New Horizon Church: great hope for small churches

new horizon church

This church is a model of hope for small churches. Two small churches merged into a unified larger body and out of that union, a new fellowship emerged, aptly re-named, the New Horizon Church.

Ministry at New Horizon

I was invited to preach at their facility at Wing Fong Building, Guillemard Road. It was a mere 10 minutes drive from the church where I serve.  Euclid Tan, who spent a year in Bill Johnson’s  School of the Supernatural in Redding, accompanied me. Extra firepower! The worship hall was pleasant, and the congregation looked about 200. The worship leader led with enthusiasm, and the receptiveness of the congregation was gracious, and they warmed up as the message developed. I preached about the characteristics of God’s love. Yes, I added some ingredients to a used message. I micro-waved “God’s Love Tattoo”, and served the Word with a fresh spirit. Then we prayed for the sick and released prophetic words. The Spirit manifested himself and we were all blessed.

How the two churches merged

What happened? How did the two churches get together? I see the finger of God and the wisdom of seasoned ministers at work in the merger. The Herald Assembly of God church pastor was retiring. Out of discussions with Rev Lawrence Koo, then senior pastor of Agape Community Church, emerged the possibility of a church merger.

What followed were many meetings and a master plan that stretched to a year or more. Planned discussions by pastors and key leaders of both groups were held.  They organized a combined church camp, many joint services and church events where they got to know each other, like in dating and courtship.

They allowed a lot of internal discussions and time for each group to process the idea of a merger, to envisage what it would look like, and to imagine and live in the new feelings in the new state. Perhaps it was at the same time a necessary period to surrender preferences,  grieve and say goodbye to their respective former histories and identities. Thankfully, the decision over who would be the senior pastor was a no-brainer. The tough call was probably the name and the place of worship and the new identity and vision of the unified body.

In the end, all ended well, and they got married, and I wish I can say, and they had lots of children and lived happily ever after. I cannot so all readers are urged to lift up a prayer that this new entity will move from strength to strength;  and is able to fulfill its new destiny; and provide a beacon of hope for small churches.

Ps Lawrence Koo with meRev Lawrence Koo

I first heard of this process of merger from Rev Lawrence Koo, a veteran pastor with the Assemblies of God.  Besides being the senior pastor of Agape Community Church, he is a council member, a respected minister in his denomination, and the founding chairman of Global Leadership Summit.  Together with his wife, Nettie, during their Bible college days, they actually planted what is now a dynamic church in Seremban . Lawrence made regular trips to USA, particularly to Willow Creek Community Church. I got to know him when I joined him in one of those trips. During that trip, we also attended the Toronto Airport Church for a conference, and visited Jim Cybala’s Brooklyn Tabernacle Church. Occasionally he took my pulpit.

Tough to be small church

This promising merger will be a great hope for small churches because it’s tough to be small in Singapore. We are a well-connected tiny little red dot of an island. People are educated, exposed, sophisticated and want the best for their families. They are more consumer-oriented in their decisions than they realize. They compare; they shop; they look for what meets their needs best. The small church, like the old provision shop, finds itself marginalized by the large church “shopping mall experience”. A small church of below 30-60 finds it tough going. But if they go over 100, they struggle less financially and are more stable. Closer to 200, there is even better synergy and resources. Anything above that is a good size to be in: good for disciple making, strong community, and having sufficient resources for resilience and advancement. It’s tough to be small in Singapore but if small churches can merge like what New Horizon Church has done, there is great hope for helping small churches to move ahead in the Lord.

Help!

Perhaps larger fellowships (denominations) like the Assemblies of God have the resources and experience to make available and encourage and facilitate the merger of small churches. There are wise spiritual fathers and mothers respected by younger pastors and the many small churches. These veterans can help prod, probe, explore such mergers without trampling on the dignity or passion of small church pastors and their dedicated, battle-hardened troopers. Maybe this is apostolic work too.

There is always a new horizon when small churches dare to risk an intentional merger.

 

 

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.

Alternatives for churches in industrial space(CIS)

Stay calm and rest in Him

The sensible thing to do is to stay calm and take stock, and gather the faith community for  prayer, discussions and discernment. It seems like the government is hoping to address this issue by putting the onus on the landlords and developers so far. It isn’t expecting overnight changes. Churches need time to move and tenancy agreements require sensitive re-negotiations. The government is aware of this. Churches in industrial space (CIS), especially if they have not been reported in the newspapers need to stand still and look at the ramifications and discuss the possible scenarios and alternatives they have. There are legalities and ethical factors not just geographical factors to weigh.

Shelter in churches already with buildings

One of the alternatives to consider is the use of other churches in proper buildings and request to use those places temporarily or church buildingspermanently during a Sunday afternoon, evening or a Saturday evening slot, where it may be available for rent. During crisis like this, churches need to open their doors in the love of Christ for the brethren. A shelter, even for a period of time, until a firmer direction can be set by the affected church, is an act of mercy and charity. It is what being church is all about.

Organic church and in the house

Another consideration which may seem radical is to take a page from the book of Acts and be church in the household (oikos). For the first three centuries of the early church, the believers deliberately refused to model themselves after the synagogue or the pagan temples, the main religious buildings they have experience of.  There is something about the household that makes it an ideal environment for making disciples and growing the faith community (incidentally, when news broke, I was attending a master’s program that dealt partly with this, and I hope to share it in later posts). A small church of 70 would have seven homes where they could meet on Sundays and end with a potluck lunch. Of course the music will have to be Quaker style or catacombs style not house church in Chinacontemporary style. On lazy mornings neighbours can be sensitive to “noise”, even a “joyful noise”. Alternatively, for the more radical, why not Saturday afternoon or evening, or even Friday evening for “church”. This could include a once a month, or bi-monthly or quarterly combined celebration in a rented hall. You could call this the organic alternative – no pesticides, no preservatives, no artificial colouring, no trans fats or cholesterol.

Well trodden route

Of course the well trodden route is to rent the space in hotels, private schools, cinemas, association halls, and other commercial space available. These were the main places of churches before they became too expensive and drove churches to consider industrial space. This does not need much elaboration, but it is a temporary alternative until a firmer direction can be set.

Commercial space

Going for commercial space or ventures is a fifth consideration. CIS are usually small churches and are not in the financial position to cafe churchtake the route of City Harvest Church and New Creation Church with their 8-9 figure budgets. There are however smaller business enterprises that could be used on Sundays for a church gathering. This way the property is used all week, unlike most churches which lie idle most of the weekdays. At the same time, a church that starts a business enterprise for use as worship place on Sundays also provides jobs for others and contributes to the economy or help society. Limitations include a space limit, a small percentage of total development, and usage for only two of seven days a week.

Community service arm

A more sacrificial path, and similar to the commercial path in that the building is used all week, is to do community service and start a centre that ministers to society’s pain and cries. Whether it is for the elderly or the very young, the addicted or the afflicted, there are many needs that the government would be happy for the church to lend a voluntary hand and a good inflow of finances.

Partners in development

Yishun christian churchTwo other alternatives remain. One is to find several churches to partner and get all the cash and minds ready to go into a joint development of a private religious or HDB site into a multi-storey building that would cost close to 30 million dollars. This has been done before: twice  in Yishun, in Clementi, in Jurong West. Perhaps the government could have a hand in this and release HDB sites specifically for several small and medium sized churches to share a building.

Mergers

The last alternative is often last of alternatives for CIS to consider but the Lord may lead them to do so. The alternative here is to merge with another church of similar or smaller or bigger membership. This of course has to be done gingerly and with much wisdom and prayer, and with a match maker too, maybe a “social development unit” can be set up by Love Singapore, or EFOS or some other body, to professionally help such mergers or even acquisitions happen. Or the small churches should form a network, association, or co-operative to help each other. Such are the times where we will get to see the gift of apostleship manifest. Organizers and mobilizers we have many, but when the crunch comes, the spiritual fathers of the church will surface.

Pilgrims on a journey

The bottom line is that all faith communities pilgrims on a journey like our forefather Abraham. Steps have to be taken by faith with uncertainty as our shadow and Jesus as our constant companion. We face trials and difficulties but we are resilient and hopeful because our destination is sure, though not our route. The Lord God goes before us and causes all things to work for the greater glory of God. All that is temporal will in the end be shaken, but what is eternal and will be left standing is the unshakeable kingdom of God.

Churches in industrial space

Line drawn with a click

Last week, Mr Khaw Boon Wan, the minister of national development made some comments that would throw many churches off balance. He Khaw Boon Wanblogged about wanting to help small and medium enterprises cope with rising industrial rent. One of the causes of the increase in rents, according to the minister, is the improper usage of industrial space by shops, tuition centres, furniture showrooms,  offices and churches. This demand had pushed the rents up. Industrial space is meant only for warehousing, manufacturing, production, e businesses, IT infrastructure and software development, and child care centres, as they support the industries nearby. If tenants are found to be using space improperly, the penalty may be a fine of up to $200,000 or jail of up to a year. In the past eyes have been closed to this creeping intrusion, but the line was drawn with a click.

A hidden agenda?

One wonders if the rationale for the stated action is reasonable and able to deal with the root cause of increased rents. As pointed out by a Straits Times reporter in a later article, there were other major factors driving the rents up: the movement of speculators and investors from residential, due to the spiked stamp duty, to industrial space; the farming out of development and management of industrial space to private entities and REITS; and most crucial of all, the tender method used to award industrial space. If they really want the operating costs for SMEs lowered, shouldn’t they be tackling the problem at its roots and with a macro and a multi-prong approach? In the context of what has happened in recent years to churches it is difficult for the affected parties not to speculate if there is some hidden agenda being pushed or whether things are really as stated in the official communiqués. I do not industrial buildingbelieve there is anything sinister underneath: just a secular government wanting to act rationally and firmly without fear or favour.

Reactions to the line drawn

Reactions from pastors and their churches, usually small and medium sized, have been muted. It ran from a scramble for alternate places of worship this Sunday to a deliberate approach of study and discussion of exit strategy. Some would be indignant, while others would be matter of fact, stoic and practical. Most would be found in a place of prayer and peace, consulting with others, exploring alternative strategies, and looking to the Head of the body for help and guidance.

Off-the-cuff ramifications

When I asked a close friend of mine, what he thought were the ramifications, he emailed me his off the cuff answer. It’s not rocket science but some of the scenarios are sure to pan out over the coming months:

“My immediate off-the-cuff take:

1.   More & more churches will be hunting new homes.

2.   More & more churches would be thinking of going into “joint-ventures” and partner each other in home hunting. Maybe this will even lead to churches not only combining resources but really combining their congregation together.

3.   Industrial buildings is now a no-no; maybe the next best choice is a commercial building.

4.   Both of the above are mostly on 30-, 60- year leases. There would be some 99 or freehold – but of course the pricing is different.

6.   The other route is to take what some mega churches are doing; a la THE ROCK; building & investing in commercial projects (with auditoriums & church facilities) and at the same time use this facility during weekend”.

Small churches won’t disappear

It is seriously doubtful that industrial rent can be moderated without a concerted multi-prong strategy. On the other hand, I am absolutely mustard tree 2certain that such an action cannot break the spirit, resilience, and productivity of the small church, even if this was not the intention of the ruling. Small churches are like mustard seeds and trees. Mustard seeds are tiny and the full grown mustard tree grow to a small 10-15 feet maximum. But the seeds and plants are renowned in ancient days for their quickness in germinating and taking root, and taking over space, and growing in unlikely environments and conditions. Though useful they are treated like weeds and are unwanted.  But then, they are almost impossible to get rid of. So the small churches. It’s a reality large and mega-churches and governments need to acquiesce to. Even communist China with all its powers failed to rid itself of the small church! Small churches are muscular, resilient, and omnipresent, and their tiny seeds will disperse with the wind of the Spirit and many more small churches will sprout!