On July 1 of this year I began my new career as a retired pastor. My first retirement assignment was giving three days of lectures to the pastors and church workers of the Lutheran Church of Singapore, two open lectures to lay people, a lecture at the Church Music School of the Methodist Church, and teaching a course at Trinity Theological College on “Ecumenical Liturgical Convergence After Vatican II.” At the college I also presented a paper on the Eucharist at a faculty colloquy, participated in a penitential service in the college chapel, and presided and preached at the Lutheran Service of Holy Communion in the college chapel on July 31. This first month of my retirement has not been a vacation trip. I worked hard in Singapore. But I enjoyed getting to know this remarkable city-state and its Christian people.
Singapore is an island city-state off the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula that gained its independence from Malaysia in 1965. It has a reputation as an authoritarian state, but it is a parliamentary democracy with free elections. The strict laws seem oriented toward promoting mutual respect, public safety, and environmental cleanliness that will attract people, especially business people, from all over the world. You are advised on the bottom of the immigration form when you arrive that drug trafficking is punishable by death.
Singapore is socially conservative, but it is not “puritan.” There’s an ambiguity in the values and laws. Family values are upheld but prostitution is legal. Asian massage parlors flourish along with sedate Western spas. Homosexual activity is illegal in Singapore, but by common consent it is not prosecuted as long as it is kept private. Yet public displays of same-sex affection are culturally acceptable. One often sees school boys and young men walking with their arms around one another’s shoulders or waists.
A small country about the geographic size of Chicago, Singapore has 5 million people who are culturally diverse. Construction is going on everywhere and the government contemplates adding another million to the population to provide the work force it needs, hopefully without losing the green spaces that are preserved. Singapore is one of only two places in the world that have a rain forest within city limits. My room in the college backed up to it.
Judging by the impressive temples, mosques, and churches in the city, religion flourishes.
The languages spoken are Chinese, Malay, Tamil, and English. The largest ethnic group is Chinese and the biggest religion is Buddhism/Taoism (about 60%). Islam is second with about 15%. Christianity comes in third with about 13%. The neighboring countries of Malaysia, Myanmar, and Indonesia, which provide laborers and service workers for Singapore’s bustling economy, are Islamic; Thailand is Buddhist. It seems that Christians in these countries are mostly Chinese. Judging by the impressive temples, mosques, and churches in the city, religion flourishes.
The Lutheran Church of Singapore (LCS) has 3200 members in seven congregations served by nearly twenty pastors. There are several pastors in each congregation because the congregations each offer services in English and Chinese and some add Tamil and Thai. The Church’s bishop, Terry Kee, has the authority to assign pastors. There are some pastors doing foreign mission work in Cambodia, Thailand, and Mongolia. The LCS is a daughter of the former ULCA/LCA and is in partnership with the ELCA. Its first congregation (Our Redeemer) was founded in 1960, and it is a member of the Lutheran World Federation. Bishop Kee explained to me that the LCS is in a relationship of protest with the ELCA over its sexuality statement and ministry policies but has not severed relations. ELCA pastors are welcomed to minister in LCS settings as long as they do not promote the ELCA’s perceived “agenda.” I was cordially welcomed. The Churches reflect the social conservatism of Singaporean society.
Lutheran identity is a major concern of the Church. Some of the pastors and many of the lay members are converts to Christianity. Many converted when they were in the university through Inter-Varsity and other evangelical organizations. Some went through several denominations before finding a home in Lutheranism. But they are eager to have a better understanding of Lutheranism and its practices. Some even took a trip to Luther sites in Germany. Worship practices are varied (traditional and contemporary in English); Chinese worship, I’m told, is pretty traditional. Services I attended used the LBW musical settings for their English language liturgy. However, power point projection is used in all Protestant Churches so the books are irrelevant.
LCS supports theological education at Trinity Theological College, which is a union school owned jointly by the Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians. It is the most important center of theological education in southeast Asia. The small LCS sponsors the ELCA-supported Pastor Jeffrey Truscott (Ph.D., Notre Dame), who serves as the college chaplain and lecturer in worship. He is called by the ELCA Division for Global Mission, which paid for my travel. But I was hosted by the college. The college faculty is first-rate, and it is more ecumenically-diverse than the four traditions represented (but all Protestant). Most of the professors hold doctoral degrees from major British and American universities. Students come from throughout southeast Asia and beyond. The students in my course included an Indonesian and a Kenyan as well as native Singaporeans.
The Christian faith of the professors and students is transparent. Worship in the college chapel is a challenge because everything is done in English and Chinese. Worship is carefully planned to accommodate the languages and the ecumenical character of the school, which is much wider than the four denominations that own the college. Every sermon must be written out in advance so that it can be translated into Chinese or English. Monthly Communion Services, however, are always conducted in the traditions of the four denominations.
The biggest problem presented to me as a liturgical consultant was what to do about contemporary worship music (CWM). Promoted along with neo-Pentecostal charismatic worship even in the mainline denominations, the earthquake of CWM in America (a subdivision of CCM—Contemporary Christian Music) has created a tidal wave that has crashed ashore in Asia. I haven’t had much exposure to any kind of contemporary worship music in America, with the exception of the folk-like music often sung in Catholic masses sometimes using acoustical instrumental accompaniment. My impression is that in Asia the music is much amplified and is controlled by the music leaders, who also intentionally try to promote a certain emotional response in their choice of songs.
I figured that this would be an issue when I was asked to speak to the Lutherans pastors about “How God Works Through Music” and to the laity about “More Than Music: What Lutheran Worship Offers.” The issue of music kept coming up in my course and often prompted debate. I was even invited to preach about the challenge of CWM on Choir Sunday in the Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar (an ancient independent Church of the East based in Kerala, India that has a congregation in Singapore). I have been invited to teach in Indonesia next summer at the School of Performing Arts in Satya Wacana Christian University in Salatiga, Central Java. I don’t know what I will encounter there, but if my retirement ministry is taking me to Asia and this is one of their major liturgical issues I will have to help Asian Christians develop a strategy for dealing with it.
As I see it, you can’t stop a tidal wave.
As I see it, you can’t stop a tidal wave. But you can assess the damage, build defenses against further damage, and harness its power. Assessing the damage involves not only a critique of the genre but of the way the musicians have been allowed to take over worship, displacing the liturgy of word and meal with concerts to which a message is attached. Building defenses requires a theological analysis of texts but also training the musicians to see that they are there to serve the liturgy and that the music is to serve the Word. Then the worship leaders need to harness the use of these songs throughout the liturgy and use them together with the venerable traditions of chants and hymnody at different points in the liturgy. If the hymns and songs are spread throughout the liturgy, blending the genres is not such a problem.
There could be the possibility of an even greater ecumenical liturgical convergence in Asia than we have experienced in North America.
I experienced such an integration of genres at a well done Catholic liturgy in a Franciscan parish with a striking contemporary building and an amazing baptismal pool with running water that was the scene of nearly a hundred baptisms at the Easter Vigil. I learned that there were about a thousand Easter Vigil baptisms in the Catholic diocese of Singapore this year. Asian Protestants could learn from Asian Catholics about the catechumenate as well as about “blended worship.” Worship has been billed as either traditional or contemporary, but it need not be either/or; it can be both. Likewise, I agree with Dr. Simon Chan, professor of theology at Trinity, who is a leading Pentecostal liturgical theologian, that worship need not be either liturgical or charismatic; the exercise of charismatic gifts such as healing can also be integrated within the liturgical order.
There could be the possibility of an even greater ecumenical liturgical convergence in Asia than we have experienced in North America. I look forward to more learning and sharing in Asia in my retirement ministry.