After the last post, I was pleased to find David Jackman’s wisdom on this.
We spent the afternoon traipsing through Singapore’s CBD, gently sauna-ing in our office attire, looking for a venue for Easter lunchtime talks.
A late lunch was in order at the famous Hock Lam Beef Noodles (22 China Street, Far East Square), where we chatted about the church scene in Singapore, how small churches lack of economies of scale and contacts for “productive” and “efficient” ministry, and how bible teaching here somehow gets itself mired into a possibly distinctly Asian swamp.
Traditionally, teachers were held in high regard. And disciples were expected to be loyal to their teachers and identified themselves by whom they were taught. Although this is no longer the case in the modern Singapore school system, there are vestiges of that practice in the sports, martial arts, piano, violin, etc. worlds, and in evangelical Christian circles.
So it is a temptation for teachers to gather around themselves high-caliber individuals because that enhances their prestige and of course, then attracts other high-flyers. This success rate is then the basis for much foreign investment – churches in other (usually Western) countries see the statistics and rate of return, conclude that “good work” is being done and are eager to contribute talent and money to such ventures.
1. that faithful Bible teaching is now an idol. In a success-driven society like Singapore, Christians merely replace climbing the corporate/career ladder with climbing the evangelical circle ladder. How sharp you are at Bible exegesis and preaching are your tools for upward mobility. Your ability to tease out nuances in a book or passage is what people respect and commend you for;
2. that good Bible training is something kept within certain circles (although some crumbs are thrown out, so as not to appear selfish) and even if outsiders are let in, they are those who would be exceedingly grateful and show loyalty to the teachers;
3. that people who are not “good value” are neglected. Time is limited, say the teachers, so they will only nurture those who have potential to teach others. The rest are dropped like hot potatoes if they don’t fit the bill. Ill people or those struggling with their faith in difficult circumstances are prayed for and discussed, but not deeply cared for or pastored. And naturally, their disciples model such priorities in their own groups;
4.that the method of attracting good caliber people is to be dismissive of the faithfulness or godliness of the teachers/leaders of other churches. This is endemic in Singapore’s sports and arts circles where there is much bitching and cat-fighting, all subtly and elegantly done. Such self-righteousness is of course quite dangerous for the souls of Christians;
5. that whole generations (usually in their 20s) suddenly leave their churches to flock to whichever the current in-vogue church is (because they are persuaded that it is right and godly to do so), discouraging the younger generation (usually in their teens or in tertiary education) and causing dismay to the older generation.
Thankful for elder brothers who buy lunch and remind me that God is sovereign in human history and absolutely just in judgement.
At dinner, after chatting through Psalm 119:29-56, the John Smyth scandal came up. Having led on Titus Trust camps, we knew how intense they could be, what deep friendships could be formed, and so what wonderful opportunities for personal work (“a deep work in a few”) they presented. Yet living in this fallen world as still-sinful beings means also that these great opportunities for good are also great opportunities for evil.
In recent years, complaints of bullying and abuse were also made against the leader of a camp modelled on the Titus Trust ones. The trustees (who were all in other countries) dismissed the allegations without further investigation, suggesting that it was just a facet of that leader’s personality.
It seems, said my dinner companion, that where gospel work is being done and seems to be succeeding (ie. bringing in the numbers), others are reluctant to hold the goose that lays the golden egg accountable, afraid that any action will “bring the gospel into disrepute”.
But that fails both to (i) distinguish between the one who waters and the One who gives growth; and (ii) understand the implications of the gospel that one claims to value so much.
It is well past noon when we hurry down a dusty alley in Danang, Vietnam. On one side of the alley, bored women, sequestered behind their piles of brown dried meats and mounds of maroon meat floss, fan themselves in the afternoon heat.
Where the alley turns right into another row of bored dried-meat vendors, sits a bánh xèo institution. There is a ravenous silence around the sterile stainless steel tables as we stuff rice paper with fresh herbs and leaves and cool raw cucumbers and a tumeric-laced “crepe”, itself already bursting with tasty bean sprouts and shrimp and pork, and dip the whole fat roll into bowls of tangy satay-style sauce.
Little time for chit-chat. Much has already been said about external persecution – beatings and destruction of property and threats, and about internal strife – denominational division and sheep-stealing. Now we need to ride on to Hoi An to meet another group of brothers and sisters.
Hoi An will be our third stop. We are somewhat exhausted from bumpy roads and hard beds, but encouraged by God’s work.
That evening, after dinner, I speak about the importance of trusting God’s word in the Bible, of the Bible being both a divine word and a human word, and as a human word – capable of being understood by the normal means of comprehension and consideration of context. Context to be considered: literary context, book context, historical context, and whole Bible context. I see furrowed brows during the hour-long session and pray that God would use this poor dry attempt to somehow help his people.
God deigns to use his weak vessels. Over little piles of hến trộn the next day, brothers talk about how struck they are that God’s word is primarily about God and what he is doing in the world, and about changing our fallen view of the world – not about going off to do something; and sisters say how mortified they are that they’ve been doing character studies on the life of Joseph.
Oh, that they will see the stupendous banquet that awaits them as they dig properly and heartily into the Scriptures. How much firmer they will be able to stand, knowing that the unspeakable sovereignty of our Father and the eternal salvation wrought by his Son, and the glorious hope of the new creation.
And this we pray too, for ourselves.
Don’t you love it when, in this era of authenticity, you can make a totally ugly tart and call it “rustic”?
Having been rather sleep-deprived from all the work (gospel and for-money) in the last few weeks, I’ve:
(ii) yet wondered (somewhere at the back of my mind) if i’m using it as a bad excuse for my poor planning, rather than it being a proper acknowledgement of the poverty of my station before an almighty and sovereign God.
New Year resolutions. Pithy inspirational quotes. A sudden boost in planning for the year ahead.
The Coffee Academics, Scotts Square
Plagued by chronic pessimism, figuring it’d be a waste of time joining the lemming rush, I was content to sit by the wayside (in a coffee shop) and think about the components of ministry and how one could get better at it. After all, the work of the Lord is far from pointless.
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
58 Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:56-58)
The turkey-and-gammon-stuffed brain threw up an old gem from MY, fount of all pithily-packaged wisdom, though certainly not of the Hallmark variety.
What makes properly fruitful Christian ministry?
“B R I O“
Bible, Relationship with God, Individuals, Oomph!.
(Or “BRIL” = Bible, Relationship with God, Individuals, Leadership.)
First, the Bible.
- importance of the Bible
The gospel is not about we have done, but what God has done for us. This is what distinguishes Christianity from every other religion in the world. But if the gospel is what God has done, then we need to know what he has done, is doing, will be doing. How can we know this? Through revelation, in God’s word – the Bible. Christian faith and maturity come from understanding what he has said in Scripture.
- therefore, necessary primacy of the Bible in ministry
28 Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. 29 For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me. (Colossians 1:28-29)
Ministry is about telling people what God has said, so that people can be hearing and responding to what God has said. The job of the minister is to proclaim Jesus from his word.
The Bible therefore is absolutely fundamental to ministry.
But there is the temptation to move away from the Word. Why? Because there may not be any evident success in keeping with the Word. God works slowly – and what he does is not always spectacular; we may not see results soon. But only God’s work done God’s way will last. If we are not God-centred, we will be man-centred.
- therefore, necessary familiarity with all God has said in the Bible
16 But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, 17 and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, 18 who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some. (2 Timothy 2:17-18)
We need to be familiar with all that God has said in the Bible. The Bible is a compilation of books, but it is not a random collection of truth. It is a narrative – how God is saving a people to be with him in eternity. So we need to know how all the pieces fit together to contribute to that storyline.
26 Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all of you, 27 for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. (Acts 20:26-27)
We need to know what God has said with regard to some of the issues that we face. For example, the Bible has a lot to say about suffering. We must understand all of what God says about it – we can’t just select some bits, but must have some idea of the whole. So we can’t just say that suffering is normal now, without pointing to the new creation where suffering and death will be no more. Otherwise, there will be despair. Neither can we merely say that suffering will cease in the new creation, but neglect to mention that it is normal now.
To begin to get a good grasp of the Bible, we should get familiar with some of the key books of the Bible. We need to know a Gospel well. Romans is one of the best summaries of the gospel. Colossians and 1 Corinthians – are very important, and contain important truths. Starting with a few books begins to help us to get to know the Bible better. Over the years, we can then build up a portfolio of books that we can get to know. And over time, we can get to know the whole Bible. How very exciting! What alot there is to know.
Knowing the Bible is a lifetime’s occupation.
15 Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15)
Timothy has been Paul’s right hand man for many years. Still, Paul lists some key things necessary in being a good worker for God. Why is rightly handling the Word so important? See above.
How do we get to know the Bible better and better? By handling the Bible better and better. How do we do so? By working at the text ourselves, and not going to commentaries.
There are so many commentaries around – how do you know which one is right? Also, if we use commentaries, our understanding is always going to be secondhand – we won’t be able to check what is being said. And we won’t have the freshness of God speaking to us; it will be stale. We will be bored because we will always just be relying on someone else’s insight. We will not be excited by the word.
Why do so many people start off with good intentions in teaching the word then give up? Because they have no sense of freshness, of seeing for themselves and saying “oh gosh!”, no extra depth.
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: 2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. (2 Timothy 4:1-2)
If you understand the Bible but you can’t teach it, it will be of no value to anyone else.
Teaching the Bible isn’t something you can learn from a book or talk. You learn by just doing it – trial and error. Just like learning to play a sport, to fish, or to ride a bicycle.
It takes a lot of time, and we might think that no one seems to notice. But cumulatively, over the years, this is what will most grow God’s kingdom. It may not seem glamorous or successful, but we must trust that this is the way God wants to do it since he says so in his Word.
The Coffee Academics Singapore (facebook)
TCA at Scotts Square is the Singapore outpost of the much-recommended TCA in Hong Kong. But like the long slow process of training necessary for Bible teachers, it seemed it was still early days for their baristas when we visited.
JWF Blend, ice-drip (S$14 (£7))
Described as a blend of rare Kenyan caracoli beans, the unanimous opinion around the table was that it was extremely citrusy (or sour, depending on how pained you were at having wasted good money). Not quite the “delicate fruity flavours” advertised. Perhaps it was underextracted and needed a higher bean:water ratio.
Now any of these beans, by themselves, would have been excellent, so it was baffling why anyone would have decided to blend them. With the FW price index in Singapore hovering about the S$5 mark, the premium price seemed attributable to the brand-name beans rather than any corresponding increase in caffeine bliss.
I am incredibly useless at keeping up with any sort of correspondence, as friends all over the world will attest. But with all the sweaty swotting going on in Singapore for the Cambridge ‘A’ levels, I thought the poor muggertoads might like something to help keep things real, and sat myself down quite sternly to do something about it.
The usual “let go and let God” Christian Hallmark cards didn’t quite ring true. And of what comfort the wishy-washy “don’t worry God has a plan for you”? Wanted to offer them something meatier.
For my own future reference, a few somewhat disjointed thoughts cobbled together:
- The exam period may seem really intense now, and that’s probably right. There is a season for everything, and it is probably appropriate to work hard now and do your best on the tests.
- Remember who your God is – he is the Creator of the universe and the Sustainer of everything. He alone changes the tides and the seasons, and causes kingdoms to rise and fall; he is the one who directs the courses of kings’ hearts. So when you study physics and chemistry and biology and geography, you do not study them just out of academic interest. Instead you can marvel at your Father’s intricate work in the whole of creation. And when you study history, whether of a country or of the world, you must wonder at what God is doing in the lives of nations.
- Yet remember where we are – outside the perfect Garden of Eden, in a fallen world rife with human sin and the terrible consequences of that sin on the environment, on the animals, on other human beings, on societies, on nations.So when you read history and literature, it will be obvious to you that humans everywhere yearn for something better. But time and again, the ultimate futility of human attempts to create that better world via politics, economics, sociology, psychology, philosophy, social reforms…becomes evident.
- So remember where the whole of human history is headed – towards the new creation, inaugurated by the first coming of Jesus and by the Cross; our present heaven and earth are passing away, and we await a new heaven and earth where our Lord and Saviour will rule forever over people whose sin has been dealt with completely. Therefore, while the results of your exams may be important for the next year (to determine if you will get a scholarship and/or to read at Oxford, Cambridge, an Ivy League university), they will matter less when you are looking for your first job, much less in 10 years, with progressively diminishing rates of returns in 20 years, 50 years, 1000 years, 1 billion years.
- Knowing this therefore, work hard, but there is no occasion to stop trusting and obeying God, or serving and loving your brothers and sisters, or doing what is right, or giving answers for the hope that you have in Christ. Stress is no excuse for sin. (In fact, there is never any acceptable excuse for sin.)
I am at my usual breakfast place – Keng Wah Sung (783 Geylang Road, at the junction with Lorong 41) – refereeing between an empty stomach and a sensitive nose. The rumbler wins. And the mask comes off as a coffeeshop uncle swiftly sets down teh c kosong ping (iced unsweetened milk tea), kaya toast, and soft-boiled eggs with a clatter.
There is Zechariah on a beat-up old iPhone 4S, but I can’t help casting back to conversations with Uncle S about See Kee Oon’s recent judgement on the City Harvest case.
(See oral grounds of decision in PP v (1) Lam Leng Hung, (2) Kong Hee, (3) Tan Shao Yuen Sharon, (4) Chew Eng Han, (5) Tan Ye Peng, (6) Serina Wee Gek Yin.)
Much has been written on the subject, including:
- Mark Woods, Kong Hee and City Harvest Church: How a music ‘ministry’ led to a megachurch pastor’s downfall (Christianity Today, 21 October 2015)
- What is round-tripping?
- Geraldine Sim, 9 Reasons Why City Harvest Church Was the Devil To Me
- Henson Lim, A Personal Response to the City Harvest Case
We need to not be hazy (as the Singapore skyline) about what exactly the CHC leaders have been found guilty of. The verdict isn’t anti-Christian, nor anti-megachurch, nor is it preventing anyone from evangelising. It concerns a law that protects people against the flagrant and deliberate dishonesty of those they entrusted with property – that is, criminal breach of trust (Section 405, Penal Code (Chapter 224 of Singapore)).
Now, of course much has been said by supporters about how “pure” and “godly” the motives of the CHC leaders were in (mis)using funds for their Crossover Project (or as some might allege: propping up Sun Ho’s, the pastor’s wife’s, attempt to make the big time in the music business). And questions have been raised as to whether these sanctimonious reasons are true given Kong Hee and Sun Ho’s lavish lifestyle that included a Sentosa Cove apartment (currently allegedly selling for S$10 million (£5 million)) and a Beverly Hills US$20,000/month rental.
Regardless, and in fact, giving them the benefit of the doubt, substantial error remains. While they have been found to have acted dishonestly with regard to their congregation (Judge See: discreet…”was merely a euphemism for a culture of insecurity mired in secrecy and opaqueness where asking difficult or awkward questions was taboo”), what is also incontrovertibly wrong is their intention to act deceitfully vis-à-vis the rest of the world – hoping to hide the gospel somewhere in Sun Ho’s music career.
Low view of truthfulness and trustworthiness
Gospel workers are to be as truthful and trustworthy as the God they worship and the message they bear. “Sure, sin is alright if you can get more people into the kingdom of God!” said no true messenger of God, ever. And so the apostle Paul says to the Corinthians:
Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. 2 But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practise cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. (2 Corinthians 4:1-2)
And again he says to the Thessalonians:
3 For our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive, 4 but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts. 5 For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness. 6 Nor did we seek glory from people, whether from you or from others, though we could have made demands as apostles of Christ. 7 But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. 8 So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us. (1 Thessalonians 2:3-8)
The openness and transparency, and solid integrity of God’s workers demonstrate, in a somewhat McLuhan manner, the characteristics of the God being proclaimed.
Low view of the goodness of the good news (the gospel)
How do you sell a treasure of infinite worth? You state its value plainly – because anything else would detract from its excellent qualities.
How do you tell people about an awesome God? You state his mind-blowing characteristics plainly, as set out clearly in the Bible – because anything else would be a blasphemy and an insult.
When would you hide your product under thick layers of packaging or make-up? Only if you thought it somewhat inferior, and were ashamed to be selling it.
But there is nothing shameful about the gospel. It tells us of our sin (which is obvious to any one who bothers to think about their day and read the news), of our being under the fearful wrath of God, and then holds out a free gift of salvation, that can be taken hold of by trusting that God’s promise is true – that Jesus’ death on the cross has paid for our sins, and that we can now escape his coming judgement. (See Two Ways To Live.)
3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. 4 In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. (2 Corinthians 4:3-4)
Low view of God’s glory
What demonstrates the praiseworthiness of a thing more? That people have been deceived into purchasing it? That it has been marketed half-to-death on sell-a-vision so bored office drones hand over their credit card details while working the graveyard shift? No.
What gives God more glory is that he draws people to himself improbably according to the wisdom of this world: despite the ignoble death of his Son on a cross, and the sad not-Hollywood-worthy state of his messengers. It shows that he is the one at work and he is the one that is attractive, and not us puny humans.
Says Paul to the Corinthians again:
7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. 8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. 11 For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. 12 So death is at work in us, but life in you.
13 Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, “I believed, and so I spoke”, we also believe, and so we also speak, 14 knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. 15 For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.
16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:7-18)