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.

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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!

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