Understanding Evangelical Christianity in Malaysia

September 7, 2012 by Ahmad Fuad Rahmat

An interview with Chris Chong by Ahmad Fuad Rahmat

Much controversy has erupted over the past year regarding the purported threat of Christianization in Malaysia. In the spirit of dialogue towards better understanding, IRF sits down with Chris Chong to discuss the issue in more depth from his perspective as a scholar and critical Evangelical Christian.

Chris Chong holds a PhD in political science from Universiti Sains Malaysia. His doctorate, entitled  “Modernity, State-led Islamisation and the non-Muslim response”, studied the socio-political reaction of Malaysian Christians towards the longstanding Islamization of the Malaysian state.

He is a member of the Wesleyan Community Church and Friends in Conversation, a Christian forum “committed to creating a space for reflective and constructive conversations on faith, spirituality, community and society.”

On Evangelical Christianity in Malaysia

Q: This interview will probably have a lot of Muslim readers, so to be clear, can you explain in layman’s terms what Evangelical Christianity is and how it’s different from other churches?

A: Evangelical Christianity is a complex phenomenon. There’re easily hundreds, if not thousands of churches that can be classified as Evangelical. But by and large we share some general characteristics:

Firstly, Evangelicalism is a relatively new phenomenon in Christianity. So Evangelical churches do not have a rich church tradition compared to the Catholic, Lutheran or Methodist churches.

As a movement, Evangelical churches really only grew in the 18th century US where they eventually gained a following formidable enough to make it the social and political force it is today, which also explains their global reach. Thus Malaysian Evangelical churches are close to their American Evangelical counterparts in their theology, message and approach.

We are also more autonomous. Unlike traditional churches, Evangelical churches don’t respond to a central body. We don’t have bishops, for example. So we grow more organically and are more rooted to particular communities.

Evangelicals also believe in a more literal interpretation of the bible, far more so than traditional churches which rely on history or some kind of church authority for interpretation and guidance.

Lastly, Evangelicals evangelize. We believe in spreading the gospel to as many people as possible.

Q: Today at least 60% of churches in Malaysia are Evangelical, drastically eclipsing other Christian Churches in the Peninsula that are often thought to be more established. This is surprising given the fact that evangelical Christians in Malaysia really only began organizing themselves in the 1970s. What accounts for the rapid rise?

A: Evangelicals are just far more committed to reach out and gain converts. This cannot be taken for granted. The drive to convert among the older, more traditional, churches is more subdued nowadays.

They’re also more modern in their approach, which is often based on a careful observation of contemporary society. If you go their churches on Sunday it’s not unusual to find their sermons focusing on practical everyday things. They talk about how to cope about work stress, work-family balance, raising children in a modern setting and so forth.

They also cater to different groups and niches. I know of a mega church that is actively trying to accommodate the concerns of young working adults, so once a month it would host community activities so that like minds within the church can discuss common issues, or to have a gathering for young married couples where they would invite speakers to talk about how to discipline children and things like that. The focus on pressing everyday needs is just something that traditional churches don’t do as much of.

So it’s not surprising that the appeal of Evangelical Christianity is growing, and not only in Malaysia.

Q: But the examples you give merely describe their strategies. There must be more to it. I mean, what accounts for the wide spiritual or philosophical appeal behind Evangelical Christianity?

A: The literalism so common to Evangelical churches along with the absence of any attachment to a tradition offers the person a more direct relationship to Jesus. As a result, the relationship with Jesus is not mediated by any authority or hierarchy, nor is the Evangelical Christian bound by many rituals.

The context of the faith is a very contemporary and deeply individual one, as compared to say the Orthodox or Catholic churches whereby you would be more bound to the Church as a global transnational community with a long history.

This offers a lot of room for Evangelicals to accommodate modern trends. For example, Christian rock can be the global phenomena it has become because of the cultural laxity that Evangelical Christianity offers. So sermons are more exciting, lively and can speak on a wide range of issues more relevant to modern life.

Q: Help us understand the nature of the movement. Are evangelical churches in Malaysia organized as a unified coalition, or are they mostly associated as a loose network?

A: Evangelicals are a loose network. It’s important to keep in mind that the Evangelicals are not a monolithic bloc. There are deep and serious variations among them. But by and large there are certain family resemblances: their theology as I said before is Anglo-Saxon, their members are mainly middle class urbanites, and the majority are in their late 20s or early 30s, many of whom are educated professionals.

The majority of them are also first generation Christians. In other words, they are converts from a different faith. For most contemporary Malaysian Evangelicals, Evangelical Christianity is their first and only real exposure to Christianity.

On Evangelical Christianity and Politics

Q: The fact that Evangelicals by default operate through outreach suggests that they are not the quietist types, politically speaking.

A: For this you have to look at things post-2008. Pre-2008 you find that the evangelical churches are by and large conservative and apolitical. They don’t care about politics or the government.

Post-2008, you find a shift. They are more interested in current affairs. Most of them now, especially the big evangelical churches, will even have voter registration in the church and will invite preachers to speak on the pulpit about Malaysian politics. Pastors are even organizing prayer meetings just to pray about the political situation in Malaysia.

That is unprecedented. Before 2008 to even talk about politics in the church is unusual.

Q: Is all that driven by partisan politics? 

A: Not directly but the undertone is very pro Pakatan Rakyat. They wouldn’t say go and vote for this and that particular person, but they would say go out and vote, be politically active.

Q: So all that happened after 2008, but what happened before 2008? Why were Evangelicals not as active politically before?

A: Well Malaysian Christians in general were not active before 2008. What happened in 08 is a reaction to a very long attempt to come to terms with the state driven policies of Islamization that began in the 1980s which gradually infringed on the rights of Christians.

For example, it can take up to twenty years to get a permit to build a church.

Q: How come? What reasons did they give?

A: There is no explanation. You put in an application and that’s it, you wait and try to deal with the delay.

Q: And this is exclusively a Christian problem, or did other faith communities encounter the same obstacles?

A: It wasn’t just a Christian problem. Other faiths encountered difficulties too.

Q: What were the other issues?

A: Burial sites: there are not enough burial sites for Christians. Mission schools: there are no new mission schools other than the old colonial ones.

Even then, there are also problems of autonomy. The school building would belong to the church but it’s the Ministry of Education that decides who can teach there. What ends up happening is that the MOE do not understand the ethos of such schools and appoint headmasters who may not understand the school’s ethos by bringing about changes that affect the school’s identity.

There are also not enough finances to maintain the schools. So if there’s anything that needs to be fixed the schools themselves must come up with the funds to do so.

Q: Were there no issues of conversion before?

A: Of course there were. It was just not politicized until recently and in the course of that we saw more and more extreme statements made about Islam, at the expense of the non-Muslims’ sense of security as Malaysians.

So gradually there was this fear among Christians that the state sanctioned religious policies were seriously affecting them.

Q: How did the church leaders react?

A: They would have meetings and negotiations with top level ministers, even Najib. But the problem more often than not is not the people on top, who would work with the church leaders, but the bureaucrats at the bottom who would have a lot of say on what can actually get done on the ground.

Q: Why couldn’t the church leaders just tell Najib about the problem with the bureaucrats?

A: That happens every year. But the Christian Federation of Malaysia has no power, they can just counsel. So after several disappointments Christians feel that they have no choice but to be politically active and demand their rights.

Q: I see. So what kind of change are Evangelicals seeking by and large?

A: It’s very status-quo actually. The desired change is very minimal. They want a clean government, they encourage their members to give to charity occasionally, but they don’t address the structures of oppression or anything systemic like that.

Change is about participating in the elections basically. There is a clear rhetoric of activism but ultimately the politics is very middle class.

Q: What are the Malaysian issues or policies that feature regularly in the discourse?

A: The main one would be the issue of religious freedom. This is almost uniform across all churches. Corruption is up there too.

Really, the main discourse is very much about bringing about change in line with Christian values that makes them good citizens of the nation. There is of course no solid unified Christian front out there or anything, but the inclination to discuss politics is clearly there as a wide trend.

Q: What aspect of religious freedom is most pressing exactly?

A: Well, the need to work within the constitutional framework, namely article 11.

Over recent years, as we know, certain controversies occurred and many Christians, not just Evangelicals, felt that the government had overstepped certain boundaries.  So Christians are interested in seeing a more inclusive Malaysia.

Q: But what would that entail exactly, in concrete terms? Are there demands for more airtime on TV to preach, or for the protection of converts or something along those lines? Can you give examples?

A: There isn’t much being demanded in concrete terms as far as particular religious policies are concerned.

Q: Has that much to do with the fear of repercussions should more concrete demands are made?

A: Yes, so the demands are still general, remaining within the framework of religious freedom already stated in the constitution.

Q: So what makes PAS a more credible ally in your quest for religious freedom?

A: People like Mat Sabu and Dzulkefly Ahmad have spoken at churches and that does a lot to allay fears.

Q: There were also similar overtures from Najib, no?

A: The problem is not really Najib but BN. After 55 years people are fed up. Plus, no matter what you say, PAS is cleaner, at least relatively speaking.

The important thing is that you can’t see all this as an isolated event. The entry of Christians into politics is also part of a larger tide of sentiments that have gotten tired of BN’s rule.

Q: How about the whole Hudud controversy?

A: As for Hudud, I think it is all rhetoric at this stage. We must hold to the constitution. I respect Islam as a religion of the federation and to implement Hudud it would require a drastic change of mind-set among the non-Muslims, which I don’t see happening.

Q: The recent activation of Christians into Malaysian politics has given the impression that DAP has garnered a significant following among evangelical Christians. Is that true?

A: Yes. Hannah Yeoh is a good example. She’s Evangelical. Her constituency has the most churches per capita in Malaysia, if I’m not mistaken.

They’re quite vital to the party actually, regardless of their Evangelical identity. If you think about it, Malaysian Evangelicals in general are middle class at least, for the most part white collar, well-educated and financially stable. They have the resources to mobilize support and help campaign for the party in various ways.

On Conversion

Q: The Malays have a fear. The general suspicion is that the ones converting Muslims are not Buddhists or Hindus, but Christians. And if they look closer they’ll find that the ones actively doing the conversion are not the Catholics or Lutherans but the Evangelicals. Is this suspicion warranted?

A: Evangelical Christians are not converting Malays. They will not be reaching out to Malays. I cannot speak about fringe evangelical groups, but for the most part it does not happen.

Evangelical Christians accept that the majority of the country is Muslim-Malay. So we accept that conversion will only happen among non-Malays. I have not been to a church where I see Malays. Of course one can point to Lina Joy as an example, but that is really an exception.

Q: But if that’s true why was there so much protest against the ban of using the word “Allah” in Bahasa? 

A: The controversy was really more of an issue for Christians in Sabah and Sarawak who use Bahasa in their sermons and services. In fact, there was a sizeable consensus among Christians in the Peninsula saying that it was an acceptable compromise. Many Christians felt that Allah is not really an important word.

Anyway, the Christians who did defend the use of Allah argued that Bahasa is a national language after all and since we are Malaysians, why can’t we just use this word? Allah has been used by Arab Christians for so long without it leading to problems, so what’s the big deal? Bahasa is supposed to be a national language, but why is there so much control over it?

Q: So if the Evangelicals aren’t converting Malays they must be evangelizing to other communities. Have there been inter-church tensions as a result?

A: Yes, there are tensions obviously but there hasn’t been much animosity.

Q: Really? I imagine Catholics must be somewhat annoyed. Their conversion process is far more complex than the Evangelicals. The setting is such that Catholics will fall behind in outreach as it were.

A: Yes, but I would say this: even older established churches are being more evangelical in their theology and approach.

Q: Like the DUMC (Damansara Utama Methodist Church)?

A: Like the DUMC.

So you find many more established churches incorporating more modern methods. They use contemporary music, address practical everyday issues and focus more on evangelism as well. But because they are traditional churches rooted to certain histories and hierarchies they cannot proceed as smoothly with modernization like the Evangelicals have.

I mean don’t get me wrong there are inter-church tensions, but it has not led to a crisis within the Christian community or anything like that.

But the biggest tension is between Christians and non-Muslim non-Malay Malaysians, especially Hindus. The dissatisfaction towards Evangelicals expressed from within the Hindu community is clear, even more so than Buddhists.

Q: Speaking of DUMC, what do you make of the controversy?

A: From what I know the raided event was not even an event by the DUMC. It was by a separate organization that merely used the church’s space. So I think the controversy was misdirected and mistaken in my ways.

Having said that, it would be unfortunate if there really was any evidence of conversion. Sometimes certain Evangelicals are overzealous and may forget the boundaries that shaped Malaysian society. Nonetheless, it does not reflect on the community as a whole as I stated earlier.

Evangelical Christianity in Malaysia: Challenges Ahead

Q: Perhaps this is a weakness on my part, but my instincts tell me that I’d rather have a Catholic, Lutheran or Orthodox Christian as a neighbour than an Evangelical. Catholics have a longer tradition and practice of ecumenism for example, so the relative openness there is a bit more apparent perhaps, as compared to Evangelicals.

I mean, there’s enough from within the Muslim scriptures for me to appreciate Christians as People of the Book, but it seems that the evangelical impulse to save all non-Evangelicals might not appreciate that as much, thus Muslim-evangelical relations face a more uphill task. Am I wrong to think this?

A: I understand your fear. Sometimes I myself am irked by the zealousness of Evangelicals who are too steadfast on their ways. But you must keep in mind that the Evangelicals are the new kids on the block. They’re a very young tradition and they are also eager to grow as fast as possible.

I think there’s also growing awareness among Evangelicals that there are people of different faiths and we must learn to live with them. It’s a slow process but you find some emphasis on friendship, on attempts to turn to Jesus to as an example of inclusiveness and tolerance. Of course, there will be the extreme types but this is common in any faith.

Q: How autonomous are the Malaysian Evangelical churches from their counterpart movement in America?

A: The fact that Malaysian evangelical churches are influenced by Anglo-Saxon Evangelicals has given rise to the perception, even among Christians, that Evangelicals live in a kind of cultural ghetto, which is somewhat true.

But change will take time. There is a push for the need to understand our Muslim and Hindu brothers and sisters. Again, it’s a slow process but there is this new awareness of diversity coming into the churches.

There is definitely a need to grow a local theology. There is a need for us to find our own voices without being too dependent on Evangelical theology from America.

Q: What about their general take on the Israeli Palestinian issue?

A: Well, the Evangelicals for sure will follow the Anglo-Saxon line, unlike the position of the CCM (Council of Churches in Malaysia) [which represents the more mainstream and ecumenical churches] who is more sympathetic to the Palestinian struggle. Of course we should be careful of generalizing. I know of some Evangelicals who are pro-Palestinian, but by and large the attitude is pro-Israel.

Q: I consider you a comrade in many ways. We both share a lot of the same commitments on equality and social justice. But I wonder how does all that square with your commitment to Evangelical Christianity, which is, as you said so yourself, very market friendly and committed to bourgeois values? How do you reconcile it?

A: By going back into the deep tradition of Christian theology and history. I look at liberation theology as one resource and I try to deconstruct the heavily Anglo-Saxon evangelical influence on my church, which I’m not happy with. This is why many in my church consider me an outsider.

Q: Your affinity to tradition puts you closer to the older churches.

A: Yes, the problem with the Evangelical churches is that there is not much theology behind it. It’s very literal so I think there is a need to really examine their theological roots, which partly means looking at how other churches have done it. At this point in time, there’s only a small voice among us who are inclined towards such an approach.

Q: My sense is that all things considered conservative Evangelicals actually have a lot in common with conservative Malays. They would be on each other’s side in their love of capitalism, their opposition against LGBTQ rights, pluralism, women’s rights and so forth.

A: Of course, if you think about it the Hassan Ali types would have a lot in common with the conservative charismatic types in terms of their politics. They just wouldn’t like the conversion from either side but they can work together on a lot of things.

Q: What is your message to Malays and Muslims?

A: Understand the Christians. The tragedy is that both Muslims and Christians have gone their separate ways and are no longer communicating. My sense is that most Muslims tend to associate Malaysian Christians with Christians from the West, but they have to understand that despite our differences in faith, as Malaysians, we have a similar history and experience of everyday life.

Christians are more sensitive than Malays think. We understand how this country came to be. We are not looking to convert Muslims. We respect the history of how the nation came to be and the constitution. There will always be fringe groups but sadly extremism begets extremism.