Preaching at St Andrews Community Chapel during covid 19

St Andrews Community Chapel has an interesting way of serving their gathered and scattered congregation, their on-site and online service. I was invited to guest preach before Covid 19 gatecrashed the Singapore church and turned every church’s program upside down. Unsure of whether they still wanted me to preach, I wrote to them and released them from any commitment to have me if the new circumstances warranted something different. They promptly replied that the guest preaching appointment was still in place as their congregation had already started to meet under the government guidelines of 100 maximum in the hall with social distancing and other safety measures in place.

Pre-recording and on-site preaching

The interesting thing was that they would also like me to pre-record the same sermon I would preach to the on-site service, and hand the recording to them beforehand so that they could screen it at the same time for the online congregation to watch. I will post this pre-recorded sermon in another post.

The chapel originally was located with St Andrews Community Hospital but due to covid 19 they were using the auditorium of the St Hilda’s Primary School in Tampines. Covid 19 has been disruptive in more than one ways. 

Vicar Daniel Tong

I had a chat with the vicar Daniel Tong, a veteran Anglican vicar and notable author of five books and had a chat with him. While I think and talk about writing books, he has already written books that are selling quite well. Seeing him made me wonder if I have what it takes to write a book. 

The order of service

Soon the service started and noticeably there were no songs. However, they used liturgy to establish a connect between the gathered people of God and worship of God. Before I knew it, I was at the stage preaching with a mask on. It wasn’t easy as members still trickled in in front of everyone, while I was speaking, and it affected my concentration. 

The late we have with us always. Most would at least come before the sermon and they would sit at the back, but with covid 19, there is no buffer time of three songs and announcement and prayer, and in a performing art auditorium, there are no entrances near the back rows (everyone sees you when you are late!). 

Online service pampering

Online services also have its late-comers. Many actually attend to the services later on. And they can use the cursor to move forward the video to skip what they are not interested in, perhaps the preliminaries, and merely watch what they like. Online services facilitate the making of churchgoers into consumers, and not disciples! The several months of online pampering have sealed the marriage of God’s children to comfort, convenience and compromise. 

On site services impacted by covid 19

Covid 19 has also conditioned us pastors to offer a more compact and concise service. The service I preached it included baptism and holy communion, and all in, if I remember correctly, the service ended in one hour fifteen minutes. Safety measures meant that we had to keep our services compact and dismiss God’s people into the world (without much interaction in the church premises). Outside they can have lunch together in public eating places in groups of five. And we Asians are communal and put community above individualism and we comply with law and order. 

I noticed that no offering bags were passed around. Digital giving is encouraged, but those who still want to give cash can put in in an offering box at the front of the stage. Holy Communion is by intinction, partly dipping the consecrated wafer into the wine and handing it to the communicant for consumption. Safety observed at all times.

My personal take on online services

This new normal is something I am grateful for even though it stifles the church of expression of worship in song, in prayer, and warm fellowship. I pray the church will soon go back to what it was before. I miss live worship among God’s gathered saints. I miss singing heartily and mingling around and catching up with church folks. I do not want the spiritual disconnect I feel when I watch an online service. I love the comfort and convenience and time-saving of commute free Sunday worship, but I fear it places limits on the felt experience of the Spirit’s moving and activity on the affections and desires of God’s gathered people. We must determine to awaken God’s people from their atrophied spiritual muscles, and stir holy desire and hunger for God afresh.

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Worship without singing aloud

The thought of being in a worship service with a pre-recorded video showing a worship leader singing did not seem appealing to me. That was until I had to guest preach at the Anglican Church of True Light. Strangely I felt connected with God as I followed the lyrics and tune in my heart. My soul was sweetly lifted to God in prayer and song. How could I explain it?

Perhaps I have been singing in a perfunctory way all along, being caught up with the external stimuli of sight and sound and stage, instead of singing out of simple pure adoration. Yet a stripped down version somehow brought me back to “the heart of worship”, of sincere and simple reverential love for God.

One of the few reasons people give for socially distanced worship physical gatherings is that you are not permitted to sing. And I for one felt that way. I should be surprised at myself for feeling this way, since I am so familiar with contemplative prayer, that thrives in silence, in waiting on God’s movement in my heart. So it was good to have experienced this way of expressing our love for God in silent worship – just listening and feeling but not being able to sing aloud. It’s good. It is worship. A fresh way though unfamiliar way to worship. And its usually for two songs at most, so it is not monotonous.

Have you attended a physical gathering of Sunday worship recently? What was it like? Out of the maximum of fifty attendance how many seats were taken up?

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Leaders’ Planning Retreat during covid 19

Our usual two days Leader’ Planning Retreat every September would have been held in Johor, Malaysia. Its just across the Causeway about 3 hours drive from Singapore. The program is packed full and I would be wasted at the end of it. But enter covid 19 and things had to change. We would not be able to go across to Johor. Even if we could, it would be unlikely that we would go across. We simply dropped our reservation without any penalty.

So we are doing it in Singapore over Zoom plus. What is the plus? The plus is for those who wish to meet physically in the church facility with strict safeguards as required by the government. So there will be zooming for the main sessions and breakout rooms for three congregations and later for ministries/departments. Everything is done over a Saturday beginning at 11.45am with a zoom lunch together. What’s that? We eat our food over Zoom and have small talk and side glances. We have our planning in various modes: all three congregation leaders together, break into congregations, break into groups etc., until we conclude by 6 pm. This is followed by another meeting two weeks later.

How do I feel about it? Well its convenient – cutting out all the commute of travel. It saves time and hassle. What is there to complain? However, I think it lacks the element of relational dynamics, and the stability and solidity of human and physical interaction. Leadership is influence and influence is relational more than structural. It calls for full bodied communications – not just head and shoulders on a box on a laptop screen. After all we communicate most effectively with our whole body. I mean screen share is a good tool but the full body language is better. We say so much more with being physically present. But we have no choice. We make do with what we have, and what we can. As my predecessor pastor Johney used to quip, “When you do not have your real teeth, use false teeth.” In this age, there are no perfect solutions and conditions – we live in a broken world. Accept it and live with it, and get on with the Lord’s presence strengthening us.

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Singaporean and Indonesian churches during covid 19

I was curious about how our neighbouring churches were doing during the covid 19 pandemic. I was familiar with what’s happening in Singapore. But try as I would I could not find much news about what’s happening among Malaysian churches except that 300 churches have applied in June to re-open for worship with all the usual safety measures in place and a maximum of 30 worshippers and for an hour and a half. Surprisingly the Indonesian church is the one with the best information due to a survey done by a research organization. Here are the links I have found pertinent and helpful:

SINGAPORE CHURCHES: THIS is definitely the best article that wraps up where the Singapore church is in terms of external response to Covid 19. It covers the rise of the “hybrid physical and digital church”, the generosity of churches in helping the foreign workers and the people hit with financial problems and job losses, and how some churches are resourcing other churches. Good, comprehensive and interesting article.

INDONESIAN CHURCHES: THIS ARTICLE written by Dr Babang Budijanto, general secretary of Asia Evangelical Alliance is based on a national survey of 600 pastors in small and big cities in Indonesia done by Bilangan Research Center. Five concerns that the Indonesian churches face are: 1) Lack of capacity for digital engagement; 2) Decline in church revenue; 3) How to meet spiritual needs and give pastoral care; 4) Helping the poor and needy (job loss and health issues); 5) Members switching to another congregation with better online services. One interesting factor worth highlighting is how the presence of youth in the churches increased the church’s digital engagement and social involvement with the poor.

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Church response to coronavirus pandemic

The WHO has declared covid 19 a world pandemic. It is spreading around the world at an alarming rate. World wide emergency cabinet meetings and health orgainizations task forces have been trying to formulate plans to contain and defeat this invisible and clever enemy.

Over in Singapore there is a calm confidence. Yes years ago there was a panic when SARS hit our shores and we scrambled like crazy. When SARS ended there were reviews, evalutions and detailed contingency plans laid in case of another epidemic. This fine tuned plan is being implemented today. Kudos to the civil service and the government.

Together with the WHO announcement, came a speech from our Prime Minister. It was reassuring to hear from him. The thing that struck me as a pastor was his mention that religious meeting need to be shortened and the size of meetings reduced.

Pondering over this, it seems that this could be a good time for the church, steeped in tradition, and entrenched in a fixed way of dong things, to do a review and consider changes. Changes is difficult for church leaders and members. However, when something considered potentially life-threatening stares you and your family in the face, you would actually welcome change or at least accept that it is necessary.

To illustrate how difficult it is for the church to change its way of congregating or worshipping. What if we tell all church members to meet in homes in groups no larger than 20 people, on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday watching a pre-recorded service or live stream? And that would substitute for the Worship Service. Tradition will cry out, Can the Eucharist be conducted at home? Pragmatism will query, How do we collect the offerings? Will there be a drop in finances? Parents will plead, What will we do with our children without Sunday School or children’s church? Small churches will cry out, We don’t have media expertise to do pre-recorded services or live streaming?

Changes are difficult, but if the church is willing to steer a steady and determined course and discern what is best in its context, and make necessary changes, that church will be all the better and stronger after the changes.

The mustard seed must welcome change in its form to grow into a tree, and the leaven must create disruption and ferment in the flour, and change the flour’s constitution for it to become baked bread.

I would be happy to hear your comments or suggestions of how we should co-operate with government advisories like the one issued by the Prime Minister.

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