Three Steps Forward, Two Steps Backward

I was given a warm welcome at the sanctuary on Sunday. It was my first time preaching in my home church after six months of rest. I was glad to do so. Sadly, there was no on-site congregation, as the pastoral team had decided that the sustained spike in Covid 19 cases, and the government tightening of rules made it wise for them to return to streaming the worship service without on-site congregation. 

Initially, I was informed to wear a mask while preaching. I tested different masks at home because if the sound was muffled, people will switch off rather quickly. I found a mask of spongy material that did not muffle my voice. However, by Saturday night I was informed that the authorities allowed speaking and singing by two singers without masks on if there is no on-site congregation. I felt such relief, because the mask is a barrier to effective communication.


It still felt awkward preaching to an empty church. Later when I checked out the recording online, I could see that my preaching was smooth and the awkwardness I felt was not disruptive nor disturbed the flow of the delivery. 

I counted five in the worship team and seven in the audio and media team. I felt for them. They have been fantastic in their commitment and stamina. They are so professional in their attitude and spirit even though they are all volunteers. I praise God for them, especially Zephaniah who leads the media team and Ethel who leads the worship ministry. The Lord will not forget the works they have done in his name and for the church. 


I noticed the traffic was lighter than usual due to the government’s strict directives to curb the spread of covid 19, especially the rule of no dine-in and social groups limited to only two. Human traffic at malls and restaurants would be affected too. A lot of businesses would be affected besides malls and F&B and entertainment establishments. I feel for the business owners. 

This setback is three steps forward and two steps backward. Before I retired, the church was streaming services with no on-site congregation. Then things improved and the church returned to on-site worship of our three congregations of 50 to 100, office staff meetings and prayer meetings and even prayer retreats. It was two steps forward and I even solemnised a wedding with a hundred guests in attendance. Then suddenly this frustrating announcement of a pull back to stricter Phase 2 precautions. Of all days, on a Friday. Which meant the stressed pastoral staff had to make a judgment call, and implement and communicate all the changes in 48 hours. They cancelled the on-site congregation worship on Sunday. I feel for the pastoral team. It can be draining, discouraging and frustrating to rapidly respond to all these sudden changes. Two steps backward. 

I also feel for those who had already planned wedding receptions and dinners on Sunday, two days before the announcements. The ups and downs, and back and forth, that wedding couples face will make what is meant to be one of their happiest memories, a nightmare, and their honeymoon a pity-party. Lord, have mercy and brighten these couples with a quiet peace and joy to sustain them in the midst of discouragement and helplessness.


Regardless of how we feel, we have to believe in the face of all this mess that “the Lord sits enthroned over the flood” (Psalm 29:10). Floods can be chaotic and disruptive and destructive but the Psalmist saw God as Sovereign over uncontrollable forces. We are still one step ahed from where we were during the circuit breaker lock-down. We have much to give thanks for compared to other countries struggling with larger populations and lesser resources and weaker governance. Therefore, stay calm and keep praying and walking in the Spirit. Rejoice in the Lord, and not in the sad situation we find ourselves in. Rejoice that He sits enthroned over the flood. 

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Reasons Not to Go Back to On-site Worship Services

After a year of online worship, surely church members must be feeling their connection with God, and the faith community weakening, and are eager to return to on-site worship. 

Yet attendance of on-site worship services is not exactly indicative that God’s people are thirsting for God, the living God. Anecdotal indications are that only 80-90% of possible seating are usually filled, some way or greatly below actual pre-covid-19 attendances. The reasons for members not rushing back to church is not rocket science, and easily spring to mind.


Look at the list of hassles members are free of when they stay home and worship online. They do not have to fight the alarm, rush to make breakfast, shout the kids to hurry, and hope there are seats in the train, or pray for a car park lot. Do not forget to add all the family members, especially kids, into the picture to get an idea of the exponentially reduced logistical headache. Instead, they save time and money, and free themselves from common pre-worship service tensions. They sit comfortably in plush sofas and armchairs hugging cushions or mobiles. They are dressed in their pyjamas and even multi-tasking too. At last, the pastor will not make any snide remarks about being late for worship service, or for irreverent usage of mobiles during it! Very convenient. Very comfortable.


Another reason God’s people are reluctant to rush back to on-site worship services is choice: they get to choose when they want to attend to the worship service, and what they want from it. 

With on-site services, the time is fixed. Members have to show up on time and sit through the whole service from the alpha to the omega. With online worship, they can sleep in every Sunday, and even go out for a lazy breakfast and do marketing, and choose to tune to the online services as it fits their schedule that particular Sunday. They could even access it on Monday evening like microwaved leftover food.

Many members have certain parts of the service that they like more than others. Some members love congregational singing but not the sermon; others it’s the other way around. Still others do not like the “preliminaries” – the call to worship, the songs, the liturgy, the announcements, the offering. They prioritize the teaching of the word. They regard that as the core of worship. For others, it is the Holy Communion. In on-site worship services, they do not get to choose the bits they love, unless they deliberately arrive late every Sunday, or leave early every Sunday, which would be socially unacceptable. With online worship services, the members get to choose what want to consume. Hold the cursor and move it forward to skip whatever they do not like. They fulfil their duty in half the time.


It is indeed by the grace of God that despite less than ideal conditions we are spiritually okay in Christ – and faith, hope and love is sustained by online services and other means of grace. However, members who make their convenience, comfort and preferences the core values that determine their decisions and lifestyle often do not notice that they may be regressing ever so imperceptibly into a lukewarm state. This imperceptible regression happened in the church in Laodicea (Revelation 3:15-22), and it can happen today. There is something about embodied on-site worship and community that is sacramental and imparts God’s presence and life.

From a human standpoint all the above reasons sound good and reasonable and desirable. However, from a divine standpoint they can also be at odds with true discipleship and the values of the kingdom.


These are the watchwords of modern consumerism: 


Comfort, and


They have crept into Christendom. Members must watch for these words in their life of discipleship whenever they surface. Watch and pray to discern in what situations they are a help, and in what situations they are a curse; when they draw us closer to God, and when they lure us farther from him; when they increase faith, hope and love; and when they diminish faith, hope and love. If we are not alert to the danger, we will spiral into spiritual complacency.


Certainly, the words of Jesus about what it means to be a disciple cuts across time and space, even cyberspace. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”(Matt 16:24,25). 

Obedience to God is the watchword of disciple’s life, of a life of gratitude for God’s undeserved favour upon us (Eph 2:8-10). Obedience is not a nice abstract idea or thought but an embodied, down to earth, submission to the church leaders God has appointed to serve and watch over the faith community’s spiritual well-being. Since almost all churches in Singapore have called for a return to on-site worship services we should heed this call as God’s people. Members, or rather disciples whose churches have started online worship services must obey their leadership’s call to return to on-site worship services with urgency, energy and sacrifice. It will be inconvenient. It will be uncomfortable. It will be inflexible. But giving up our personal rights in obedience to God is essentially what Jesus called us to.

This is my considered opinion, but do feel free to give your comments so we can have a fuller conversation.

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How To Worship Without Singing

We are currently in phase 3 of Covid-19 guidelines. I see the worship leaders singing and preacher speaking without masks but with social distancing strictly adhered to. The congregation participates in worship but without singing. How do you worship without singing? I suggest a few ways to do it.

Firstly, get it clear. Worship may include singing but singing is not worship. Worship is essentially surrender of our whole selves as a living sacrifice to God, for him to use or lay aside or dispose of as he pleases (Rom 12:1,2) . Without this essential heart posture whatever you do, and whatever use of bodily expressions, including singing, is not worship. So first things first: begin with a prayer of surrender, for example, “Our Father, who is in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” or “Lord, here I am, your servant is listening” or “Lord let it be done to me according to your word” or “Father, not my will but your will be done” or “Father, into your hands, I commit my spirit.” I think you get the idea.

Use all your senses. With your eyes look at the lyrics and scriptures and notice the words, phrase or image that strike you. With your ears listen to what is being sung, said, or played and notice what it stirs in you. Mouth the lyrics or scripture under your breath, under your mask, or even quietly speak or sing in your prayer language. Let your feet move and body sway as the worship leaders sing, and use your uplifted arms as an expression of surrender and praise to God. Take out your wallet or mobile when its time to give of your finances to the Lord.

As the preacher speaks, take note of what desires, ideas, memories or feeling are stirred in you and respond to them in appropriate ways, whether to repent, commit yourself, resolve to trust, or take a certain action, to follow an inspiring example or to give thanks and pray for yourself or others.

Follow all the instructions and precautionary guidelines diligently. This is part of worship. Smile. They cannot see your mouth under the mask, but your eyes does smile, and give eye contact because eyes communicate warmth too.

Top all these with a meal together with others, and share about the ups and downs of the past week, and what God has done for you and in you. This too is part of worship for in our sharing we praise God and others who hear our thanksgiving, join us in their amens.

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