Malaysian, Christian…and Gay

The wonderful people of Good Samaritan Kuala Lumpur

I visited three churches here in Kuala Lumpur on Sunday, and I shared a message at each. The first, Tabernacle of Shalom, is a Tamil-speaking emergent church. The second, Eternal Harvest Center, is a Tamil- and English-speaking Pentecostal church, and the third, Good Samaritan, is a church for GLBT persons.

In fact, it’s the only GLBT-friendly church in this entire country.

Malaysia is a parliamentary democracy, but it is both religiously and politically dominated by Malays, who are Muslim. (In fact, Malays are required by law to be Muslim.) While homosexuality, per se, is not illegal, homosexual sex acts are, and those laws are enforced.

Homosexuality was unheard of in the minority Christian church here for many years (Christians are 5-10% of the population). But in 2006, prominent pastor Ouyang Wen Feng came out with his book, Is Now the Future? An Asian Gay Man’s Coming Out Journey. That book, and Ouyang’s outspokenness, caused a huge stir in the Christian church here, but Ouyang moved to New York City, where he  got married and still lives.

Meanwhile, Joe Pang was a seminary graduate and a youth pastor at a Baptist church. When his senior pastor asked if he was gay, he said yes. He was fired on the spot.

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More Evangelical Islamophobia

I asked Bishop Solomon (Lutheran) about the threatened Bible burning. He wasn’t concerned.

Last September, Brian McLaren called on evangelicals to choose whether or not they would continue with their Islamophobia. In a post that garnered nearly 9,000 comments, he cited emails and articles meant to gin up evangelicals in their fear of Muslims.

So it was interesting to me, as I round out my week in a majority Muslim country, to read this headline, screaming out from the front page of the American evangelical rag, The Christian Post:

Malaysia ‘Bible-Burning Festival’ Over Use of ‘Allah’ Threatens Country’s Stability

Here’s what’s interesting: unlike the reporter of this article, I’ve spent the last week in Malaysia. Indeed, I’ve spent it with Christian pastors of many stripes, with the Lutheran bishop and the Methodist district superintendent, and at the leading Malaysian seminary.

And no one is the least bit interested in the Bible burning.

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“What Is Brian McLaren’s Position on Homosexuality?”

Brian McLaren in Malaysia in 2007

That was the very first question I was asked at the first coffee break at Thursday’s conference here in Kuala Lumpur. It was a conference of pastors and other church leaders to explore the perspectives of the emerging church movement. The question, asked honestly and not aggressively, brings up all sorts of issues for a Christian leader/speaker/author like myself in a foreign land like this.

Brian was here in 2007, and many people have spoken fondly of his visit. I’ve addressed and met with many of the same people. The pastor who asked the question was one of them.

But, he told me, he’d read lots of things on the Internet about Brian since that visit — about Brian’s universalism and social views and that Brian blessed his gay son’s wedding. He said, “I’d like to ask Brian about sexuality and about John 14, but I figure asking you is the next best thing.”

He said this with a smile. Like I said, he was not being disrespectful or aggressive. He really wanted to know.

There are three issues that this confronted me with:

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The Fuller Seminary of Malaysia

I’ve given three lectures so far in Malaysia. The first was on ministry uses of social media for Alpha Omega College in Kuala Lumpur. It was a great crowd. After my presentation, there was a time for questions. The first question was:

We have been told that Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg work for the CIA. Is this true?

I almost made a “Culinary Institute of America” joke, but figured that would fall flat. I assured the nice woman that, no, I highly doubt that Facebook is a front for the CIA. The questions went on from there. Interesting.

Your Favorite Blogger with Dr. Joseph Komar

Then, yesterday, I gave two lectures at Seminari Theoloji Malaysia – known here at STM — one on the emerging church movement and one on emerging spiritualities. It was great fun and involved some excellent repartee with students and professors. I’m especially grateful to my host, Dr. Joseph Komar. STM started as an Anglican school, but it’s now also populated with students and profs who are Lutheran, Methodist, Pentecostal, and free church. It very much reminded me of my alma mater and part-time employer, Fuller Theological Seminary.

It continues to amaze me as I travel abroad about how much people know about the American church in general and the emerging church specifically. DA Carson, for instance, is a regular visitor here, brought by the small yet fervent group of Reformed pastors. Students at STM were well-versed in the work of Tim Keller and the split between Mark Driscoll and Emergent Village.

One of the first things I’ve done in each of my talks is ask forgiveness for the imperialistic ways that the American church has previously carried out missionary work. I’ve asked them to teach me about how the characteristics of emergence might play out — or not work — in a Malaysian context.

But it remains somewhat awkward. There is a general Asian deference that is cultural — my hosts all insist on calling me “Doctor” or “Dr. Tony,” even when I ask them not to. And I’m more interested in discussing ideas and theological perspectives than I am at parsing the differences in American celebrity Christians.

But these things go as they will. Here there are two major similarities the the American church, albeit modified in the Malaysian context. One is that the mainline churches are on the decline and struggling to retain younger people. Our term for that is the “nones,” and Malaysia is seeing a similar trend. Many young people just aren’t interested in practicing religion of any kind, but neither do they want to declare themselves atheists.

And secondly, the influence of Willow Creek and the seeker sensitive movement was very influential here. Today I’ll be speaking at a conference at Eagle Pointe Church, a seeker named church if ever there was one. (Remember this classic article by Sally Morganthaler: “Soon, sandwich signs littered the newly poured sidewalks with names befitting North American Generic: Mountainview Community Church, SouthHills, Ridgecrest, Deercreek, Frontrange, Stonybrook.”)

When I put the genesis of the emerging church in that context, I can see the connections forming between us. I hope that more of that happens today…


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