The average Anglican is an woman in her 30s living in sub-Sahara Africa on less than $4 a day, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby is regularly quoted as saying.
Contrary to the western stereotype of Anglicans as the country club set at prayer, the global family of churches has been shifting south for decades, and emerging Anglican churches in countries like Nepal and Cambodia may be a key part of its future.
Churches which trace their roots to the missionary activities of the Church of England have long existed in countries of the British Commonwealth. But the third largest branch of Christianity now does ministry in about 165 countries.
A Mission-Minded Diocese
About 10-12,000 weekly attendees are now being ministered to at 83 churches in the Diocese of Singapore’s Deanery of Nepal, which welcomed a handful of previously independent churches in the late 1990s. Today, it is one of the fast-growing areas in the worldwide Anglican Communion.
The Diocese of Singapore has a long history: its 150-year-old Gothic Revival St. Andrew’s Cathedral sits in the city-state’s downtown core, a perch accessible to workers emerging from a subway station directly adjacent to the cathedral café. Posters for Alpha – the evangelical program first popularized in the Church of England – face out from windows where patrons sip lattes and flat whites while perusing through books from Christian authors.
Christianity in Singapore itself has grown by more than 50 percent in the past 25 years, increasing from 12.7 percent of the population in 1990 to 20.1 percent in the 2015 census. Anglicans are part of that growth, influenced by a charismatic renewal that reinvigorated the aged colonial church. The Centre for Church Growth Research (CCGR) at Durham University reports that the Diocese of Singapore’s attendance rose by more than 500 percent since 1980. Today, St. Andrew’s offers at least 15 weekend services in English, Mandarin, Cantonese, Filipino, Hokkien and Bahasa Indonesian, among others.
The diocese is mission-minded, recognizing that its geographic proximity and location in a global financial center is well-suited to conduct ministry among neighboring countries with fledgling Christian populations. Personal on-the-ground stories lend credibility to the statistics: a cathedral member who became a Christian in the early 2000s now helps manage Project Khmer Hope, a center in Cambodia that breaks the cycle of poverty by training disadvantaged street children for jobs in the hospitality and tourism industry. A woman who grew up in a slum adjacent to the Anglican Church of Christ Our Peace in Phnom Penh and came for the free biscuits as a young girl now helps lead ministries in a Khmer-language congregation that has nearly tripled in size in the past year.
“Our aim is to put in place well-functioning dioceses that will continue to proclaim the Good News of the kingdom in the six deanery countries, and even beyond,” reported the Rt. Rev. Kuan Kim Seng, Assistant Bishop for Missions in the Diocese of Singapore.
Those countries include Vietnam, Laos, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia and Nepal (three dioceses already exist in Malaysia).
The Church of the Province of South East Asia, of which Singapore is a part, is a younger province in the Anglican Communion. Launched in 1996, the province has now grown to 98,000 adherents, about 20,000 of which are located in Singapore. Most Reverend Datuk Ng Moon Hing, Archbishop of the province, shared that it is geographically the most expansive: a flight from Nepal on the western edge of the province is 12 hours from the far side of Indonesia on the Eastern edge. In between, more than 500 million people live, most of which have never met a Christian, let alone have heard the Gospel.
Archbishop Ng spoke in October at a missions roundtable convened every three years in order to bring together churches and ministry organizations partnering in mission work in the region. Clergy and bishops from Sri Lanka, Papua New Guinea and Myanmar were also present, and the largest group of participants is connected to the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA).
“If it takes millions of pounds a year to maintain a cathedral, should I not invest in the people?” Ng asked during his address to the roundtable. “The cathedral will not last forever – the people inside will.”
Noting that “focus on self will leave us disappointed” Ng encouraged the gathered Anglicans to focus on discipleship of Jesus Christ “not discipleship of club membership or fellowship.”
Themed on 2 Peter Chapter 3 verses 8-10 that the Lord is “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” Ng encouraged the roundtable to focus upon discipleship and quality amidst excitement about numerical growth.
Ng’s words were echoed by the Rev. Chris Royer of Anglican Frontier Missions who addressed the roundtable in an evening session.
“God has raised up the Anglican Church in Singapore to be a light to the nations,” Royer insisted, encouraging the roundtable to take risks in sharing the gospel.
“Since when do we decide who is open to the Gospel or not?” Royer asked. “We are here tonight because at some point, someone in our life shared the Gospel.”
Fast-Growing and Vulnerable
About 3 percent of Nepal’s population is Christian, according to The Rev. Canon Lewis Lew, Dean of the Anglican Church in Nepal.
The 2015 earthquakes damaged structures across the country, including 30 Anglican Church buildings. According to Lew, 85 percent of those have now been rebuilt, and the remainder should be complete by the end of 2017. While the earthquakes left significant destruction in their wake, they also provided an opportunity for Christians to serve their neighbors. Of the practicing Anglican Christians in Nepal, many have come to faith since the earthquakes, some citing relief efforts offered to believers and nonbelievers alike.
Christians in each of the deanery countries face significant challenges, but Nepal’s recently enacted law to curb evangelism by criminalizing religious conversion is of pressing concern to Christians there. Churches in Nepal experienced significant growth in the past few decades, growing from only a few hundred Christians prior to 1960 to at least 375,000 today (some Nepalese assert that the census under-counts Christians, and that the figure is actually closer to 1 million). According to a report by Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, Nepal’s church is presently the fastest growing in the world.
Many of these new Christians are Dalits (“untouchables”). While the caste system has been legally abolished in Nepal, it still shapes Nepalese society, according to Lew. Western Nepal is almost completely unreached with the Gospel and isolated due to poor transportation and infrastructure, prompting calls for prayer and ministry for the region.
Christianity in Asia was estimated at 366 million adherents in 2009 and is projected to reach 490 million in 2025 at an annual growth percentage of 2.48 percent, according to Christian World Communions: Five Overviews of Global Christianity.
If the growth of Anglican Christianity in the region during the past 20 years presages future activity, a future Archbishop of Canterbury may note that the average Anglican is from a place that only a generation before had not heard the Gospel.
UPDATE: The January 4, 2018 edition of The Economist features an article on the spread of Evangelical Christianity among ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia. Churches in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia are especially highlighted.