(Corrects pastor's name in paragraphs 2, 24-26 to delete
extraneous word "Ho")
By Laura Philomin
SINGAPORE, March 6 "God is here, God is here,"
croons Singapore church official Sun Ho as she struts across a
neon-lit stage and thousands of people in the congregation pump
their hands and sing along.
Kong Hee, the church's founding pastor and Sun Ho's husband,
then takes the stage. In keeping with the electrifying mood, he
invites his followers to speak "in tongues" and a pulsing murmur
echoes through the auditorium of 8,000 people.
During the service, ushers hand out envelopes for donations,
which consume at least a tenth of the salaries of most church
members, going to fund different ministries, mission trips and
Welcome to one of Asia's most profitable churches:
Singapore's City Harvest.
With a "prosperity gospel" that blends the spiritual and the
material, City Harvest and other Pentecostal megachurches in the
wealthy Asian city-state have perfected a popular and lucrative
Now they are working to export it to the world and turn
Singapore into a hub for evangelical Christianity.
"We want to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth,"
said Pastor Bobby Chaw, City Harvest's missions director.
Evangelising missions by City Harvest, including pop
concerts by Sun Ho in China, Taiwan and the United States, have
helped it gather followers across Asia and set up 49 affiliate
churches in Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan and India.
City Harvest - whose founder faces trial, along with five
others, on charges of criminal breach of trust and falsifying
accounts over the use of nearly S$51 million ($40.2 million) in
church funds - also has a bible college that trains church
leaders from countries such as Norway, Kazakhstan and Zimbabwe.
Last year the founding pastor of another Singapore
megachurch, New Creation's Joseph Prince, toured the United
States, preaching to a sell-out crowd at Long Beach Arena in Los
Angeles and filling the country's largest church, Lakewood in
Prince's book "The Power of Right Believing" made it to
number two on the New York Times' bestseller list in the advice
and "how to" category.
SUCCESS, SCANDAL AND CONTROVERSIES
Asia is a growth market for Christianity, with the religion
estimated to be growing 10 times faster than in Europe,
according to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at
the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts.
While the idea of megachurches originated in the United
States, some of the largest are in Asia, notably South Korea's
Yoido Full Gospel Church, with about 1 million members.
Packaging the traditional biblical message into a more
dynamic format of pop-rock music, lively services and social
media has lured a new generation of followers and turned the
churches into major enterprises.
New Creation, which says it has a congregation of 30,000,
collected S$75.5 million in tithes in 2012, while City Harvest
took in S$38.6 million in 2009, accounts filed with Singapore's
Commissioner of Charities show.
"Whatever method that can most effectively convey the
message to our generation, we will do it," said Chaw, who is
also the vice chairman of City Harvest's management board.
City Harvest, which says its congregation numbered nearly
20,000 in 2012, with about 62 percent single, ventured into the
entertainment industry after seeing how enthusiastically
Chinese-speaking youth in Asia responded to Mandarin pop music
The church's Crossover Project led Sun Ho to collaborate
with Asian stars such as Jay Chou and she broke into the U.S.
market under the guidance of producer David Foster,
producer-songwriter Wyclef Jean and other veterans.
With a wealth-affirming model and efforts to engage the
young, fast-growing Pentecostal megachurches have helped to
dilute Buddhism as Singapore's traditionally dominant religion.
The most recent census showed the proportion of Christians
rose 18.3 percent in 2010 from 14.6 percent in 2000, while the
number of Buddhists fell to 33.3 percent from 42.5 percent.
Rolland Teo, 25, whose family is Buddhist, said his view of
religion as "very static" changed when he joined City Harvest.
"It was something more dynamic, more relational," Teo said.
"This was something I couldn't find in my parents' beliefs."
But allegations of corruption have accompanied success.
City Harvest's Crossover Project is at the centre of charges
that Kong and five other officials financed his wife's singing
career by funneling church funds of S$24 million into sham
investments and then used S$26.6 million more to cover up the
Kong and the others deny the charges. Kong's wife is not on
trial and has resumed her executive duties at the church.
In South Korea, David Yong-gi Cho, Kong's spiritual mentor
and founder of Yoido Full Gospel Church, was recently found
guilty of embezzling $14 million in church donations to buy
stocks owned by his son, at four times their market value.
Megachurches dismiss accusations of being wealth-obsessed,
although Chaw has said that "prosperity is a byproduct of
obeying God's commandments".
Critics say wealth is not necessarily a bad thing but they
decry selfish enrichment at the expense of helping others.
"The prosperity gospel is a very big movement, a very
visible movement, that doesn't represent what I believe to be
biblical Christianity," said Paul Choo, founding pastor at
Gospel Light Christian Church.
But a growing number of people in Singapore have found an
affinity with the megachurch doctrine of faith entwined with
wealth and personal well-being.
"That's quite attractive to many socially mobile
Singaporeans who, in going up the class strata, do look for some
moral bearings," said Terence Chong, a researcher at the
Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
Tithing - the donation of 10 percent of income to the church
- is assumed by some to be a way of "buying" God's love. But New
Creation member Jared Asalli and others say it is a way of
Either way, the practice helps swell megachurch coffers.
City Harvest raised S$22.7 million with its Building Fund
Campaign, helping it to buy a stake of 39.2 percent in the venue
for its services, Suntec Singapore Convention and Exhibition
Centre, for S$97.8 million in 2012.
New Creation's Miracle Seed event raised S$21 million in one
day, contributing to the S$348 million it spent on building the
5,000-seat Star Performing Arts Centre, one of four venues where
it holds services.
"I don't think there's been any era as materialistic as this
one," said Choo of Gospel Light Christian Church. "If it
promises wealth, it will have some ready audience."
($1=1.2690 Singapore dollars)
(Editing by Jason Szep, John O'Callaghan and Clarence