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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Love Singapore Pastors’ Prayer Summit 2012: a personal reflection

The ice breakers were agonizing. One flat bonding activity after another. Immovable as a pew I stayed rooted to my seat. It was not the right attitude to have at the commencement dinner of the 2012 Love Singapore Pastors’ Prayer Summit. It was not because Ps Eugene Seow, the king of icebreakers, has handed his wand to a new generation. It was refreshing to see twenty- and thirty- somethings on stage: a new generation of pastors. The greyheads should be applauded for this initiative. But 45 minutes to get you acquainted with others and to get everybody seated with someone they don’t know was just too much for this introvert!2012 Love Singapore Pastors' Summit

Corporate waiting on God

The reason I was there was because I heard we would spend time as a corporate body waiting on God and listening. David Demian is experienced in this and would be guiding and showing us the ropes. We Singaporean Christians are very comfortable and confident (too confident!) about our abilities in strategising, marketing and planning church programs and events. Indeed we do not need the Holy Spirit to keep our churches running efficiently (sometimes He is a hindrance to our plans!). Our church calenders has to be crammed with activities and programs or it would leave a feeling of frustration, guilt and idleness. Disquiet is what I would feel. Maybe a holy dissatisfaction. Is there something more? The book of Acts demonstrated how the Spirit was involved in directing the “fishers of men” to where the fish were. Every new spurt of expansion and spread of the gospel was initiated by the Spirit and not from “successful models”. The Spirit spoke. The Spirit checked. The Spirit fell. Can there be more space for the Spirit to lead the Singapore church, a church so married to modernity, that they are more conversant with Peter Drucker than the voice of the Spirit? So I came wanting to see if Pastors Prayer Summit 2012there is a way to give more space for the Holy Spirit in the leadership of the church.

Difficult to enter into silent waiting

It was not easy for pastors and leaders of all kinds of persuasions to fully enter into what was intended by the Pastors’ Summit leadership. After a period of corporate worship we were instructed to wait in silence before God and ask, Lord what is on your heart for Singapore? We were to write down what the Lord laid on our hearts and pass down the message to a panel of pastors called a “table of discernment” and they would share with the larger body or act on what they discerned.  Silence can be deeply disturbing for us hyperactive pastors. Waiting seemed so unproductive, a silly waste of time, even if it was waiting in prayer in the presence of God. This was evident in the first session, but less so in the second session.

Real gold or fool’s gold

My takeaway from the summit was one of possibilities. Can this possibly be done at leadership prayer times to seek the Lord and inquire what is on his heart for the church? Sounds like Acts 13: 1ff. The thought of it is at once intoxicating and intimidating. I left feeling like a gold prospector that has found a gold vein. I hope I will not be like the villagers of Kampung Melayu Majidee, in Johor, who elated that they had found “gold nuggets” on a street, were later disappointed by hard reality: what they had shining in their hands was iron pyrite – “fool’s gold”. By the way, preachers, there is a sermon illustration in that report.

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Goh Ewe Kheng: servant leader

GOH EWE KHENGThe session of the Pastors’ Conference organized by Tung Ling had ended. Pastors and leaders stood up to stretch, look for the restroom, or just stand around and chat. A grey haired man went about with a carton of packet drinks to serve the pastors. He dressed simply and looked ordinary, though he was a very wealthy businessman and notable church leader. He was a great influence in the local and wider church and in the marketplace. He was one of many pioneers who unknowingly could be modelling a bi-vocational church and marketplace leadership that will increasingly needed in the decades ahead. He is Goh Ewe Kheng, one of my favourite sermon illustrations of humble and faithful servanthood. So when I read an article about him by Edmond Chua in the Christian Post, I just had to link it. He wrote:

Elder Goh Ewe Kheng is the quintessential minister in the marketplace. He started church ministries, preached, co-founded a denomination and participated in the governance and activities of over 30 committees, all while running a business. The passion of the 87-year-old Founding Elder of the 7,640-member Church of Singapore passion to serve God began at an early age.

Continue reading about the personal and family life of this inspiring marketplace and church leader HERE.

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Zion Full Gospel Church: convenient city church with unusual origin and congregational mix

ZFGC: like a ship for rescue of the lost in the city

Unusual mix and origin

wooden crossThe building looked like a ship that is cruising on calm waters at Hoot Kiam Road. In the worship hall there were Africans, Australians, and Americans peppered among the locals in the 100 or so people who attended the 11am Sunday service. This mix is not unusual as surrounding the church’s location were scores of condominiums, private apartments and shop houses. Even expatriates need a church, and it must be the Lord that drew them. Zion Full Gospel Church is about 300 strong and they have an unusual Finnish origin. Sisters Nilja Nikkanen and Aira Kolkka were missionaries who left China after the communist takeover in the 1950’s and were led to preach the gospel in Singapore, playing the guitar and singing Mandarin songs in the Street. Out of this grew the first among several churches started by the Finnish mission.

cosy, warm and welcoming

praising the Lord

Alfred Yeo and Assemblies of God

Rev Alfred Yeo had invited me to preach in the service and I was happy to accept as I had often noticed the church as I drove past the main road and wondered about it.  Confident and friendly, Alfred is one of the more forward thinking AssembliesKenny and Rev Alfred Yeo of God pastors who moved early into ministry to social needs , something generally put on the backburner in most AG churches. He was an executive director in the AG when this church asked for the fellowship’s assistance and he was released to be their interim pastor. This later developed into a permanent appointment.

A few firsts

ZFGC was the first church to house its worship in a shopping center. Way before it became popular with the megachurches in Suntec City, Zion held its worship services in Queensway Shopping Center, and later made it the base for their coffeehouse ministry, another first.

praise and worship band

Silence and prayer please

The worship leader chose songs that were in line with the message even though he did not know what I was speaking on. That encouraged me in my preaching and I believe my prayer for the service that the Lord be revealed clearly, and loved more dearly was answered. The altar call I gave was a call for them to spend five minutes in prayer and silence where they were seated. Many services need more time of prayer and quiet. We tend to fill every minute, ever second, with sound and voice and noise. We do not make space for stillness and prayer and listening to the Lord. We squirm or look around listlessly after 2 minutes of silence. Thankfully the congregation was able to pray and experience His presence in the stillness and quiet as from the pulpit I could see people deep in prayer or visibly and emotionally touched by the Lord.

Tennis friends and lunch

Later I had a nice chat with Ruth and Ron, friends I used to play tennis with, but unfortunately we could not lunch together, so my wife and I went to Great World City’s food court, a five minutes stroll away. Convenient.

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Woodlands Evangelical Free Church: shining light in the north

Much has changed

The last time I visited this church they were still called Bukit Timah Evangelical Free Church and they were located at King Albert Park. The pastor then was Rev Lee Twee Kim and his wife, Poh Choo, who was for a while my Sunday School teacher. When I was in Primary school, my parents sent me to the Sunday School there, to learn good morals, I suppose. A van would faithfully pick me up from Woodlands EFC near the Woodlands MRTthe Princess Elizabeth Estate bus terminus, and send me to church where I would listen to Bible stories with flannel board illustrations, and weekly we would receive pretty cross-shaped bookmarks. The church was at Yarwood Park, and then it moved to the Singapore Bible School premises at Adam Road. They were quite serious about their work for I remembered how the teachers came to visit my home when my brothers and I were absent for a long stretch. I doubt Poh Choo, would ever have imagined that the boy who occasionally attended her Sunday School class, would one day be a pastor.

New modern facilities for expanded ministry

This Sunday morning, I visited the church of my childhood again. Woodlands Evangelical Free Church is its new name, as it has moved to the heart of the Woodlands HDB housing estate , a 20 minutes car drive away from where it once was in a wealthy suburban area. They have been in Woodlands since the middle of 1990’s but have just moved in July 2011 to a spanking new building. They have outgrown the first building so they tore it down and erected a completely new one for 8.5 million. Compared to the former building, this new facility is superior in design and finishing. The place of worship gave me a feeling of being in a modern worship space, with a beautiful ceiling that reminded me of a rippling effect of God’s grace on the surrounding community. The fan-shaped configuration and generous seat space maximized warmth and eye contact with the ministers on stage. The fellowship hall at the ground floor has tripled in size and the ceilings were padded with material that absorbed sound so that Kenny and I could chat without shouting to be heard.

500 in attendance at 11.15 service

Pastor Edward presiding over communion

Strong in exposition, active in ministry

It was meant to be a surprise visit and I was looking forward to hearing an expository message on a new series Rev Kenny Fam had started on the book of Ecclesiastes called “Purposeful Living in A Secular World”. This church has a tradition of expository preaching of the books of the Bible, even from the days of his predecessor. However, most surprises get unsprung, and it was so in this instance: it happened to be the Yellow Ribbon Sunday and they had invited a guest speaker, Rev Chiu Ming Li, a prison chaplain, to share God’s Word and something about the Yellow Ribbon project – which ministers to prisoners and help them re-integrate back into life after they have served their prison term.

The service started at 11.15am and I was glad there was a car park lot available at the open air car park next to the church. The songs were familiar worship choruses of the decade ago, sedate songs people aged 35-55  would be happy to sing. It was communion Sunday and I liked it that they took their time to celebrate it. They had two videotaped testimonies of ex-prisoners whose lives Rev Chiu Ming Li preachingwere transformed by Christ while in prison and  have settled well into the church and life. That was encouraging. What I drew from the message was a glimpse of what it meant to have rivers of living water in your life. He was painting a portrait of a person who can feel as God would feel, a human alive to feeling the pain of others, who would make life’s decisions from that posture, and who would live courageously, nobly and with hope. His avoidance of cliches about the abundant life, and his use of fresher words like “courage”, “noble”, “admirable” to describe a person overflowing with rivers of life, concretized for me what such a person would look like.

fellowship deck

Shining light in the north

There were about 500 in attendance in this main service in an auditorium that seated 900 and I thought it was wise of them to cordon off with red plastic tape the two wings of about 200 seats each. The church has a total of about 1,200 in attendance. Besides their expository preaching, the church is also very strong in community work, prison ministries and missions. They are a shining light in the north, a witness to that needy and neglected part of Singapore.

After the service, Kenny Fam showed Kenny Chee around the building. The church office smelt of brand new carpets and furniture, with Kenny with Kennyglass-walled offices for all the pastors and open space for the administrative and support staff.  We went downstairs and he bought me lunch, Malay nasi goreng in a packet, and we chatted briefly while talking. This was no time to catch up as he had a speaking engagement in the prison and had to rush off. It did not matter as I have known Kenny for some time. We meet with Rev Vincent Hoon of the Anglican church about 4 to 6 times a year. He is a person of integrity, full of faith, and with the courage to speak and stand on his convictions which were formed out of his study of Scripture, years of reflection, and life shaping experiences. Anyway I’ll meet him with Vincent another day. We will have more time then. Sundays are usually not good days for lim kopi with pastors. They are usually busy; their minds can be occupied with many matters; or they may be tired from the day’s output.

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