A Church that marches to a different tune

The Methodist Church has made distinctive contributions to our young country in its journey of nation building. The Church has sought to be true to the call to spread “scriptural holiness across the land”, and this dogged pursuit of holiness (both personal and social) is evident in the early history of Methodism in Singapore, even when it was a British colony.

Singapore had no national resources, but was valuable as a trading port due to its geographical location. The manner in which the British governed the Straits Settlements was therefore somewhat different from that of the other colonies in Africa and South Asia.

But while the focus of the colonial administration was for economic profitability, the Methodist concerns were for the benefit of the people among whom they established their various different ministries: spiritual nourishment, social concerns, medical care and education.

Whenever colonial policies conflicted with their goals, the Methodists sought creative solutions. This is pre-eminently seen in the government’s emphasis on the provision of a secular education of which the primary concern was the training of clerical officers proficient in English. The Methodists persevered in their educational mission by ensuring that their schools were eligible for the governments grants-in-aid; they continued to teach the Word by providing religious instruction outside of school hours.

And where the ethics of the British Crown contradicted biblical mandate, the Methodist mission ensured that their views were communicated and represented—for example, in the areas of gambling, the use of opium, public morality and the observance of the Sabbath.

Even today, we regard it as our duty to again draw the attention of the Church, the public and the government to the ample scope for improvements in the moral climate of the country.1 As our economy thrives, we must not neglect to take a retrospective view of the Methodist mission, and learn from history that economic success cannot and must not be at the expense of moral and religious life.

The British Empire is no more, yet the vestiges of imperialism remain. Globalisation—and the modernity that accompanies it—“provides both the single greatest opportunity the Church has ever faced and its single greatest challenge”.2 The opportunity exists because “more people in more societies are more open to the Gospel in the modern world than in any previous era in history”,3 but the challenge is that it has become increasingly easy for us to lose our way amidst the competing demands on the Christian and the Church.

Singapore churches that have in recent years begun to be more actively involved in missions in various parts of Asia must learn the lesson afresh, for in “doing church” there is a tendency to be condescending, insist on doing it “our way” and mould them “in our likeness”. That old imperialism may yet be reawakened in a new context that will rival again the ways of Jesus.

Methodists need to be constantly reminded of the motives and the methods with which Methodism took root and bore fruit in Singapore. In a society that emphasises upward economic mobility—to update, upgrade, upscale, upsize and upsurge—the Church must not allow materialism to eclipse her mission.

Particularly, there is a concern that the educational mission of the Methodist schools is being increasingly driven by other gains (economic or the pursuit of eminence) rather than guided by the purposes for which William Oldham and Sophia Blackmore established ACS and MGS in Singapore.

In the midst of globalisation and modernity, the Methodists in Singapore have to continually look to the lessons of the past, the achievements of the present and to the challenges of the future. But amidst all these competing demands, we will do well not to forget that the way home is through the “lowly, the unassuming, and the imperceptible”,4 the mustard seed faith in Jesus Christ.

1 W. P. Rutledge, “Report of Committee on Public Morals,” in Minutes of the Malaysian Mission Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, 1902, 51.

2 Ola Tulluan, “The Impact of Modernity on the Mission of the Church,” in Ministry in Modern Singapore: The Effects of Modernity on the Church, eds. Wong Chan Kok and Chuck Lowe (Singapore: Singapore Bible College, 1987), 152.

3 Os Guiness and John Seel, No God but God: Breaking with the Idols of Our Age (Chicago, IL: Moody, 1992), 161.

4 Tom Sine, Mustard Seed versus McWorld (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 173.

The Rev Dr Andrew Peh lectures at Trinity Theological College in the area of mission and mission history. He also serves in the Chinese Annual Conference of the Methodist Church in Singapore as a diaconal minister appointed to Charis Methodist Church.

Picture by Vaida/ and gjohnstonphoto/