A prayer for City Harvest Church

Our Father, 

You are gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in love. You are upright and all Your ways are just. 

With our heads bowed down before You, and our hearts broken over Your church, we admit that we have failed You before the eyes of the watching world. We thank You for Your forgiveness through the mercy of Christ. 

We pray for all churches in Singapore. Purify us with holy discipline; fill us afresh with Your Spirit; and consecrate us to glorify Your name. Grant us the grace to despise fame, embrace simplicity, and renounce the desire to be rich. 

We call on the Spirit of grace to assure, comfort and strengthen the City Harvest Church. May they stand firm, steady, and united during this time of increased pressures. Give the church and its leaders great peace.

We remember those in prison and pray that You will visit them with Your love, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. May the enforced times of confinement and quiet be transformed into moments when You draw near to them and whisper Your faith, love and hope. Watch over their families at home and keep everyone in the love of God. 

Lord, let what has happened make the church in Singapore more dependent on You, more in communion with You, and more like You in Your lowliness, poverty and obscurity. 

In Jesus’ Name we give thanks. Amen. 

 

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.

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.

City Harvest Church: spider with $310 million web?

The personal provision shop

provision shopMy generation grew up with the provision shop- that disorganized and overpacked grocery that sells the common things a family needed but with less choices. Service was personalized and there’s even first name familiarity. You can even get credit and items purchased delivered to your home. But there are limitations: it does not sell everything a family member may need. You can’t get a haircut, or buy fresh food, or a pair of shoes or clothing. They don’t do banking and you can’t get a meal or be entertained with a movie. Sometimes what you want is there but you can’t find it in the mess. However, this is what we grew up with and are comfortable with, even tolerant of.

Shopping mall generation

There is however another generation, now in their thirties and below, who have grown up in a different world. It is the world of the shopping mall. And in this world, in this one place they can obtain nearly everything they needed. The mall is stocked with all kinds of products from all over the world, whether fresh or packaged. It offers services of all shopping mallkinds for all the needs and desires of all age groups. Air-conditioned and alluring, it is the consumer’s paradise. It offers choices. It offers lifestyle. It even confers identity. If I regularly go to a particular shopping mall, I am young and trendy; if another, I am an aunty; if still another, I am a sophisticate’ or yuppie or sporty person or bargain-hunter. This particular generation is comfortable in a shopping mall; but it feels disoriented, disjointed, and lost in the good old small provision shop and find it a hassle, so what if the manager calls them by name and knows their parents!

Megachurch growth is sociological and psychological too

That’s why I believe the megachurch is here to stay and is likely to grow stronger. It’s more than just a spiritual thing; it is also sociological and psychological. The younger generation has been culturally conditioned to feel welcome and comfortable in a megachurch structure because it is so much like the shopping mall they have pleasant experiences of. There they get all their needs met under one roof. More resources means more choices, “products”, even branded ones from USA or Australia; and it means varied and better servicing of the attendees’ needs.

Giants in the land

webThis is one reason for the rise of the contemporary megachurch in our city. Churches like City Harvest Church and New Creation Church are the two notable examples of giants in the land. Are they like spiders organizationally? Without the spider the web will become cobwebs.  I say this with deep respect for the pastors of both churches. This is just an organizational metaphor I recently learned. I use them without any sense of contempt or put down so do not inundate this comment box with “Sour grapes” etc etc.

From spider to starfish

starfishThere used to be a megachurch that dominated the scene: Calvary Charismatic Center. It used to be a spider. It became a starfish a decade or more ago. A wise move. A starfish when cut up regenerates itself and multiplies. That’s what happened to that megachurch now with a new name, Victory Family Church. You find them in all the suburbs: Choa Chu Kang, Sembawang, Yishun, Jurong West, Tampines and where else? Wonderful. The spider can go away for a year and spin another web in East Timor and things are still well with their churches’ souls.

Happy for City Harvest Church and New Creation Church

Having said that I am glad that City Harvest managed to cut a deal and avail itself to a place huge enough for its growing congregation in the suntec Sporecity-Suntec Singapore. $310 million is an amount that seems chewable by 30,000 attendees. Its just about $1000 per year per attendee for ten years. The members must be as happy as when New Creation members heard about their coup at One North, though some may be contemplating a quiet exit . I used to be provocative to stir other Christians to think about issues like stewardship, laws, the lease, alternatives, etc etc. Now I only think up provocative titles, and have come to the view that each church decides what they regard as best in the Lord, and for the church, from the leadership’s discernment. The rest we just leave to posterity to assess. The members who do not like it can zip up their wallet or vote with their feet to the megachurch next door. Or why not walk to the small church next door.

Small church challenges

The small church: well, to be candid, young people are there not always by deliberate choice but because their parents are there; or close friends are there, or they find meaning and purpose in some role or responsibility. But they do feel the pull when their friends talk excitedly about their “shopping mall experiences”. Anyway when was the last time you stepped into a small provision shop? Is this a death knell for small churches of under a hundred? No not really. Haven’t you heard of 7 Eleven? But that is another story: the story of the small church.

Does size matter?

Does size matter in the light of this? Can a megachurch more effectively reach unchurched people who are more used to and comfortable with the shopping mall than with the HDB mom’s and pop’s store? Probably so. However, megachurches do have their weaknesses too. Consumerism, the cultural trait of generation next is one of several things that the megachurch appeals to, and this is the very Achillees’ heel that gives rise to megachurch weaknesses. More on that another time, God willing.

(I am getting lazy. Picked up an old post -28 dec 2007- from my files and just revised it to make it current.)

Richest Singapore churches

The following data of churches with annual income of over $10 million comes from the internet but was first communicated by the Commissioner of Charities (Sep 2008). I have always wondered which were the richest churches in Singapore. Now we can all have a peek and know, in order of funds collected, who they are:

NUMBER 1: NEW CREATION CHURCH

one northLocation: Worships at the Rock Auditorium in Suntec City Mall.

History: Founded in 1984 by a small group of young believers who wanted an independent, non-denominational church. From 25 members, the congregation has grown to 16,000 now.

Led by: Senior Pastor Joseph Prince, a Singaporean in his 40s.

Income: $42.8 million for its financial year ended this March.

Income source: Tithes and offerings, sales of goods, income from interest

Business arm: Rock Productions has invested about $280 million in a tie-up with property giant CapitaLand to develop a $660 million lifestyle hub in Buona Vista. In 2001, Rock Productions bought Marine Cove, a cluster of food and beverage outlets in East Coast Park, for about $10 million.

NUMBER 2: CITY HARVEST CHURCH

chcLocation: Holds worship services at S’pore Expo and Jurong West Street 91.

History: Founded in 1989 by Reverend Kong Hee.

Led by: Reverend Kong, 43, is married to pop singer Ho Yeow Sun.

Congregation size: About 23,000

Income: $30.9 million last year.

Income source: Tithes and offerings from church members.

NUMBER 3: FAITH COMMUNITY BAPTIST CHURCH

fcbcLocation: Holds its services at the Singapore Expo and Marine Parade Central.

History: Founded in 1986 by Pastor Lawrence Khong.

Led by: Senior Pastor Khong, who was awarded the Public Service medal at the National Day Awards in 1998.

Member strength: Close to 10,000.

Income: $27 million last year.

Income source: Tithes and offerings.

NUMBER 4: TRINITY CHRISTIAN CENTER

trinityLocation: Adam Road and Paya Lebar Road.

History: Founded by American missionaries Reverend Glen Stafford and his wife in 1969 with 10 people.

The church now has a congregation of about 5,500.

Led by: Reverend Dominic Yeo, 46, who chairs the centre’s eight-member board.

Income: $14.2 million last year.

Income source: Tithes and offerings by congregation.

Some observations

As I look in a cursory manner at these figures all kinds of observations and questions come to mind. Firstly, where are the Roman Catholic churches? Which is the richest church in Singapore? It has to be the Roman Catholics when it comes to assets. The properties, especially the land they own is estimated to be worth S$18 billion. Just think of the churches you know, and the location of the property and you will believe they are together worth billions.

Secondly, New Creation Church raised more funds than City Harvest Church even though the latter is bigger by 7,000 in attendance. My surmise is that this is probably due to the fact that NCC is now in the midst of a mega building project, and God’s people are willing to give to a specific desirable purpose. They have many businessmen and I think they are tired of queueing up! However, news of an impending fund-raising for a new church facility in the central south of Singapore will mean CHC will be raising the hundfreds of millions, in the next quarter.

Thirdly, what happened to the Methodist Churches -also reputed to be rich? The Wesley Methodist is much vaunted to be the dwelling place of the rich and famous. Their giving should pass the $10 million annual income category but it was not so. Some say Barker Road Methodist Church has overtaken Wesley in this respect, but I think they have more luminaries than treasury.

Fourthly, the image of the “working class” Pentecostal has been broken, by the inclusion into this category, of the highly organized Trinity Christian Centre, an Assemblies of God church, an attractive magnet for the Pentecostal who has surpassed his parent’s roots in the working class. One other reason is also they are still rasing funds for the new church campus in Paya Lebar.

Its been a year and a half since the report was published and I do not think things have changed much.