Keeping the Malaysian Church Malaysian

Description: An Interview with Dr Tan Kang San (Apr 2007)
        Author: ES (Research)

The goal of mission work is to yield self-supporting and self-propagating local communities.


Missionaries first came to our shore several hundred years ago, bringing the Good News packaged in their own cultures and tradition. Hence, the early Malaysian Church’s tradition and spiritual practices were very much influenced by the missionaries who introduced the gospel to the area. As the Malaysian Church comes of age, it realises the need to contextualise its message to effectively reach its pluralistic society. But has it done enough to create a Malaysian Christian identity? The NECF excutive-secretary asks Dr. TAN KANG-SAN for his views on this. 


While local churches are beginning to recognise the importance of cultural sensitivities and the pluralistic nature of Malaysian society, the general church culture – English-speaking in particular – is still pretty much influenced by  American “Christianity” in terms of structure, operation, evangelism style and missional perceptions. Some believe that Americanisation is one of the greatest hindrances toward local outreaches. Your comments, please.


The learning church can benefit from foreign influences particularly in opening up new ideas and offering healthy critiques against parochialism.  However, you have rightly raised possible dangers of copying foreign structures, methods of evangelism and church growth without critical reflections.  I offer two specific examples to support these concerns. 

A friend of mine did a research into evangelistic and discipleship training methods used by local churches in a neighbouring country and discovered that the vast majority of these materials and programmes are imported, and used without any consideration to unique problems of the local church, such as the spirit world, corruption, poverty, and interfaith issues.  My second example comes from foreign ‘feedbacks.’ 

Foreign visitors to Malaysia are often impressed by the rich and diverse cultures represented in Malaysia. However, they are often disappointed that the Malaysian Church’s worship styles, celebrations, church structures, weddings, funerals and outreaches have tended towards Western rather than uniquely local expressions. What happened to rich resources such as community spirit, colourful festivals, local arts and ‘oriental wisdoms’?  It seemed that the Church is more interested in things foreign rather than Malaysian.

This is not just a problem originating from America but is a delicate balance between the need to learn from the global church and contextualising Christianity to local contexts.  There are formidable forces at work against ‘localisation of Christianity.’  Some come from foreign enthusiasm to export their products while others come from local mentality that our ‘non-Christian’ cultures are completely tainted with sins and therefore, should be rejected.  



There are many indigenous groups in Malaysia. To be effective and culturally sensitive, local churches can either focus on establishing indigenous churches with indigenous leadership or simply contextualising its method, moral principles and message to fit the indigenous culture. Which do you think is the better way and why?


We are grateful to God that Malaysian churches are now involved in both local outreaches and mission work beyond our shores.  We have much to contribute to Christianity globally as well.  From foreign missions into Malaysia in the 1950-60s, to the growth of East Malaysian churches in the 1970-80s, we now have both SIB churches and West Malaysian churches establishing outreaches among the Orang Asli, new villages and reaching out to immigrant communities.  While missionaries are cross culturally quite acquainted with the need for cultural sensitivity, dangers of foreign imposition of leadership and control, it is possible that we don’t apply the same level of cross cultural approaches in our outreaches among many indigenous groups in Malaysia. 

Clearly, mission studies are strongly in favour of contextualisation approaches rather than establishing new communities patterned after ‘mother churches.’  The goal of mission work is to yield self-supporting and self-propagating local communities. 

Although most churches are in agreement with established mission wisdoms  -- suc h as the need for independence rather than dependence and the priority of indigenous leadership rather than outside controls -- it is much more difficult to do this in practice.   

Here are possible ways forward.  We need to recognise that cross-cultural trainings are needed for both workers and leaders of this work; work towards the models of longer-term incarnational workers rather than weekend trippers; move towards indigenous leadership and self-governing churches. 

Taking mission work among the Orang Asli as an example, we need to ask the following questions:

1)      Have we produced dependency among the Orang Asli churches?

2)      Do these churches model after English-speaking urban churches in terms of worship style and congregational life?

3)      After a decade or two, is the leadership of these churches still dominated by ‘outside’ groups? 


The situation can be improved if there is willingness to learn from each other through national forums, accountability structures and research into problems and challenges, whereby the views of the Orang Aslis are sought and taken seriously. 



While we cannot deny the sovereignty of God even over all religious teachings and practices (believing that God prepares the world for the Good News), there is always the danger of compromising biblical principles. What are the cautions? What are the guiding principles if one is to reach out to a person of another faith? 


Genuine religious encounters must include both proclamation and dialogue.  Dialogue must include openness for God to speak to the Christian through non-Christian neighbours regardless of their religious backgrounds.  The local community (instead of individuals or foreign missionaries) can discern these truths by studying scriptures as a community (instead of prejudices) and looking to the Holy Spirit (instead of traditions) to illuminate our perspectives of these truths.  Scriptures, Holy Spirit and the Church as the hermeneutical community are sufficient guards against syncretism.  More often than not, it is easier for us Christians to reject ‘truths’ from other religions without really studying and understanding their roots and meanings.  It stems from a lack of understanding of the beliefs of other religions.

Discerning what is cultural from what is religious can be hard work, and we prefer to be safe than taking risks! In each case, we need to discern and arrive at some form of judgments. Genuine inter-religious encounters must result in Christians discovering some truths which are a) incompatible with the Gospel, b) clearly compatible with the Christian gospel and c) foreign to Christianity, but on closer examination, enrich Christian worship, fellowship and practices.  As long as this last category of truths does not contradict scriptures, we can learn from our non-Christian friends; as though ‘Christ grew deeper and richer’ through our multi-religious encounters!



For years, many evangelistic endeavours of the Malaysian churches have tended to focus primarily on converting non-believers. It is like what Franklin Graham said, "I would like to convert every person I meet… through persuasion." While some consider such approach to be noble, others deem it as offensive. Perhaps this is why some non-believers are skeptical of the motives behind Christian events, especially Christmas evangelistic meetings. While we should not overlook the advantages of such endeavours on church growth, or rather expansion, they may not be considered as effective. Your opinion.


I personally think organised mass evangelism in public stadiums and emotional evangelistic events designed to secure a decision are less helpful than ongoing, small group events such as evangelistic bible studies or Alpha courses.  Folks who have been to these study groups may be invited to a public Christmas events held in the church within contexts of friendship and growing interests in Christianity. The verse, ‘God added to their numbers those who were being saved’ (Acts 2:47), seems to indicate that the early church grew over a period of time through the transformation of individual lives, demonstrated in sacrificial services and overall witness of a loving Christian fellowship . 

To some extent, part of our problem is we have a fairly limited ‘picture’ of the church as a castle (orthodoxy), ‘building’, ‘rescue station’ which contributes to a church-centred view of evanglism.  Therefore, our dominant evangelistic strategies tend to be ‘come to us’.  In contrast, we need other metaphors of a ‘kingdom-centred’ view of the church.  If we view the church as a light (or lighthouse),  embassy (ambassadors), halfway house (for the sick and needy), or Servant (of the community), imagine the shift in the way we would relate to, and evangelise our non-Christian neigbours!  The maturing church will be more interested in serving the real needs of the community than merely adding numbers to the church membership.  To such a vibrant community, God will add to their numbers. 



The world has shrunk with increasing interconnectivity, but it does not seem to make it easier for missionary work in general. With rising religious tension on this side of the pluralistic world, it can be said that the resistance towards Christianity is greater. What is the role of the Malaysian Church in peacemaking?


Increasing connectivity is no longer confined to media, travel and communication, but has resulted in ‘new social conditions’ whereby distant events have local impact almost immediately.  So, modern Christians feel the resistance against Christianity is ‘greater’ from this sense of immediacy and awareness of alternate responses from people of other faiths.  Just as Christian persecutions in Muslim countries were reported internationally, sufferings of innocent lives in Muslim countries have caused inter-religious conflicts globally.  Silent apathy and ‘minding our own business attitudes’ are becoming less of an option because this religious tension is felt within our neighborhoods.

            Peacemaking is integral to the mission of the Church and the Church has much to offer in terms of fighting against injustices regardless of race and religion.  We can do this nationally, so that the dissenting Malaysian Christian’s perspectives on war and conflicts are heard in local media, and eventually it will contribute to the general discussion globally.   We can do this locally, whereby our prayers, relief efforts, and compassion transcend race and religion.   I find Walter Wink’s Engaging the Powers quite insightful.  The powers are not simply human structures or demonic in nature, but they possess an inner spirituality or corporate culture that dominates and controls.  Extremism and fundamentalism seem to be the dominant players in religious conflicts while the silent majority is helpless because the enemy is not so easily identifiable. 

            Finally, there is also a place for intra-dialogue within the Christian Church globally, whereby Western Christians discover diverse Christian positions from Asia or Latin America on the issue of global conflicts.



* Dr. Tan Kang-San is Head of Mission Studies at Redcliffe College, UK and is the Official Spokesperson for World Evangelical Alliance on Interfaith Issues.  Previously, Kang-San served with OMF International.  Kang-San will be teaching a course for pastors/lay leaders on “Old Testament Theology for Christian Ministry and Mission” at Bible College Malaysia from Aug 5 to Aug 10. For further details, contact Registrar at:



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