Young adults at Bukit Batok Presbyterian Church

Trends in the Singapore church

The senior pastor Eric Chua invited me to speak with his young adults at Bukit Batok Presbyterian Church, on the topic, Trends in the Singapore Church, and I politely refused as I had no hard data on the subject.”All I have are years of observing the church, collecting anecdotes among pastors, reading articles about the church online, and some study on the church. No conclusive, hard facts based on sociological studies or any such thing, is that okay?”  So that was how I gave this talk of 30 minutes, with 20 minutes for questions and answers. The recent articles on the Glitz and the Gospel in the Straits Times and my background work formed the backbone of what I shared with them.

1. Megachurches are growing bigger and small churches are growing more numerous.

2. Megachurches owe their growth mostly through members of other churches switching over.

3. Consumerism is a pervasive influence on the Church’s culture.

4. There is an increasing corporatisation of the church.

Negative about the megachurches

There may not be any questions, I was told. But as it turned out the topic about 4 trends I have observed in the Church seemed interesting enough for intelligent, interesting questions to be asked. “You seem to have painted a negative picture of the megachurch?” , someone asked. Never was it my intention in my preparation to do so, but it came out that way. My reply was, “The megachurches do have a role to play in the overall scheme and they are reaching people the small church cannot reach as effectively.” And I continued, “Of course, losing 5 families to megachurches in the last few years, may have colored what I think and feel about megachurches.”

talking to the leaders

Four trends of Singapore church

they discussed before asking questions

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.

Small and mega churches: living in a land with giants

Gritty days ahead

in the land of giantsThe  Saturday’s Straits Times special report by Lee Siew Hua and Susan Long was an excellent analysis of the church scene in Singapore, albeit with a slant towards the currently newsworthy megachurches. Reading the well researched and eye-opening articles can give the majority of small churches a feeling of creeping muscular dystrophy. There are giants in the land and they have no time for the small. The mega churches in cavernous expo halls or high up in the city centre, cast vast shadows over the middle earth of small and micro churches. It generates an apprehension of imminent dark creatures and clouds about to devour all things small and micro. It will take hobbit-like qualities, a strong fellowship of the small, to survive, indeed to triumph, in such gritty days.

God’s kingdom

We need to start off with a biblical perspective. In God’s kingdom all kinds and all sizes have a place. The Creator God who factored variety and beauty into the universe he made knows this better than us. To reach people of different cultures and personalities, the world needs to have churches of all kinds and sizes. So God said, Let there be all kinds and all sizes for we need them all. As small and micro churches we must walk upright with the assurance that the Father wants to give the kingdom to the little flock as well. The small and micro churches, outwardly as short and whiny as hobbits, has a significant role to play: they can reach and disciple people the megachurch cannot reach.

Close the manhole

As we read the articles, we can easily trip into the open manhole of comparison. The reader who attends the megachurch feels superior. They have the better everything: bigger crowds, building, budget. Theirs the inspiring vision, the charismatic leader, the touching worship, the professional operations, the longer queues. The 90% who worship in smaller churches can feel discouraged, inferior, and critical. Some leaders of small churches will stupidly think, “If they can do it, we can do it too!” They are like parents who think every child can be a President’s Scholar: just have the right vision, strategy, motivation and implementation and ….boomz!

The Straits Times articles stated that the megachurches hire full-time professionals to be their musicians. That’s why they have such technically excellent music. Can the small church compare with that musical standard and ever hope to get there. More likely she would be discouraged and self-condemned before she even starts.  And this is just the music. What about the administration, the aesthetics, the multiple ministries, the charisma, the critical mass of young people, and all the bangs and whistles. Comparison in whatever form is a fall into a deep, dark stinking hole.

Leverage on the strengths

Small churches should remember their strengths and leverage on them. Small churches need to take a page from the epic movie “The Lord of the Rings”. The hobbits were focused on a clear purpose. they were authentic, close-knit, loyal, and incorruptible. The small church needs to focus on making disciples. Preaching  the Gospel to the pre-believers and and teaching the Gospel systematically to the baptized is crucial for the process of disciple-making. Making disciples, not en masse, but one by one, each personally and lovingly handcrafted, like Swiss watches (not like  the mass produced plastic Swatch).  The  disciple will be authentic and believes he can become all that he already is in Christ. The small church should also leverage on its natural strength of being more like a loving family than an unfeeling, bureaucratic corporation. It can major on delivering intimacy and community. Furthermore, very hobbit, I mean every disciple, in the small church can be equipped and deployed to function in his God-given role in the fellowship, unlike in the megachurch, and this is a big advantage the small church has in helping disciples find discover purpose.

Apostolic mentality

Yes, I have intriguingly cast the mega churches as Lord Sauron and all his army of followers as those dug from the gravel, and made alive by magic. There’s a twist in the story. The real truth is that Lord Sauron is Satan and his minions, and the Fellowship of the Ring includes the big guys and the small guys. The big guys are the mega churches, and the hobbits, well, they are the small churches. We are bonded like an imperfect family on this journey to defeat Satan. There will be distrust, fear, greed, misunderstanding, and suspicion as we move along towards our destination. Only together and by His grace will the job get done. We know this will definitely end in a climatic consummation when Jesus comes in glory and final victory is established on this earth. This is apostolic eyes: seeing mega and small and micro as one church of Singapore, the way God sees it. We are not competing; we complete each other.

Century Christian Fellowship: love endures all things

CCF seated in heavenly places

An extension of the Chapel of the Resurrection

This was one of the many extensions started by the Chapel of the Resurrection. It was started in April 1991, with two house groups sent out as the core of a new church. It has been twenty years now and they now have about 60 members. Once they were once the verge of achieving “parish” status (120-150 attendance and 3 consecutive years of financial stability), but some setbacks held them back. This extension church has gone through some challenges including nomadic moving from one location to another. They deserve a reward for their doggedness and perseverance. May the Lord fill them with renewed grace and power.

John and Joyce Seet - CCF die hards

A rare breed: die-hards

They still have members from the original house groups sent to plant the church:  John and Joyce Seet, Christiana Tan, and Susan. These veterans are what we call “pah see buay chow”(die hards). We need such people in every church.  They are a rarity – perhaps an endangered species in these modern days. May their tribe increase!

New pastor : Peter Chang

The current leader is Pastor Peter Chang. Before full-time Christian vocation, he Pastor Peter carrying grandson Darrylwas a sales and marketing manager in the software industry and had worked in  China too. CCF had been without a pastor and had managed with lay leadership for close to a year, but with his appointment, there is a fresh stirring of hope among the people.  Peter and I got to know each other in a CRMS Focusing Leaders Network Retreat. When he invited me to give the talks at the camp I readily accepted and saw it as an open door to ministry to the larger body of Christ.

my favorite piece of claywork

Camp talks and experiences

giving insights into God's heartFifty people were at the church camp held at the Golden View hotel near Batam Center. It was a tight schedule: starting on Vesak Day and ending on Sunday morning. There were 5 teaching sessions and I spoke about how the church was deeply loved and accepted, transformed by grace, made righteous in Him, and called to serve with towel and basin, with God-recycled dreams. The teaching felt like I was downloading some new or updated drivers into their laptop so that itfeet washing can function better. I shared about my home church’s experience of revival. We also had some experiential moments of interaction with God in some creative prayer using clay. And a bonding and healing experience which involved  feet washing. During ministry, the Lord confirmed His word with his presence, power and prophecy. My wife received a word and I gave it to them, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).

In my intoduction talk, I told them my home church prayed for them to experience revival and anointed me to go. My continuous prayer for Century Christian Fellowship is for her to be filled with a surplus of His love, and to experience a revival of living loved, and giving love.

Chapel of the Resurrection: one of the most productive churches in Singapore

COR-pic

Most productive church in Singapore is Anglican

The Chapel of the Resurrection(Anglican), now pastored by Canon Daniel Tong, is definitely the most productive(or “reproductive”), and yet unrecognized, church in Singapore’s church history. It has pioneered a path that few local churches can claim to have neared. Its glory is that it is the mother of many churches, a few of them, much bigger than herself. A few have lost their Anglican roots, two of which have become large, autonomous and independent churches. COR is just short of being a church planting movement, as  the churches that were birthed and matured have not gone on to birth more new churches.

This blog post is based on conversations I had with Christiana Tan(current secretary of retired Canon James Wong) and John Seet from Century Christian Fellowship. They have been with the Chapel of Resurrection when she was under Canon James Wong, when she experienced this remarkable spiritual movement and mobilization of the church members. More facts are needed to give a better picture but what I have is sufficient to give a sketch of the greatness of this Anglican church.

The womb that gave it birth

The fertile womb of this reproductive spurt of several decades was the charismatic revival of the early 1970’s. The then Bishop Chiu Ban It opened the heavy cathedral doors to the Holy Spirit and the fresh wind swept away all the cobwebs hanging from the candlesticks to the altar and the pews.  Wherever the Spirit was welcome, He left behind pulsating Anglican congregations, alive in Christ and hungry to realize their full potential as the animated body of Christ. In fact, the Anglican church, was like “an exceeding great army”. The bones had come together, the flesh had clothed the skeletons, and the breath of God had just filled their lungs. They were eager for battle. For too long they have sung their songs in the prison of dead orthodoxy. The Chapel of Resurrection was birthed as two fired up Anglican house groups from Holland Village and Depot road were welded together to form a formidable weapon.

Rev Canon  James Wong

“There was a man sent by God….”

The impetus for all this came from a robust, daring, visionary priest- a man filled with the new wine of the Spirit in the 1970’s. He was convinced the new Anglican wine, a laity filled with the Spirit, needed new wineskins, so that the newfound bubbling energies and overflowing life, may have new open structures for expression and extension.  For him, the answer was planting new churches. He was going to put his doctoral thesis into practice. The timing was perfect, and for such a time as this, this “sent one” was the inimitable  James Wong. God had a new weapon in His hand, and the weapon of choice was a battering ram!

Mother of many

Here is a list of the Anglican churches and church plants initiated by the Chapel of the Resurrection or in partnership with other Anglican extensions:

  1. The extension in Whampoa became the Chapel of the Holy Spirit.
  2. The extension at Bukit Batok extension married with Jurong Christian Centre extension and became Westside Anglican Church.
  3. Two extensions(Orchard City Church and St Andrews Christian Centre) married and became St Andrew’s  City Church.
  4. An extension comprised of four youth cells from Chapel of Resurrection married an extension of Church of our Savior in Woodlands and became the Light of Christ, Woodlands.
  5. An extension started in 1991,  mainly meeting in Pasir Ris, is the Century Christian Fellowship.
  6. The extension at Bukit Timah became Chapel of Christ the King which meets at St Margaret’s Primary School.

A legacy of manifold benefits

The benefits of the legacy of this productive spurt in the Anglican denomination are many: a “can do” spirit of faith in the Anglican ethos, not existent before then, and now spilled over into missions in the region; depth and maturity of clergy and lay leadership in strong local churches built to last, over against an over-dependency on the rare and “many talents” charismatic leader;  harnessing and releasing thousands of revived laity into ministry and maturity, who otherwise might have left for other more dynamic, open structures at that time, namely the Calvary Charismatic Centre; it cemented the Anglican denomination’s position of being the third largest “church” in Singapore after the Roman Catholics and the Methodists; and without doubt, the Anglicans have long had an “apostle” in its midst, with the credentials, though not the official title.

( This is no research paper, just a blog post. However it is the digital age, so do fill in the comment box with information that will enhance or increase the accuracy of what was written.)

Tabernacle of Holiness: small church with mega impact

Small church with mega impact

I am not going to harm you...Rev Christina Jayarathnam greeted us at the car park of Citiraya Centre. “The service starts at 9.30am not at 9.00. Shall we have coffee?”. Over teh o, Christina shared about her husband’s dream several years ago.  Rev Dr Amos Jayarathnam had dreamt of a tiger on a table which stared at him and said, “I am not going to harm you, why are you afraid of me?” The tiger then became a woman who led him to a bus and bid him to go with her. This dream actually prepared them to go help the tsunammi hit people of Vanni in Sri Lanka under the control of the Tamil Tigers. They later went and brought aid and relief to the people there through the church. Later on Rev Amos, would recognize the woman in the dream as the wife of the pastor they had partnered with in Vanni. Rev Amos, who is well accepted and regarded for his prophecies, later on, was a catalyst for prayer meetings in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka.  The meetings brought churches together to pray for peace in Sri Lanka. In one of the bigger meetings, Rev Amos prophesied, “There would be peace in Sri Lanka within two years!”  A newsman put this on the front page of his newspaper. The thought was ridiculed. God, however, watched over His word, and accomplished it. Today there is peace in Sri Lanka.

Rev Amos Jayarathnam and I went back a long time to the late 1970’s. We were members of World Revival Prayer Fellowship. He played the bongo in the church service and I was a hungry believer. It was revival time and the Holy Spirit was working powerfully in people’s lives. At least 15 whom I know have felt the call of the Lord during that time have gone on to be full time pastors and missionaries and ministers. Amos and myself are just two of these.

vibrant music and singing

Worshiping and preaching at Tabernacle of Holiness

Rev Xavier Dawes, who succeeded Rev Amos as senior pastor of the Tabernacle, had graciously invited me to preach at his church. For many years I had been unwilling to preach in other churches due to commitments at home. Now a seasoned pastor, Rev Chua Seng Lee, has joined the church team, and this has opened the way for me to take more speaking engagements and serve the larger body of Christ.

Joanne Jayarathnam leading worshipThere were about 60 worshippers in the English service that Sunday. Most were Indians of different enthnic groups. There were Sindhis, Malayalees, Tamils and Gujeratis, Indonesians, Filippinos and some Chinese. Multi-ethnicity is one of the marks of the Spirit’s work  and it was a joy to see that racial divides have been torn down in Christ.

The music was vibrant and was led by Joanna Jayarathnam, who spent two years training in Hillsongs, with one year of Bible, and another in music and worship. The influence of Hillsongs was evident and it helped me to pray and be filled with the Spirit. The sermon wpreaching the gospelas based on Romans 1: 16, 17, about the revealed and received righteousness of God. The thoughts and words went forth with ease and I was pleased with the liberty and clarity. I pray they enjoyed the message and were blessed, as much as I was privileged in releasing it.

Punching above their weight

As I walked back to my church 10 minutes from TOH, I thought of Sri Lanka. I thought of TOH, a small church with a mega impact. People should stop looking down on small churches: many are punching above their weight. Its not a crime to be a small church; its a crime for a church to be small minded. Small churches deserve more respect and appreciation.

(Unable to post pics I took of the TOH pastors. The data was lost when I dropped my Nokia.)