Anecdotal accounts tell me that Singapore pastors do overwork. Their minds are engaged perpetually on preaching and church ministry and problems. It even affects their family life. Even while physically present they could be emotionally absent from home. Rick Warren (Saddleback Community Church) warns pastors against overwork in the ministry.“My experience is pastors tend to overwork when they assume extra hours make them more effective in ministry. That’s simply not true, and this misguided notion can actually keep others in your church from developing into mature Christian leaders. It is human nature but it isn’t the way God wants us to operate. It turns your ministry into one of those ‘whack-a-mole’ games. The moment you whack down one problem, another one pops up. It’s never ending.” Church leaders are to heed the apostle Paul’s imperative in Ephesians 4:12 to equip others to do the ministry. Pastors are to equip members to find their God-given gifts and ministry, so that everyone can be blessed and the pastor can “spend more time with family and with God, time that is necessary to keep your congregation pressing forward with purpose.” (The Christian Post)
The personal provision shop
My generation grew up with the provision shop- that disorganized and overpacked grocery that sells the common things a family needed but with less choices. Service was personalized and there’s even first name familiarity. You can even get credit and items purchased delivered to your home. But there are limitations: it does not sell everything a family member may need. You can’t get a haircut, or buy fresh food, or a pair of shoes or clothing. They don’t do banking and you can’t get a meal or be entertained with a movie. Sometimes what you want is there but you can’t find it in the mess. However, this is what we grew up with and are comfortable with, even tolerant of.
Shopping mall generation
There is however another generation, now in their thirties and below, who have grown up in a different world. It is the world of the shopping mall. And in this world, in this one place they can obtain nearly everything they needed. The mall is stocked with all kinds of products from all over the world, whether fresh or packaged. It offers services of all kinds for all the needs and desires of all age groups. Air-conditioned and alluring, it is the consumer’s paradise. It offers choices. It offers lifestyle. It even confers identity. If I regularly go to a particular shopping mall, I am young and trendy; if another, I am an aunty; if still another, I am a sophisticate’ or yuppie or sporty person or bargain-hunter. This particular generation is comfortable in a shopping mall; but it feels disoriented, disjointed, and lost in the good old small provision shop and find it a hassle, so what if the manager calls them by name and knows their parents!
Megachurch growth is sociological and psychological too
That’s why I believe the megachurch is here to stay and is likely to grow stronger. It’s more than just a spiritual thing; it is also sociological and psychological. The younger generation has been culturally conditioned to feel welcome and comfortable in a megachurch structure because it is so much like the shopping mall they have pleasant experiences of. There they get all their needs met under one roof. More resources means more choices, “products”, even branded ones from USA or Australia; and it means varied and better servicing of the attendees’ needs.
Giants in the land
This is one reason for the rise of the contemporary megachurch in our city. Churches like City Harvest Church and New Creation Church are the two notable examples of giants in the land. Are they like spiders organizationally? Without the spider the web will become cobwebs. I say this with deep respect for the pastors of both churches. This is just an organizational metaphor I recently learned. I use them without any sense of contempt or put down so do not inundate this comment box with “Sour grapes” etc etc.
From spider to starfish
There used to be a megachurch that dominated the scene: Calvary Charismatic Center. It used to be a spider. It became a starfish a decade or more ago. A wise move. A starfish when cut up regenerates itself and multiplies. That’s what happened to that megachurch now with a new name, Victory Family Church. You find them in all the suburbs: Choa Chu Kang, Sembawang, Yishun, Jurong West, Tampines and where else? Wonderful. The spider can go away for a year and spin another web in East Timor and things are still well with their churches’ souls.
Happy for City Harvest Church and New Creation Church
Having said that I am glad that City Harvest managed to cut a deal and avail itself to a place huge enough for its growing congregation in the city-Suntec Singapore. $310 million is an amount that seems chewable by 30,000 attendees. Its just about $1000 per year per attendee for ten years. The members must be as happy as when New Creation members heard about their coup at One North, though some may be contemplating a quiet exit . I used to be provocative to stir other Christians to think about issues like stewardship, laws, the lease, alternatives, etc etc. Now I only think up provocative titles, and have come to the view that each church decides what they regard as best in the Lord, and for the church, from the leadership’s discernment. The rest we just leave to posterity to assess. The members who do not like it can zip up their wallet or vote with their feet to the megachurch next door. Or why not walk to the small church next door.
Small church challenges
The small church: well, to be candid, young people are there not always by deliberate choice but because their parents are there; or close friends are there, or they find meaning and purpose in some role or responsibility. But they do feel the pull when their friends talk excitedly about their “shopping mall experiences”. Anyway when was the last time you stepped into a small provision shop? Is this a death knell for small churches of under a hundred? No not really. Haven’t you heard of 7 Eleven? But that is another story: the story of the small church.
Does size matter?
Does size matter in the light of this? Can a megachurch more effectively reach unchurched people who are more used to and comfortable with the shopping mall than with the HDB mom’s and pop’s store? Probably so. However, megachurches do have their weaknesses too. Consumerism, the cultural trait of generation next is one of several things that the megachurch appeals to, and this is the very Achillees’ heel that gives rise to megachurch weaknesses. More on that another time, God willing.
(I am getting lazy. Picked up an old post -28 dec 2007- from my files and just revised it to make it current.)
I love the small church because Christ loved it and gave himself for it. He loves the small church as much as the megachurch. He must love it for there are thousands of them. In fact, the small church is the norm, and the megachurch (over 2,000 members) is the rarity. In all the countries of the world where the church has a presence, the small church of 150 and below, forms the majority. Typically more than 80 or 90% of all churches in each country would be of that size.
More relational, more like family
I love the small church because by nature it is more relational, and less structured and bureaucratic. As a church grows bigger it has to be better organized; hierachical levels increase; policies and standard operating procedures clog the arteries; and institutionalism sets in. Decisions are less concerned with persons than with precedence. Leaders hardly shake your hands and probably doesn’t know you’ve been a church member for five years.
Nurturing and caring
As a member of a small church you get legendary care. When you are hospitalized the church knows it, and prays for you, and the pastor visits you. The pastor knows you by name (and even your family members, dog, and goldfish) and you do not have to press 1, press 3, press 5 before you reach the secretary of the secretary of the pastor, and finally get stuck there. The pastor can give better attention to spiritual growth and discipleship. When your kid’s exams are around the corner, there is prayer and even tutoring. When you lose your job, others are concerned and they pray, and help out, and look out for a job for you. When you get married, many are there to rejoice with you. When you die, many are there to pay their last respects and to comfort the bereaved family, and though you won’t be around to benefit from that, your family will.
Every member involvement and growth
You cannot just attend the worship services. There are more things that needs to be done than there are people to do them. So all hands on board and everybody helps out somewhere, and many have to help out in more than one area. Some Christians don’t like this because studying and working is tiring enough for their packed life. Yet it is in serving one another, contributing to the common good of all, that we also find the meaning of communtiy, and taste a little of the intra Trinitarian love. The small church compels you to serve and thereby discover your spiritual gifts and make significant contributions. It motivates you to invest in what is eternal: serving Christ.
Shaped and sandpapered
While serving and relating, you get shaped or sandpapered: with help from people around you, you get to be all that God wants you to be. Small churches can be “ojama shimasu”(translated: Sorry, but I am going to disturb you). You won’t be left alone in anonymity and untouchability. You will get to know people whose rough edges will scrape on your smooth, soft sensitive skin, and I must say vice versa. In the big churches, everybody smiles because few folks get close enough and stay together long enough to get in your face and step on your toes. In a small church it is so squeezy you have to say, “Excuse me,” or “Sorry”. You step on people’s toes or get elbowed in the narrow confines of true Christian community. It is just one of the major ways that God uses, besides trials and marriage (are these both synonymous?), to change us into His likeness. God loves you unconditionally as you are, but he loves you so much he won’t leave you as you are, in your character. Its the same with our kids, we love them with all their faults and bad habits, but we do not leave them as they are; we encourage change for the better. The small church is very good environment for such change to take place.
Nothing beats being in Christian community. Of course such authenticity can be found in megachurches’ small groups too. However there are special joys in being part of an extended church family network such as is found in many small churches. Staying put over the long haul, building deep abiding friendships through serving, woshiping, praying, dreaming, weeping and laughing together, and having shared experiences over decades is absolutely irreplaceable. I hope and pray that the younger generation will be able experience this kind of rootedness, stability and communal strength too.
It was a chance meeting at my mum’s funeral. It was something like Ruth in Boaz’s fields: “As it turned out, she found herself working in a field belonging to Boaz..” (Ruth 2:3). Edmund Wee, founder and owner of design company Epigram Pte Ltd was there to offer condolences. His family and my wife’s were next door neighbours and family friends for decades. He had just won the prestigious President’s Design Award for 2008, and I knew he published annual reports for companies. But I did not know how well the company was doing until I checked out his website after he offered to do pro bono design work for the church. I was blown over and very impressed.
When I shared with the leadership they too were pleased. Edmund is known for his generosity but I never knew he was creative too. When the designs came, I liked the originality and creativity of the logo idea that they proposed to us. Our old logo was the winner of a church competition and it has served its time. Now its time for the new one to mark a new chapter in the church’s life. The new look was unique, clean-cut and elegant. I loved it staightaway. They did designs for stationery and signage and other stuff as shown above.
The new church logo had many doves in flight, forming an 8, a significant number in our church’s history, because at its first baptism 8 were baptized on the 8th of August (eighth month) on the 8th anniversary of Singapore’s independence. In the Bible the number 8 symbolizes salvation and new beginnings and resurrection. It all fits and makes sense.
Evangelical Christians are okay with God’s spiritual blessings but are ill at ease with material blessing from God.
One reason is an over-reaction to the excesses of the “prosperity gospel”. We look with disdain on some American television evangelists who raise millions from naive believers by twisting Scriptures to say what they do not say, to support grandiose projects, and flaunt a lavish lifestyle that Solomon would envy.
The PEST test
An easy way to check for “prosperity doctrine” quotient is to do a PEST test that I have developed:
P – Presumption is “an assumption, often not fully established, that is taken for granted in some piece of reasoning.” “Prosperity doctrine” is built on assumptions that are not fully borne out by the whole counsel of God, and their tenets are flawed by tenuous interpretation of scripture passages.
E – Eternity: “Prosperity doctrine” have no regard for what is eternal, accusing others of “pie in the sky” irrelevancy. Jesus told us not to accumulate wealth on earth but to lay our treasures in heaven. He had a high regard with living on earth with a view to eternity. Hold to our material wealth lightly and be contented and free from greed and hoarding.
S – Stewardship: “Prosperity doctrine” does not emphasize God’s ownership of all things and how discipleship entails the faithful and wise management of God’s resources and places all our resources at God’s disposal. Jesus said, “You cannot serve God and Money(Matthew 6:24).” This practically means the wealthy Christian should use his wealth to honor God, and care for the poor and needy, this good old earth and world missions.
T – Thanksgiving: “Prosperity doctrine” does not cultivate humility and gratitude and generosity. It has tendencies toward materialism, and unchecked consumption and pride. “Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, “Who is the Lord?” (Proverbs 30:8,9)
So we rightly say no to “prosperity doctrine” but sadly are hesitant to preach about God’s desire to bless us so that we can bless others. We do not want to be associated with “prosperity doctrine” and so we stay in the safety of the boat and do not risk teaching rightly what the Word says about God’s fatherly desire to bless his children.
God wants to bless
I preach that God wants to bless his children. He blessed Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and many may have missed this scripture: “When He had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven.”( Luke 24:39). It seems to me that every significant new beginning, was launched with the blessing of God, unmerited and free, and that blessing included material benefits as well as spiritual. He wants us to “put our hope in God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment”(1 Timothy 6:17).
In the Old Testament, as in Abraham’s case, the blessing of God covered his family, finances, protection, guidance and did not exclude the spiritual for by faith righteousness was credited to his account, and he sought a city not made by hands. The promises of blessing to those who fully obey in Deuteronomy 28:1-14 would easily have had Abraham as an example of fulfillment.
Evangelical dis-ease must be cured
Evangelical Christians think that the New Testament blessings emphasizes spiritual blessings but not to the exclusion of the temporal and material. I rejoice and thank God for all the spiritual blessings secured for us through Christ’s death and resurrection. However, the reluctance and neglect of preaching about how God loves to bless us with “daily bread”, a temporal and material blessing embedded in the Lord’s prayer itself, does a disservice to the church. Our heavenly Father is mistakenly regarded as one reluctant to bless us with material resources as well as spiritual. Paul declared boldly that God wants “to make all grace abound toward you so that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may have an abundance for every good work”(2 Corinthians 9:8).
This evangelical dis-ease must be cured.
Let’s not junk the good with the part that’s spoiled.