Kong Hee on Church Growth
Tuesday, Sep. 8, 2009 Posted: 1:54:46AM HKT
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In the comparatively short span of two decades, City Harvest Church has become the largest congregation in Singapore.
And yet, for many pastors and believers, the phenomenal growth of the church is at best a mystery or a feat of which only a few are capable.
At worst, it is a tell-tale ‘sign’ of the shallowness of faith and lack of discipleship of the members.
For The Rev Dr Kong Hee, who founded CHC, the growth was unexpected.
Two themes emerged in the course of the email interview he graciously accepted from The Christian Post.
It was primarily the clear vision of God’s passion and calling to the believers and the relentless obedience of the small group of individuals that pioneered the church that enabled CHC to succeed in its outreach.
In the following full transcript, the CHC founder explains how the church has come so far and where it is headed, and then some.
The Christian Post: Your anniversary theme is City Harvest Church Celebrates 20 Years of Growth. How did CHC grow over the past two decades?
The Rev Dr Kong Hee: When I look back at all our achievements, I must honestly say that it is all God. As we continually yield ourselves to Him, truly He has taken us from glory to glory. It has indeed been an exhilarating ride with the Holy Spirit.
CHC is built on 3 core pillars. The first is the Great Commandment: loving God wholeheartedly and loving people fervently. Our love for God must translate into loving our neighbours. So we want to find a hurt and heal it, find a need and meet it. We want take the anointing of God outside of our physical confines into a broken-down world, to build a “Church Without Walls.” To do that, we have to be loving, tolerant and accepting of people who are very different from us. We love them unconditionally and help them become happy, productive people. With this mindset, we have grown the church to the size it is today.
The second pillar is the Great Commission: preaching the gospel of the kingdom in all the nations. Jesus didn’t just die for our own countrymen, He laid down His life for the whole world. From the urban cities to the rural villages, every person should have the chance to know Jesus and hear of what He has done for him or her. The secret to successful missions is still church-planting. Our strategy in missions is to disciple locals to build relevant, contemporary, Spirit-filled churches. Today, we have 45 affiliate churches and 10 Bible schools in the region. We are growing at the rate of one church every 2-3 months.
The third pillar is the Cultural Mandate of bringing Christ into our contemporary culture. We don’t believe in isolating and sanitizing our members from the world. On the contrary, we inspire them to engage society as salt and light, to be useful citizens---to have a “holy worldliness.” We are to be the representative of Christ in the marketplace of business, education, civil service, arts and entertainment, and the mass media. We must listen to the “messages” that is coming out of popular culture and understand the needs of our generation. Only then can we effectively meet those needs in a way and language the people of the 21st century could understand.
CP: What was CHC like at the very beginning and in its early years?
Kong: Twenty years ago, when CHC first started with a group of 20 young people, we lacked both the experience and resources in starting a church. However, even though our pockets were empty, our hearts were full of passion toward God and a great desire to serve His purpose in our generation. Other churches in Singapore were skeptical of the sustainability of this church of youths, and viewed it with no small measure of suspicion. It was totally unheard of that a church could be independently started by young people, and many in the public were wondering if we were even a proper church.
At that time, CHC did not have its own physical building as well and we had to meet from place to place such as the Katong Park Hotel (Duke Hotel), NTUC Auditorium, Ministry Of Environment Building, National Productivity Board Auditorium, World Trade Centre (now HarbourFront) and Westin Stamford Hotel (now The Fairmount), just to name a few. There were even times when the members did not know where the next service was going to be held! But despite the uncertainty and resistance, we chose to obey the call of God and live a life of spiritual commitment and discipline. I continued preaching messages like faith, prayer and fasting, giving, discipleship, ministry and evangelism, and these values have become the core beliefs and foundation of our church today. By the grace of God, our perseverance paid off and we have grown to what we are today. We have never looked back since.
CP: What is your personal testimony like? How did you come to know Christ and desire to serve Him? And what inspired you to start CHC?
Kong: I received Jesus Christ as my personal Savior and Lord in 1975. After my conversion, I attended a small neighborhood Anglican church for the next 13 years. In 1989, I felt the call of God to enter into full-time Christian service. By then, I had graduated with a degree in Computer Science from the National University of Singapore and was working for a publishing house. Having held several small, but successful, evangelistic campaigns in Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines, my original intention was to become a missionary in Southeast Asia. In April that year, I left the Anglican church that I had been attending since a child and set out to become a staff evangelist with “Christ for Asia,” a Singapore-based missions organization.
During one of my trips to the Philippines, the Holy Spirit spoke into my heart, “Kong, return to Singapore and raise up a new generation of believers that would take Asia by storm.” Truly, God’s ways are higher than our ways. At that same time, a group of young people that I had previously ministered to approached me and wanted me to be their shepherd, to pastor and lead them. With the support and encouragement of numerous senior pastors in the city, I decided to pioneer a new work, and hence, put aside my desire of becoming a church-planter in the mission fields.
CP: We know that it is God who grows the Church, but how did CHC allow Him to do that exactly? Do you have any encouragement for churches that have hit the growth ‘plateau’?
Kong: When the Lord first spoke to me about pastoring a church, I had no idea how this vision will come to pass at that time or how the church is going to be like. Since our inception, our modus operandi for winning the lost has been through the Caring System and Friendship Evangelism, where we build meaningful friendships with them and meet their needs with the love of God. At the same time, I was actively discipling the young people in the basics of Christianity: the Word of God, prayer, life in the Holy Spirit, soul-winning, church life, etc. And step by step, God brought us from a humble beginning of 20 people to what we are today, a church of 27,086 weekly attendees.
Coupled with a constant vision and love for the lost, I believe these are the factors that have propelled our church forward. Our leadership and members are always mindful that God’s desire is that everyone should be reached with the Gospel. We have a saying in CHC that “as long as there is one unsaved person out there, the church is not big enough.” We refuse to allow our present size to make us complacent and stop reaching out to the lost.
Inevitably, all churches will go through challenging times or hit a “plateau” in their growth cycle. The important thing to do apart from praying and believing is to persist and keep on keeping on. When we are determined to live out the will of God and fulfil His call upon our lives against all odds, our breakthroughs will come.
CP: With over 27,000 members, what are the main challenges of discipleship? How does CHC overcome that?
Kong: One of the things we have guarded closely over the years is the values or “DNA” of City Harvest Church which can be summed up as the church’s spirit of excellence and uncompromising attitude toward the things of God. In spite of our size, we try our best to ensure it is passed down, year after year, to the rank and file. This would not have been possible without an effective cell group system. In our church, over 1,000 cell group and ministry leaders each lead one or two cell groups, each averaging 15 people. Cell group meetings are held once a week — and in between, conduct fellowship, counseling, Bible studies, and many other activities.
As our church grows larger in numbers, "cell groups provide the optimum context for effective discipleship,” where members can still forge close relationships with fellow Christians in a much smaller setting. Smaller cell groups help foster strong bonds of friendship among church members, and particularly among the young, the positive peer pressure helps to keep values intact. Thankfully, CHC members are still very committed to prayer and fasting. Overnight prayer meetings are regular occurrences, and this year the church has embarked on “Prayer365” which ensures that at on any given day throughout the year, there are City Harvest cell groups interceding for the vision of the church and the needs of the members.
CP: What would you say is the biggest crisis in Christianity today?
Kong: One of the foremost challenges facing Christianity today is for the need for the church to stay relevant in order to meet the needs of a rapidly evolving society. For those who have been brought up in traditional, conservative, legalistic Christianity, there is always a discomfort in relating or engaging human society or its popular culture. Somehow, we have been taught that culture is worldly, carnal and demonic. But culture is simply a reflection of what people value and enjoy in life. In fact, culture is not a “secular” concept; it has its beginning in the Scripture.
In Genesis 2:15, when God told Adam to take care of the Garden of Eden, the word He used was cultura or “culture.” In its simplest sense, “culture” means taking the raw materials or resources that God has given to man and creatively nurturing them to their fullest potential. These resources may come in the form of talents, gifts and abilities. And even if they are outside the scope of direct church work, we should seek to develop them fully for the glory of God, with the confidence that “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning” (James 1:17).
God is the Creator and creativity is in His nature. On the other hand, Satan is never creative. Sin has no originality. The devil is not the giver of visions and dreams; the Holy Spirit is. Whenever we see something beautiful in the realm of music, art, science, or even human sexuality, it should be natural for us to show an appreciation for it, because it reflects the beauty that originates from God. Conversely, when we see something being distorted or perverted, we mustn’t condemn or curse it; instead, we should seek to redeem it back to God’s original purpose for it.
As Christians of the 21st century, we can’t withdraw into our little shell of religious correctness. More than ever before, we need to engage culture and provide the answer the world is desperately seeking for. The Bible says, “We are ambassadors for Christ” (2 Cor. 5:20). A good ambassador must understand the habits, thinking, values and language of the people he (or she) is sent to. He may not readily accept any portion of the culture of the host country, but nonetheless must be diplomatic enough to represent his president well. Similarly, we are sent as the representatives of the King of kings and Lord of lords to a broken-down world. The Bible encourages believers to engage culture in positive ways and have the ability to “diplomatically” know what portion of culture to accept or to reject. Being a kind, polite, non-condemning and non-judgmental Christian is consistent with having the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23).
Let us be relevant to the real world. “Relevance” means that we should work toward excellence, realism, and fully covering the entire scope of the human experience. Let us become relatable to a real world with real problems. Only in that process can we introduce a lost generation to a real God with real life-changing solutions.
CP: Can you name some of the ‘frontiers’ that CHC is and will be moving into in the near and distant future?
Kong: Spiritually, we want to grow CHC and raise up more disciples locally and overseas. For that, our aim is to plant more churches and start more Bible schools in the major cities in Asia. In terms of our community services, we would like to start more schools, medical centres, orphanages and rehabilitation centres in the poorer regions of Asia. We presently have about 30 such centres and would like to take it to 100 if the Lord permits. Locally in Singapore, if possible, we would love to work with the authorities to build old folks homes, elderly care centers, and maybe even a hospital someday.
In the next 20 years, it is my prayer that our members will really build happy, healthy marriages and families. They will live useful and productive lives in the marketplace of the world. The City Harvest DNA is one of love, acceptance, colour, creativity and progressiveness. We hope to positively bring these values into the societies that we are working in, and re-present a Christ who is loving, accepting, colourful, creative and progressive.
CP: As a Pentecostal raised in a mainline denomination, what would you say are the reasons for divisions between the newer, independent churches and older mainline denominations? What are some practical steps both sides could take to minimise this conflict?
Kong: In the last decade or so, the Singapore church scene has seen an increase in inter-denominational cooperation such as the LoveSingapore movement, Festival of Praise and the Global Day of Prayer event organized by the Evangelical Fellowship of Singapore, just to name a few. These have done a lot of good in uniting and creating meaningful working relationships among the different churches. A better understanding and appreciation of the different ministries carried out by the respective churches has also been fostered.
As a church, we do not see any major “divisions” or differences between the newer independent churches and the mainline traditional denominations as the basis of our faith originates from the same Source, which is the Bible. There may be some differences in our approach, methods and style of worship, but our essential beliefs and fundamental doctrines remain the same for all churches.
CP: Do you have any other comments?
Kong: I believe the finest days for the Church are ahead of us. There is no limit to what God can do through a person or a church who lives by the Word, partners with the Holy Spirit and walks in total obedience to God!