worldwide consumer culture.

In the Indonesian case, the empowerment comes in the form of “a statement against, or away from, the nation state in which Chinese Indonesians have always been regarded and treated as second rank citizens and had to erase their Chineseness”. Joining the charismatic Christian churches thus offers them “a global Christian identity” and a new sense of belonging.

By adopting an anthropological approach to organisation studies, Koning believes that we can better understand the appeal of charismatic Christianity among ethnic Chinese managers in Malaysia and Indonesia, who form an ethnically and politically contested but economically dominant group. She concluded that the “charismatic movement and ethnic Chinese managers have found each other in a dialectical encounter of empowerment at the managerial level”. The charismatic movement provides a “global and modern identity fitting their economic position” while providing spiritual guidance.

It is also unique among religious movements in its "prosperity gospel" in which “wealth creation is a reward, an expected return to giving (charity, tithing) and praying”. The dialectical encounter offers another form of empowerment, which has been missing in previous studies. In Malaysia, “the empowerment speaks to the insecure status and class position of the social climbers among the ethnic Chinese who experience an ethnic and economic revitalization vis-a`-vis the older elites” while in the Indonesian case, “the empowerment takes the form of a new sense of belonging for a socio-ethnic group that is confronted time and again with an outsider status”.