September 2017 Feature
This brief essay attempts to describe a phenomenon which seems to be fairly widespread in the churches of Singapore. It represents an outsider perspective: I am a British citizen and PR who has lived in Singapore for 18 years. It should be read in that light.
The last fifty years of Singapore’s history have largely been a success story.
Singapore is a small island with almost no natural resources. But over the past few decades, and due in large part to the vision of Mr Lee Kuan Yew and those who worked with him, Singapore has become a major business hub, one of the most prosperous nations of the world. Plans were made, goals were set, decisions were taken – and Singapore underwent an astonishing transformation.
Singapore’s national success seems to have rubbed off on the Singaporean church: Christians here in general expect to succeed, to make progress in their walk with God, and to see their churches grow. There is much to praise in this outlook, much from which churches in the West could learn.
But the question arises: what if the expected success does not materialise? What if the church does not grow and church life seems to stagnate? What happens when Christians feel that they have been spiritually ‘stuck’ for years on end, still troubled by the same sins, with no clear signs of growth? At this point it seems that some Singaporean Christians reach for ‘magic bullets’.
What is a ‘magic bullet’? It can be a prayer, a book, a spiritual practice, a church programme, a new teaching, a particular preacher who is believed to be especially anointed by God. It can be something – anything – that is presented to Christians as a means of bringing about swift transformation in their walk with God. A ‘magic bullet’, in other words, is a spiritual ‘quick fix’.
Readers may remember the Prayer of Jabez. In 1 Chronicles 4:10 we read: ‘Jabez called on the God of Israel, saying, “Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from hurt and harm!” And God granted what he asked.’
Fifteen years ago in Singapore that prayer was on everyone’s lips: books were written about it; sermons were preached. Pray this prayer, it was said, and God will bless you and ‘enlarge your border’. But the Prayer of Jabez has gone out of fashion.
More recently, there was the ‘40 Days of Purpose’ programme. A number of churches here committed themselves to that programme a few years back. Maybe there was real growth in those churches as a result. But these days one doesn’t hear so much about the ‘40 Days’.
Think, too, of those books on sale in Christian bookshops, books with a smiling man or woman on the cover, and the implicit message: ‘I’ve made it as a Christian; buy this book and you can be as successful as me (with God’s help)’.
‘End times’ teachings may also fall into this category: teachings which focus on the contemporary fulfilment of biblical prophecy, and whose message is, ‘Keep your eyes on the Middle East!’ Here the ‘quick fix’ element consists in a new perspective which (it is claimed) will thrillingly transform our understanding of what God is doing in the world these days.
For many years now, these and other ‘magic bullets’ have been ricocheting around Singaporean churches. Perhaps pastors should occasionally address this issue. A simple word at the end of a sermon might help many to see things more clearly:
‘Why are you so attracted by “magic bullets”? You feel, perhaps, that you’re not making progress as a Christian, that you’re not coping; that you’ve been stuck in the same place for too long.
‘But are you still reading your Bible? Do you pray, and do you sometimes see answers to your prayers? Do you worship regularly with God’s people? Do you seriously try to live out what you’re taught in church? Do you confess your sins to God, and ask God’s help in overcoming them?
‘Are you a person of integrity? In your workplace do you aim to conduct yourself as a Christian should? Are you faithful to your spouse? Are you loyal to your parents? Are you a good parent yourself? In short, are you trying to live the Christian life?
‘If you can answer those questions “Yes” (knowing that you fall short sometimes), then don’t be too concerned about what you may see as your failure to make progress. Maybe God is better pleased with you than you think.
‘Don’t make spiritual success an idol. Perhaps God wants to keep you in the same place for a while, so that you can learn that spiritual growth comes from Him, and is not something that you can generate by yourself.
‘Or maybe you are making progress without your being aware of it. There may not have been any spectacular changes in your life. But perhaps, as you have sought to remain faithful to God in the daily, weekly and yearly round of your life, your character has been transformed. Perhaps over the years the image of Christ has been taking shape in you, without your being aware of it.’
‘Why not leave the magic bullets for those who hunt vampires? You don’t need them.’
Readers may have gathered that this issue is something of a personal hobby horse. But I have not written this article primarily to ‘get something off my chest’, still less with the aim of offending brothers or sisters in Christ. I write out of a concern that some Christians in Singapore, out of a worthy desire for spiritual growth, are looking for help in the wrong places, and maybe troubling their consciences unnecessarily as the ‘magic bullets’ fail to bring the promised transformation.
I invite my readers to consider whether they agree, wholly or in part, with this ‘outsider’ perspective and, if they do agree, to reflect on what the appropriate response might be.
Dr Philip Satterthwaite has been Principal of the Biblical Graduate School of Theology (BGST) since 2011. He has been Lecturer in Old Testament and Biblical Hebrew at BGST since May 1998.