Despite declining Christianity in the Western world, Christian population in Asia may exceed that of Europe in 30 years, an expert of Southeast Asian studies says.
A commentary dated March 1 on the Asia Times written by Michael Vatikiotis with the "Heavens, Asia's going Christian" offers an insight into the changing face of Asian Christianity in the near future.
The phenomena can be generally observed by apparent statistics. According to the World Christian Database, there are around 350,627,054 Christians in all of Asia compared to 553,499,433 of Europe. However, over the last decade, the church attendance in Europe has been declining significantly.
In the United Kingdom, which was once the engine for world mission by sending missionaries to unreached countries, Christian leaders warned that the most influential Church of England is in danger of extinction following the latest figures published in The UK Christian Handbook: Religious Trends. At the current rate of decline in church membership, the projection suggests that total Church membership across Britain will have fallen to below six million by 2005, and even down by more than a million people in 15 years.
The worrying trend has been spreading across Europe, even in Germany, home to religious reformation and Protestantism.
In contrast, Vatikiotis described in his commentary how Christian movement flourishes in Asia, "The official guide to churches and Christian organizations in Singapore runs to more than 390 pages. With names like [email protected], Great Shepherd Assembly and City Impact, there are 44 registered churches from the US-based Assemblies of God alone in Singapore."
Pentecostal or charismatic churches appear to be very popular among Asians. Vatikiotis wrote, "Far from embracing materialist and consumer values and completely abandoning religion, middle-class Chinese residents of Singapore, Taipei and Hong Kong all regularly flock to Pentecostal or charismatic churches."
According to Vatikiotis, these Asian churches are characterized by their active involvement in social welfare, and sometimes in politics. For example in Hong Kong, the church backs the movement for democracy; in Taiwan, some churches are strong advocate of independence from China.
Vatikiotis tried to analyze the reason behind the growth of Asia Christianity spiritual-wise as saying, "As Asia's economies have grown, many at a breakneck pace, so too have social inequalities and uncertainties. In urban areas, the resulting hardships are felt even more because migration deprives people of family or community support and breeds alienation. The church, the temple or the mosque is often the only place people facing hardship can turn to."
In Singapore, however, the Church settings are still not very mature. The houses of worship offer relief from the stress of modern existence to the accompaniment of pop music. According to Vatikiotis, every Sunday as many 12,000 members of the New Creation Church founded in 1983 cram into the Rock auditorium at the Suntech Convention Center in the heart of Singapore's business district and listen to pastors tell their followers what they want to hear.
At the City Harvest Church, in Jurong district, the Reverend Kong Hee, accompanied by his pop-singer wife Ho Yeow Sun attracted similar number of people with soft pop music in worships.
"Singapore is one of the fastest-growing Christian communities in Asia, along with Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China. In fact, Asia is projected to become one of the largest Christian populations in the world, on pace to eclipse Europe in the next 30 years," Vatikiotis stated in his commentary.
In Singapore, even in some other South East Asia countries, Chinese tend to be the key players in Christian movement. Vatikiotis said, "A Christian from Myanmar, a Korean Christian, even a Thai Christian can find services in their own language - though for the most part Chinese is the language of the Christian faith here."
Vatikiotis also mentioned the power of the rising huge Christian population in Mainland China, which has contributed greatly to the overall growth of Christianity in Asia. The US State Department estimates there could already be as many as 100 million Christians in China, even though the official tally of believers is below 50 million.
The counterforce for the development of Christianity in Asia, especially in South East Asia, is probably the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.
"Across the region, charismatic sects are springing up and drawing young people to religious faith. And new Asian converts to Christianity are arguably outpacing the spread of Islam," Vatikiotis declared that the situation is still very optimistic.
"In much of Asia, strong traditions of pluralism and accommodation have allowed Islam and Christianity to blossom side by side. Governments in Malaysia and Indonesia are promoting inter-faith dialogue to help shore up these traditions," he continued. "As Christianity takes deeper root in Asia, it is just as likely to spread without fear and resentment: a vibrant collage rather than clash of civilizations."
Michael Vatikiotis is former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review. He is currently a visiting research fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.