Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Influencers of Spiritual Formation (5)

Influencers of Spiritual Formation (5)

Being Christian in an Islam dominant country

The relationship of Christianity to Islam as the dominant religion in society is an important influencers on how the spiritual formation of Christians in that country develops. This is a unique situation in Malaysia which the West will not have experienced before. How do Christians in Malaysia relate and exist in a society that has no Christian or even post-Christian heritage?

Post-independent Malaysia accepted Islam as the official religion while the Constitution guarantees religious freedom for those who are non-Muslim. In recent years however, there are attempts to “Islamise” the education system, restrict religious activities of all religions other than Islam, limiting the availability of land for other religions to build places of worship and to bury their dead, and the attempt to impose Syariah laws on non-Muslim. Christians are specially targeted in apostasy laws in which it is illegal to try to convert a Muslim. Ng Kam Weng, director of Kairos Research Centre in Malaysia, appeals, “It is timely to be reminded that our founding fathers came together in a spirit of social contract which resulted in religious liberty being enshrined into the Constitution.” (Ng 1998, 82).

Only a small group of Christians are acting visibly to defend their right to religious freedom under Article 11 of the Malaysian Constitution. These concerned Christians tend to negotiate with the government for their religious freedom under umbrella church organisations or non-governmental organisations (NGOs). No churches in Malaysia are directly involved in any negotiation with the government or any official religious department. Though the government has been promising religious tolerance and every-one's right to choose their religions as given under the country’s Constitution, overzealous religious officials at the ground levels are practicing the opposite.

How does the Malaysian Presbyterian churches respond to this? Again by withdrawing into a religious ghettos with minimal interactions with Muslims. Only when the government encroach on their religious rights do they protest and fight for them. Otherwise they remain within their religious circles. They have no Muslims friends, only Christian ones. What developed is a much individualised spirituality within the confines of the communities of faith.

In an unpublished paper, I wrote,

“There is no church involvement with the surrounding communities. The church is wary of government and the Islamisation efforts of the government in schools. Members are also wary of materialist influences from an affluence lifestyle. They feel marginalised in the economic and educational opportunities in the country. There is no political involvement. Life is often fragmented between workplace and church… The reason for this withdrawal from society may be fear of involvement and drawing attention to themselves in a society that is hostile to Christianity. It may also due to the Malaysia Presbyterian tradition. Roxborough wrote, “the focus for many congregations is essentially that of their own life.... denominational expressions of ‘social concerns’ are limited.” (Roxborogh 1992, 102)

Sang Kancil, (Malay word for) the mousedeer is a small defenseless animal in a jungle full of predators. It survives by blending into the background, remaining motionless and hoping that the predators will leave it alone. It makes no attempt to change its surroundings. This is the theology that has evolved over the years as the [this particular] church seeks to true to its calling and be relevant in its socio-political-economic climate. There was no conscious effort to create this (Sang Kancil) theology.”(Tang 1999)

The response of the Malaysian Christians has been either to barricade themselves into religious ghettos, live in a state of denial assuming that everything is well, or to migrate to other countries. Essentially they choose to live in a culture of fear, where their Christian formative experiences exclude a God who calls them and will protect them.


Roxborogh, J. (1992). The Presbyterian Church. Christianity in Malaysia: A Denominational History. K. H. L. Robert Hunt, John Roxborogh. Kuala Lumpur, Pelanduk Publishers (M) Sdn Bhd: 75-106.
Tang, A. (1999). Sang Kancil Theology: The Search for a Contextualised Theology in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, Malaysia Bible Seminari.


  1. The Sang Kanchil image you used is riveting. I just love it. It comes out of natural self-preserving instinct.We would expect the church to be Spirit-empowered.

    The Singapore church pleads "I'm Guilty!" too in regard to involvement with this unreached people group.

    The church need to remember the Sang Kanchil is an endangered species now.

    Bold post.

  2. hi blogpastor,

    Thanks. I believe it is something the church needs to hear.

  3. I do not agree with your observation that churches are not engaging with their community. Perhaps in your own experience, but have you researched and asked about other churches up and down the country? I have heard of several churches - of all denominations - who have volunteers who go out to do things for people in their community - whether Christian or otherwise. By doing so, the non Christians have a good impression of Christians. I am sure you would have heard of such instances. I think your statement is too sweeping and not backed up by adequate research. I hope you are not offended, but I think your own words are too strong, especially for churches who have been doing the very thing you advocate - it is most disappointing. Thank you.

  4. Hi anon,

    Thank you for your comments. I agree with you that my statement was too generalised and sweeping if you are referring to "There is no church involvement with the surrounding communities."

    However that was written by me in 1999 and I was quoting that paper in 2007.

    There has been many changes since 1999. I am delighted to agree with you that many churches throughout the country are getting involved with their communities now.

    By being involved with communities, I do not mean Christians helping non-Christians but churches having a specific intentional program to be actively involved in building up their communities without having evangelism as a hidden agenda. I hope you see the difference.

    Prior to 1999, parachurch organisations such as Malaysian CARE and the Salvation Army are the main Christian organisatons involved in their communities.

    Thank you again for your comments and I find it most useful.

  5. My dear Dr Alex, I am sorry if I caused you some grief if my comment sounded strong, but please understand that your statements are also strong to those people like me who may have a reason to disagree. I would suggest, if I may, that you do not write so strongly if you can, so you do not invite similar strong statements from others. I am writing this paragraph first, so that you understand that I mean no harm with my strong language. I believe you are sincere in your own beliefs, and I respect you for that, though we may differ in our opinions or beliefs.

    Now, back to the points under discussion - even before 1999, there were involvement by churches with their communities, Christian or non-Christian, and with no overt or covert agenda of evangelism. If just by a Christian extending help to a non Christian means there is evangelism, then all contact with non Christian by Christians would be evangelism, would it not be so?

    I have personal knowledge of such reaching out, with no agenda of evangelism at all (and are indeed set programs) but rather just practising 'love thy neighbour' by many churches. It not only improves relationship of these churches with their community, but also show the non Christians what Christians really are like - they are not aliens with all the prejudiced characteristics that these non Christian communities may be subjected to.

    On that score, schools like Methodist Boys/Girls schools and La Salle schools up and down the country are engaged and involved with non Christian students, and they definitely - today - aren't involved in evangelism of their students, esp where Muslims attend - it is against the law in Malaysia. So there is no evangelism here, overt or covert - just providing a service to the community.

    On a smaller scale, there are churches that do such work, pre or post 1999.

    I know you are well intentioned in your postings, and I do not wish you unwell with my criticism, but I really hope you will be careful with your writings, especially over the internet because you can be misunderstood if you do not write as carefully as you would have wanted to.

    Thank you.

  6. hi John,

    Thank you for your gracious reply. I am happy to stand corrected if I am wrong. We are all on a journey of learning and discernment, and I for one, is willing to stand corrected so that I can learn.

    I shall also take to heart your comment about the need to be careful on how I write.

    I am more than happy to know that prior to 1999, there are churches, not parachurch organisations that have intentional community social services. Here I mean church projects not just what individual Christians are doing. That will reaffirm my faith in the Malaysian churches. John, you see, in this case, I am happy to be wrong.

    I have thought about the mission schools which you have brought up. While it is true that is is still under some church control, in 1990s the government already have some control in their running and curriculum. So the role, the mission schools are playing are different from the time when they are the only form of education facilities (during British Malaya). Now, with the National Type and Vernacular schools, their role have changed somewhat.

    Again thank you for your comments