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Counting souls: numbers and mega-worship in the global Christian network of Indonesia

Indonesia has a Pentecostal community of an estimated 6 million, among which the Mawar Sharon church is one of the most dynamic and popular. Also known as ‘The Rose of Sharon‘ or GMS, the youth-centered church is particularly attractive to students in Indonesian college towns. While GMS has a strong ethnic Chinese representation, particularly among the leadership strata, in reality its congregations are made up of multiethnic, middle-class individuals oriented towards a global Christian revival. Such individuals are drawn to GMS’s market-driven approach to evangelising where number-glorifying and mega-worship services echo strongly the ethos of mass consumption, a point clearly illustrated in the metropolitan city of Surabaya where GMS was founded.

Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city, has a population of 3.12 million (5.6 million in the metropolitan area). Known for shipbuilding, food processing, electronics and furniture manufacturing, the city’s residents comprise the Javanese majority, Madurese, and Chinese, as well as other ethnic groups such as the Sundanese, Minangkabau, and Bugis. In terms of its religious profile, Surabaya hosts the Grand Mosque of Surabaya and is a strong base for the country’s largest Muslim organisation, Nahdlatul Ulama.

Alongside GMS as one of the fastest growing churches in Surabaya is Bethany Indonesian Church. Bethany is the largest Pentecostal church in Indonesia with over 1,000 branch churches around the country and claims to have more than 250,000 members. Like GMS, Bethany was founded and led by ethnic Chinese Indonesians, although the latter’s congregation is predominately middle-aged while the former is especially popular among university students. Both these Pentecostal churches are more of a middle-class religious phenomenon that arose as a result of economic growth under the New Order (1966-1998) regime, than an ethno-religious movement.

One of the key characteristics of contemporary Pentecostalism is its extension to areas of life beyond the religious. Pentecostals in Surabaya, for example, conduct self-help workshops for career building, family bonding, women’s issues, children and parenthood. Such programmes are not confined to Pentecostals. They are also common among their middle-class Muslim counterparts who combine theology and entrepreneurship and hold seminars in prestigious hotels.

However, unlike Islamic pengajian akbar (great sermons) and other self-help workshops, most of which are somber affairs, the praise and worship of Bethany and GMS, and Pentecostalism in general, are far more boisterous, resembling pop concerts. These praise and worship events are locally known as ‘KKR’ (Kebaktian Kebangunan Rohani, literally ‘Service of Spiritual Growth’), and demonstrate that Pentecostalism is not only “a portable faith” for the individual, but also a show-business faith designed for the collective.1Martin, D. 2005. “Issues affecting the study of Pentecostalism in Asia”, in Anderson, A. & E. Tang (eds.) 2005. Asian and Pentecostal: The Charismatic Face of Christianity in Asia. Oxford; Baguio City: Regnum Books International, p.29.

The ingredients to such boisterous ‘mega-worship’ are upbeat music, dramatic sermons and dynamic dance. Replacing traditional instruments like the pipe organ or choir hymns are R&B bands, mesmeric gurus, and FM radio pop songs. In the megachurch sensationalism unites believers with the divine while the flashy multimedia employed throughout the sermons and worship appeals to the Youtube appetite for the fast paced pastiche of words, sounds, and melodies of a younger generation. Gigantic screens beam the lyrics of songs or verses, and even vows to God for the worshippers to recite. The KKR service is “Karaoke Christianity” en masse.2Twitchell, J.B. 2004. Branded Nation: The Marketing of Megachurch, College Inc., and Museumworld. Simon and Schuster, p.84.

If such features are characteristic of Pentecostal megachurches around the world, what then are the more local qualities of Indonesian Pentecostal megachurches? Following the attacks against churches in 1996 and 1998, more ethnic minorities have gravitated towards larger events and congregations for collective healing and sense of security. The collective healing worship services appear to be particularly attractive to psychologically injured Christians, many of whom are keenly aware of their precarious existence in the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation. Churches located in malls or commercial buildings protected by guards and without obvious symbols of Christianity are now preferred over scattered neighborhood churches that risk closure for not possessing a legal permit or may be vulnerable to attacks. Big numbers in big halls of saved Indonesian souls are vital signs of self-empowerment and (divine) justification of their presence in the ever-more self-consciously spiritual, if not strictly Islamic, Indonesia.

Against this backdrop of Indonesian Pentecostal ethnic minority complex, my chapter examines the traumatizing life experiences of the Chinese-Canadian-Indonesian pastor Philip Mantofa. I pay attention to his programmes of worship such as ‘A Trip to Hell, Army of God’, and ‘Asia for Jesus’, and the GMS church’s logic of counting souls. From there I shall discuss the international connections of the Indonesian Christian KKR, which form part of the global Christian network of which GMS is an increasingly important part.


En-Chieh Chao, Lecturer, National Sun Yat-Sen University (Taiwan)

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