Form and function in education and worship

NTU new buildingWhen form fits function

Last week Channel News Asia reported a bold architectural design for its new Learning Hub. It made me think about form and function in education and worship. The design had tutorial rooms that looked circular and were stacked up into towers. The design was stunning and eye-catching. More importantly it’s form was aligned to its function beautifully. “The seven-storey learning hub will house 55 new-generation classrooms of the future, designed to support new pedagogies by promoting more interactive small group teaching and active learning,” is how Professor Kam explained the design. The building suited the pedagogies that maximized learning. I liked it immediately. It was Winston Churchill who said, ‘We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.” These NTU buildings will create a sense of community, like a family or clan gathered around a fire or a meal inside a circular shaped African hut or Mongolian yurt. The context of informality, collaboration and interaction will create a productive learning HDB church buildingenvironment.

When form and function diverge

The church building too should be an apt expression of its theology, worship, community and context. We have all kinds of church buildings in Singapore. The early church buildings in Singapore were forms imported from the west that gave token consideration to the Singaporean context, mainly its weather. Case in point is the oldest church building in Singapore: the Armenian Church consecrated in 1836. Most of the buildings in the 70s onward were pragmatic, space-maximizing utilitarian buildings built in the suburbs or in the HDB sites in the new housing estates. As land is scarce and expensive, maximizing usable space for various activities took priority over aesthetics. However I must say that the Catholics have done more justice in terms of constructing church buildings that aptly express their ideas of theology, worship, community and context much more than the Protestant churches. An example of this is St Mary of the Angels at Bukit Batok East, so beautiful it even won an architectural award.

starvista1The mega-churches impact form and function

The church scene today resembles the income gap we see in most developing countries. With the rise of the mega-churches like City Harvest Church and New Creation Church we are seeing astronomical amounts being spent on facilities of spectacular scale and impact and mixed usage. This is partly due to the limits placed on the size of buildings that can be constructed on the HDB sites made available for bidding. They would be grossly inadequate for their regular meeting attendances of over 20,000.
When God’s people realize they are God’s real building

On the other, hand there are hundreds of churches, gatherings of God’s faithful in sizes of 50 to 300 members who meet in purchased or rented premises in unglamorous industrial buildings, commercial buildings, private schools, houses, cinemas, hotels and other such buildings. These are churches who have a sharper realization that the church is not a beautiful or spacious or practical building that houses God’s people, but a gathered people and community that houses God. They know they themselves are the dwelling place of God. It is in living out this revelation that we see form and function finally in embrace in the living entity called church.

Zion Full Gospel Church: convenient city church with unusual origin and congregational mix

ZFGC: like a ship for rescue of the lost in the city

Unusual mix and origin

wooden crossThe building looked like a ship that is cruising on calm waters at Hoot Kiam Road. In the worship hall there were Africans, Australians, and Americans peppered among the locals in the 100 or so people who attended the 11am Sunday service. This mix is not unusual as surrounding the church’s location were scores of condominiums, private apartments and shop houses. Even expatriates need a church, and it must be the Lord that drew them. Zion Full Gospel Church is about 300 strong and they have an unusual Finnish origin. Sisters Nilja Nikkanen and Aira Kolkka were missionaries who left China after the communist takeover in the 1950’s and were led to preach the gospel in Singapore, playing the guitar and singing Mandarin songs in the Street. Out of this grew the first among several churches started by the Finnish mission.

cosy, warm and welcoming

praising the Lord

Alfred Yeo and Assemblies of God

Rev Alfred Yeo had invited me to preach in the service and I was happy to accept as I had often noticed the church as I drove past the main road and wondered about it.  Confident and friendly, Alfred is one of the more forward thinking AssembliesKenny and Rev Alfred Yeo of God pastors who moved early into ministry to social needs , something generally put on the backburner in most AG churches. He was an executive director in the AG when this church asked for the fellowship’s assistance and he was released to be their interim pastor. This later developed into a permanent appointment.

A few firsts

ZFGC was the first church to house its worship in a shopping center. Way before it became popular with the megachurches in Suntec City, Zion held its worship services in Queensway Shopping Center, and later made it the base for their coffeehouse ministry, another first.

praise and worship band

Silence and prayer please

The worship leader chose songs that were in line with the message even though he did not know what I was speaking on. That encouraged me in my preaching and I believe my prayer for the service that the Lord be revealed clearly, and loved more dearly was answered. The altar call I gave was a call for them to spend five minutes in prayer and silence where they were seated. Many services need more time of prayer and quiet. We tend to fill every minute, ever second, with sound and voice and noise. We do not make space for stillness and prayer and listening to the Lord. We squirm or look around listlessly after 2 minutes of silence. Thankfully the congregation was able to pray and experience His presence in the stillness and quiet as from the pulpit I could see people deep in prayer or visibly and emotionally touched by the Lord.

Tennis friends and lunch

Later I had a nice chat with Ruth and Ron, friends I used to play tennis with, but unfortunately we could not lunch together, so my wife and I went to Great World City’s food court, a five minutes stroll away. Convenient.

Woodlands Evangelical Free Church: shining light in the north

Much has changed

The last time I visited this church they were still called Bukit Timah Evangelical Free Church and they were located at King Albert Park. The pastor then was Rev Lee Twee Kim and his wife, Poh Choo, who was for a while my Sunday School teacher. When I was in Primary school, my parents sent me to the Sunday School there, to learn good morals, I suppose. A van would faithfully pick me up from Woodlands EFC near the Woodlands MRTthe Princess Elizabeth Estate bus terminus, and send me to church where I would listen to Bible stories with flannel board illustrations, and weekly we would receive pretty cross-shaped bookmarks. The church was at Yarwood Park, and then it moved to the Singapore Bible School premises at Adam Road. They were quite serious about their work for I remembered how the teachers came to visit my home when my brothers and I were absent for a long stretch. I doubt Poh Choo, would ever have imagined that the boy who occasionally attended her Sunday School class, would one day be a pastor.

New modern facilities for expanded ministry

This Sunday morning, I visited the church of my childhood again. Woodlands Evangelical Free Church is its new name, as it has moved to the heart of the Woodlands HDB housing estate , a 20 minutes car drive away from where it once was in a wealthy suburban area. They have been in Woodlands since the middle of 1990’s but have just moved in July 2011 to a spanking new building. They have outgrown the first building so they tore it down and erected a completely new one for 8.5 million. Compared to the former building, this new facility is superior in design and finishing. The place of worship gave me a feeling of being in a modern worship space, with a beautiful ceiling that reminded me of a rippling effect of God’s grace on the surrounding community. The fan-shaped configuration and generous seat space maximized warmth and eye contact with the ministers on stage. The fellowship hall at the ground floor has tripled in size and the ceilings were padded with material that absorbed sound so that Kenny and I could chat without shouting to be heard.

500 in attendance at 11.15 service

Pastor Edward presiding over communion

Strong in exposition, active in ministry

It was meant to be a surprise visit and I was looking forward to hearing an expository message on a new series Rev Kenny Fam had started on the book of Ecclesiastes called “Purposeful Living in A Secular World”. This church has a tradition of expository preaching of the books of the Bible, even from the days of his predecessor. However, most surprises get unsprung, and it was so in this instance: it happened to be the Yellow Ribbon Sunday and they had invited a guest speaker, Rev Chiu Ming Li, a prison chaplain, to share God’s Word and something about the Yellow Ribbon project – which ministers to prisoners and help them re-integrate back into life after they have served their prison term.

The service started at 11.15am and I was glad there was a car park lot available at the open air car park next to the church. The songs were familiar worship choruses of the decade ago, sedate songs people aged 35-55  would be happy to sing. It was communion Sunday and I liked it that they took their time to celebrate it. They had two videotaped testimonies of ex-prisoners whose lives Rev Chiu Ming Li preachingwere transformed by Christ while in prison and  have settled well into the church and life. That was encouraging. What I drew from the message was a glimpse of what it meant to have rivers of living water in your life. He was painting a portrait of a person who can feel as God would feel, a human alive to feeling the pain of others, who would make life’s decisions from that posture, and who would live courageously, nobly and with hope. His avoidance of cliches about the abundant life, and his use of fresher words like “courage”, “noble”, “admirable” to describe a person overflowing with rivers of life, concretized for me what such a person would look like.

fellowship deck

Shining light in the north

There were about 500 in attendance in this main service in an auditorium that seated 900 and I thought it was wise of them to cordon off with red plastic tape the two wings of about 200 seats each. The church has a total of about 1,200 in attendance. Besides their expository preaching, the church is also very strong in community work, prison ministries and missions. They are a shining light in the north, a witness to that needy and neglected part of Singapore.

After the service, Kenny Fam showed Kenny Chee around the building. The church office smelt of brand new carpets and furniture, with Kenny with Kennyglass-walled offices for all the pastors and open space for the administrative and support staff.  We went downstairs and he bought me lunch, Malay nasi goreng in a packet, and we chatted briefly while talking. This was no time to catch up as he had a speaking engagement in the prison and had to rush off. It did not matter as I have known Kenny for some time. We meet with Rev Vincent Hoon of the Anglican church about 4 to 6 times a year. He is a person of integrity, full of faith, and with the courage to speak and stand on his convictions which were formed out of his study of Scripture, years of reflection, and life shaping experiences. Anyway I’ll meet him with Vincent another day. We will have more time then. Sundays are usually not good days for lim kopi with pastors. They are usually busy; their minds can be occupied with many matters; or they may be tired from the day’s output.

Centre of New Life: insightful Pentecostal pulpit

Two churches in one building

It was an interesting concept. Two churches sharing one building is not new. It had been tried in the Clementi Bible Center, shared by the Bible Church and the Mt Carmel Bible Presbyterian Church; and in Yishun Christian Church, shared between an Anglican and a Lutheran church. This was of a different model: like a semi-detached house where each church had their own separate living space. No bargaining nor quibbling over prime time or space. The Center of New Life, and Victory Family Center shares a building on a HDB church site in Jurong West opposite the National Technological University, across the highway. It made sense to share, what with exhorbitant bids for church sites despite their limited 30 years lease. More churches should find a partner to do something similar.

praise and worship by Pastor Navin

This visit to Center of New Life was prompted by wanting to visit the church some of my trekking friends attend. Linda Teo, Eric and Christine Ng, Jeffrey, and quite a few others are members there. They used to worship at Orchard Hotel but two years ago they jointly developed this present site with Victory Family Center. While retaining the city centre’s Sunday worship services, now in River View Hotel, the bulk of the church moved west to its present site.

Pastor Terence Ong

Insightful preacher

The unique feature of the worship service was the preaching. This is an Assemblies of God church. Pastor Terence Ong, a good looking tall young man in his 30’s, preached from the book of Acts. It was the commencement of a series and in conjunction with the preaching on Sundays, the church was urged to read and reflect on the book of Acts during the week. What was interesting was that the sermon I heard was an intelligent man’s message. This was not the typical Pentecostal message with the emphasis on inspiration, loud passion, moving people to action, and probing the conscience.  This was a message that gave insights and perspectives that were creative and progressive. It enlightened and gave you food for serious thought. This was a message for the educated, the professional, the thinking Christian.

The pastor began connecting with the crowd by making some humorous remarks about the elections. Smart move as  everyone was thinking of that anyway. Then he went into the text  to explain the  concept of the kingdom of God, and how it related to politics and power. This was not the traditional Pentecostal interpretive framework: he moved beyond that. Was I seeing one of a new generation of Pentecostal young preachers who were widely read, and have ventured beyond the traditional and hackneyed? (I did wish he mentioned something about mothers though – after all one of those who waited with the 120 was the mother of Jesus – and it was ‘traditionally’ Mother’s Day!).

With friends

The service started at 11am and ended at 12.45pm. Mingling among the members, I chatted with Jason Jin and Sam, both of whom were from World Revival Prayer Fellowship a long time ago. Went for lunch with the trekking group at Lam’s Noodles at TradeHub 21 in supremely humid and hot conditions. It was nice to just attend church: carefree, relaxed, and be open to receive.

Singapore Christian Canaan Church: a happy servant church

New media connected

“I have read his blog. Then we became friends on Facebook.” That was how Pastor Richard Wong introduced me as the guest speaker in his church. New media is changing the way the world and the church works. More often than not people may meet online before they meet physically. This has been very much my experience in the last two years. We knew each other from afar and off-line, but recently we had lunch and we hit it off and shared our lives easily.

Jenny, Kenny and pastor Richard

Servant leader

Richard is hungry for the spirituals and yet is down to earth and a good administrator. He has been pastoring the church for close to two decades and still remains hopeful and enthusiastic. He sees himself above all as a servant. This serving heart has been his hallmark since the days of his youth, and it has been imparted to the church too.

The church building near St George'sMoving along

The Singapore Christian Canaan Church had come a long way from conservatism to Third Wave openness. This year they were moving into healing. This is a church of about 200 over and they have a building and worship team I envied. The worship team comprised half Filippinos and half locals. The elder Steven attributed their improvement to the training implemented by the youth and worship pastor.

A happy churchpreaching to produce a grace encounter

About 30 of the integrated congregation are Filippinos, mostly from the professional and service industry. The rest were mainly locals from youths to adults in their 50’s. The church was a family church: warm, welcoming, hospitable and all-embracing. This is their great strength: the love, unity and happy family feel was palpable. The congregation responded easily and positively to the message I preached, “The Church of the Prodigal Son.” This is a word I have been bringing everywhere I can as I feel it is a word in season for the church.

worship band leads congregation in song

engaged in praise

art renditionArt in the church

At the entrance to the worship hall, I caught sight of a large painting the size of a large notice board. This was evidence of how adventurous this church is. The pastor told me the  painting was done by a Japanese couple, during an art rendition at the Good Friday service, as the congregation sang two songs in worship of Jesus the Lamb of God.

Josephine and Richard Wong

Missions impact

Later Richard and his wife Josephine brought us out for lunch at Sushi Teh in the City Mall. Never did I know a relatively new mall existed in Little India, other than Mustapha’s. We talked about the missions work of the church in Bangladesh, Chiangmai and Sulawesi. We talked shop and about our families. It was wonderful to know how God worked in the world. Many are the risks taken but the Lord watches over His people.

We reached home after 3pm, satisfied and glad to have the privilege of serving the Lord and this happy church.

Bukit Batok Presbyterian Church: traditional church in the heartlands

BBPCTucked along Bukit Batok Street 11 and opposite St Luke’s hospital is the one and only Presbyterian church on a HDB site won by open tender. The Presbyterians have a few churches with HDB catchment areas but these are either in schools like Presbyterian High or were built long ago, like Glory Presbyterian Church. This church, Bukit Batok Presbyterian Church, was opened in 1995. It is one of two visible churches in Bukit Batok, the other being the Roman Catholic St Mary of the Angels. It was a branch church started by Orchard Road Presbyterian Church.

Bible Study Fellowship of the west

My wife attended this church on Tuesday mornings for seven years for Bible study organized under the international BSF. Many ladies from different denominations would attend this popular BSF site and it was very generous on the part of BBPC to host them.

Two English services

The church was a 10 minutes drive from home, so we left home at 8am.  The overall attendance of the English services were a combined 250-300. The early morning service targeted the young people and those who wanted a less traditional service- praise songs and a band. On the stage was what I thought was some sacred furniture covered with heavy blue material. As the service progressed, I laughed at my ignorance, when the puppet team performed a skit aimed at children from behind the blue-dressed puppet stage. the English service

praise band

puppet skit

traditional choir

The traditional service

preaching about "Work"The 10.30am service was more formal and traditional. The uniformed choir sang an anthem and every song was interspersed with other elements like prayer, offering and scripture reading. The worshippers were mainly adults in their 40s and 50s. The text they gave me was Ephesians 6:5-9  where Paul wrote to Christian slaves about finding inner freedom in constrained circumstances. The title of my sermon was, “From Unfreedom to Freedom” and demonstrated how God wants to redeem the thorn and thistle of toil and transform it into the gift of work. Preaching two services gave the opportunity to fine-tune the sermon for the second service, and that’s why it turned out better.

Surprise, surprise

Pleasant surprises awaited us after the service. Neighbours from our apartment block greeted us with loud hellos when we stood at the door to shake hands with the members streaming out of the auditorium. In addition, two of my Swiss Cottage Secondary School classmates, Soy Tee and Sze Chuan, greeted me with warm smiles, and I was briefly introduced to their families.

Ministry to different nationalities

One of the strengths of BBPC was its offering of services in the following languages: English, Mandarin, Indonesian, and Myanmese. They had different services for different folks. They do a particularly good outreach to the Chinese nationals.

Rev James Seah, Kenny Chee, Eric Chua (ps-in-charge)

Perceptive and sharp

However, their greatest strengths probably lie with the quality of their pastors. The English service pastor, Rev Eric Chua, was trained in architecture, and then in theology. A sharp thinker and spiritually perceptive, he gives good advice, and makes insightful observations about the church at large. We served together in the exco of the Church Resource Ministry Singapore, which focuses on mentoring marketplace leaders and pastors. It was a privilege to be invited by him to take the pulpit, and I enjoyed sharing my heart with him along the way. As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.

Humble hospitality

Rev James Seah, the other pastor brought us out for lunch in the nearby food court. We ate fish soup rice from the famous store once recommended by “Yummy King” and to top that we had durian for dessert. Wow…this pastor knows how to select D24 bitter-sweet durians. He said, “I was from Muar where I learned how to pick good durians.” My wife and I were further impressed with his servant attitude. It was the way he served us, and his warmth and friendliness. He even picked up a plastic container to clear our table of durian seeds and husks. Lord, send us more pastors from across the Causeway. Amen.

Megachurches: authorities curbing the giants’ growth?

bed too short for giant

Grey area

Religious usage of facilities approved for commercial use was a grey area. The previous guidelines were not clear. Can a church use a cinema hall? Or a hall in an office complex, hotel, industrial building or conference centre? No one knew. If no one complained, the authorities would let things be. The public concerns over recent megachurch plans have prompted the authorities to set guidelines. They have drawn a line in the sand. On the whole the clarity is to be welcomed, but it may affect the giants of the land: the highly visible megachurches.

New guidelines affect megachurches

One new guideline is: “Each religious organisation is limited to use up to 10,000 sqm in any commercial space at any one time”.  10,000 sqm is huge for a small or midsized church but likely a squeeze for megachurches wanting to expand further without increasing the number of worship services on offer. Doing an amateur calculation, if seating 1 person needs only 1 sqm, at least 10,000 should be able to have seating space. With seating for 5,000, the church will still have space leftover for other things like aisles, the  children’s church, reception area and other things. At least 3 churches will be taking out their calculators and talking with their architects.

Another guideline that puts a lid on growth is that it can only be used twice in the week. Saturday and Sunday services are what most megachurches in commercial facilities have presently. In other countries, some churches hold services almost every night because the weekend services have been already been maximized to meet the burgeoning congregation. This won’t be possible for the megachurches using commercial space.

Questionable motives?

It is doubtful that the authorities are trying to curb the growth of megachurches since the guidelines are quite generous. They say no religious group is being targetted but it was likely that the rise of the megachurches and their recent publicity raised issues that just demanded clarification. Whatever the case may be, churches are too resilient to be limited by physical space or guidelines. Especially with today’s technological advances.

Here is part of the guidelines but read the full online article in the straitstimes.com:

The guidelines, set by the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports and Urban Redevelopment Authority, allow some flexibility for the limited use of commercial premises for religious purposes, while ensuring that the main use of the building is not compromised.

‘Though religious activities are generally not allowed in commercial buildings, URA is prepared to exercise some flexibility and allow commercial premises to be used in a limited, non-exclusive way by religious groups,’ said joint news statement on Tuesday.

Some of the new rules set limits on how often regilious groups can use commercial spaces for their activities, and a cap for the space they can take up for religious activities in any commercial building at any one time.

For example, the maximum space within a commercial development that can be considered for religious use cannot exceed a total gross floor area of 20,000 sqm or 20 per cent of the total area of the development, which is lower.

Each religious organisation is limited to use up to 10,000 sqm in any commercial space at any one time.

The premises also cannot be owned by or exclusively leased to religious organisations.

Owners of convention centres must ensure that the reglious use does not compromise the staging for events during weekend, added the statement.