Friday, 29 June 2012

Mega-church = mega-ego. Beware!

Some notes before I forget:

What's the point of a mega-church?  I commented about this in previous two posts.

Some observations:

When members of a church devote themselves to one charismatic leader it is not a church any more. By sociological definition - if I remember my SOC 309 (or whatever it was) - it has acquired a cult existence.

Some members of this church however have truly been touched by the work of Christ and I do not wish to belittle this. There is a danger for anyone looking in from the outside to assume any kind of homogeneity. No, not all members are carbon copies of one another.

There are some who have a true faith, probably gained at another church, and have found a home in this church, for now. Their faith will be bigger than the history of this church. They will move on and continue their journey of faith, elsewhere if necessary.

There are some who have known no other church. These are the ones who need nurture and comfort during this trying time. Some amongst these might lose their faith, like the plants derived from seeds sown on shallow ground in the parable of the sower.

There are others who form various types of "groups", children of parents who have true faith, children of those who had blind faith, etc. They would have to find their own faith.

Shaken, not stirred

God is a God bigger, much BIGGER, than all of these. Man's (and woman's) failings notwithstanding, God has allowed growth amongst those who heeded his Word, no matter how thin or tenuous the teachings from the pulpit might have been.

God promised that his Word will not return to him "void". From Isaiah 55:11:

"... so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it."

Even God's word that was preached by a man who might in due course be found in a court of law to be unworthy of his title would not return "empty". It shall "accomplish".

This is why I have faith that even in the largest, most mega of churches where the pastors have proven to be something less than godly, the word of God could still take root and grow. God's word is not limited by human failings. There will be true believers even in such churches.

These true believers might be leading small groups and doing a really wonderful work amongst the sheep of their small flocks.

Some might have been shaken in their faith. Let us pray that many more will be stirred to right actions.

Power/Money corrupts

I am trained to view the world in context. When I read about the achievements of Mr Kong I have no doubt that he was (once) used by God to draw people to him. There was a point in history when this servant of God had his heart in the right place. (One could say the same for his wife.)

Comments have been made that suggest (to me) that he remains deluded about his current situation. It is almost like those British politicians we know who have told their lies so frequently, so consistently that they had begun to believe them.

Mr Kong seems to be blinded ... by what?

Honestly which husband would want to see his wife gyrating in skimpy clothing in music videos mouthing words that are not spiritually uplifting? Let alone a pastor of a mega-church. Hey! Reality check needed, mate. Urgently.

Too late now.

I want to give this man the credit that is due him, for those times that he really made God's Word real to those who need it most. But then, at some point, it seemed he stopped worshipping God.

Instead he worshipped his wife, or her potential, or money that might come with it, or fame, or what? I am not sure. Could early success have led to an ego trip that went too far?

This does not mean that I have already judged him guilty of the crimes that he has been accused . I am merely making a statement about his lifestyle (the expensive clothes and homes) that was clear for all to see.

Sun/Son of God

I learned a significant lesson while travelling 16 hours "hard seat" from Guilin to Beijing many years ago: "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head." (Luke 9:58)

Even King David was not immune to temptation.

The critical point for me is: would he do a Zacchaeus?

Like Jesus said, those who are not sick, they do not need doctors.

"If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." (John 8:7)

Are my inconclusive thoughts at the moment.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Re-post: Charity and a culture of dependency

This is a copy of a blog post from October 23 2008:


This is an edited version of my letter published in the Straits Times in Singapore:


Oct 22, 2008
Charity and a culture of dependency

IN READING what Mr Willie Cheng had to say about the non-profit sector, ('Good Principles', Oct 12), I was struck by the following point he made: 'Charities should seek extinction rather than growth. The mantra of business is growth.

'The opposite applies to non-profits. Non-profits are created to achieve societal change. Ultimate success occurs when the non-profit's mission is achieved and its existence is no longer needed.'

What a timely reminder amid the current context of big banks (formerly 'cooperative building societies') becoming 'super-banks', the dependence on non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in disaster zones, and nearer home, the 'mega-churches'. I realised that NGOs, mothers (and fathers), teachers and missionaries have one aim in common: to work ourselves out of a job.

Last week, our eight-year-old (already responsible for keeping his own space tidy) offered to clean the dining area. Hurrah! I have one role less to play.

The first violin teacher of famed Israeli violinist Maxim Vengerov said that there was nothing else she could teach him after two years, and she sent him away to find another teacher. If teachers do not encourage their pupils to move beyond what they are able to teach, we stunt the pupils' growth.

Mega-churches? What's the point?

If a church has non-profit status, that is, it pays no taxes, then it too should heed what Mr Cheng has to say. They must achieve societal (or spiritual) change, and move on. If the church leaders are doing their job well, that is, working themselves out of a job, then there should be new cohorts of church members willing and raring to pioneer churches where the needs are greatest.

If they choose instead to run themselves as a business by using tithes to seek growth and profits, then they must cease to call themselves a church or a charity.

Be that as it may, all these groups would do well to 'seek extinction'. There is a term for the phenomenon of institutions which start ostensibly as 'helping hands' to those with specific needs, but then develop mechanisms that make the needy even deeper in need. It's called a 'culture of dependency'.

See Mega-church = mega-ego. Beware!

Tears in Heaven

I've copied, chopped and pasted from a previous post in another blog of September 23, 2008:


The words 'big' and 'mega' have been in the news all around the world.

The big banks and other massive financial institutions have fallen, or are falling.

I could not understand how Fannie May and Freddie Mac could become so big that they are not "allowed to fail". (They were 'born big', being instruments created by the American government.) And the likes of Morgan Stanley and Lehman Brothers.... Big does not mean invincible.

In Singapore recently the spotlight has also fallen on the 'mega-churches', non-denominational churches led by very charismatic personalities that now boast of thousands of 'attendees' (apparently not all are 'members') in sparkling new buildings with massive carparks, state-of-the-art audio-visual equipment, huge auditoriums, etc. with millions of dollars in the pot. This scrutiny is partly due to the fallout from a few major charities where the accounting has been found to be somewhat less than transparent. (My ex-boss first blew the whistle.)

I have been thinking also about 'whether size matters' in the area of education. While the Labour government is pushing for 'city academies' where thousands of students can be educated in more sparkling new buildings, I wonder if in the area of education and other 'affective endeavours', small is actually more beautiful.

Economy of scale makes sense in certain aspects of life. So if I needed to fit out a 100-room hotel I buy furniture and fittings in bulk. The supplier saves on cost of transport, profits from a higher-volume sale and the customer gets a discount. It's a win-win situation.

[... case of school being better smaller...]

Churches. I am always wary of big churches. I am not saying that they are all bad. But the experiences of many such churches and the scandals involving their leaders in other parts of the world is history we must not neglect. (Why do Christians have such short memories?)

My first question is why does a church wish to grow so big? Churches with under 200 members struggle often for critical mass. Once they break that 200-member threshold it seems, they could grow exponentially.

(The advantage of being in a big church is that one could become pretty much anonymous, practise 'spectator Christianity': I go to church, I tithe, someone else can do the work. Talk to my boss about Jesus? You must be kidding! He only uses that as a swear word. )

Then what? Bigger churches? More pastors? Bigger carparks?

Do we read the Apostles in Acts saying, 'OK, mates, we'll stop with Antioch. Those who wish to learn more about what this Christianity is all about are now welcome to trek to Antioch where we would have a state-of-the-art 5000-seat amphi-theatre, spa baths for dusty feet and food and drink to satisfy the hungry and thirsty'?

The Apostles travelled - from Jerusalem, to Judea, Samaria, to the ends of the earth - to where the people are to share God's Word with them.

If my church were to grow to 2000 I would suggest to the leadership that we planted new churches in places that need the Word of God. That is why there are so many churches in the red light district in Amsterdam. Christians have seen the needs there.

Instead of putting up new expensive buildings where tens of thousands need to drive to every Sunday, to queue up to get into an air-conditioned auditiorium, etc - just imagine the carbon footprint - would it not be easier to have smaller churches where members could simply walk to?

In Singapore there is a particular problem in that it is difficult to get planning permission to raise a church. I understand that. But what about setting up community-focused services like free clinics where the space could also be used for other purposes?

There are three things I would warn against as far as mega-churches are concerned:

1) I cringe when members of such mega-churches refer to their church as 'So-and-So's church'. Or more commonly it is the name of the church, followed quickly by the name of the pastor. It is no more God's church, but 'that very charismatic leader's church'.

2) I get wary when these charismatic leaders set up businesses (often called 'ministries') named after themselves. Where is the separation between the church they minister to as God's calling and the personal (financial) benefits they reap as a result of God blessing this church?

They are welcome to write books to share the success of their ministries, but when their own name becomes the selling point, much more important than God's name in this whole venture, I become suspicious.

3) Most importantly when such churches teach a lop-sided gospel, be it prosperity, health, grace, or whatever the buzzword might be, I would stand back to take stock. I have been a Christian for nearly 40 years and sometimes the going IS tough. Churches must preach the whole Bible, the whole gospel, minister to the whole person.

[... 'the LOVE OF MONEY' has been shown again - the root of all evil.]

Many people have benefitted from this financial crisis, let us be clear about this. They have gambled with the money of ordinary folks (not their own) and made a bundle (obscene bonuses) and a quick exit. We, the taxpayers all over the world, have now to pick up the pieces, mend the broken-hearted.

A commentator noted (with clear disdain in his tone) that the failure of AIG is due to this 'insurance company pretending to be a bank'. Another analyst said that with the boom and bust cycles in business, someone always has to pay. This time it was the turn of the banks.

Christians are to be 'in the world, but not of the world'. There are clear teachings about not serving God and Mammon, not turning the House of God into a den of thieves. There is ample warning that 'the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour' (I Peter 5:8)

If churches forget their God-ordained purpose to be 'the body of Christ' and prefer instead to run themselves like big banks or big corporations because it 'makes business sense' then let them be aware that when the chickens come home to roost (when boom goes bust, as boom WILL go bust), there will be - as Eric Clapton sings - 'tears in heaven'.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Time and Place for making students think

The last few weeks have been fraught at home so I have not been keeping in touch with Singapore news as much as I would like to.

I was stirred from my inertia after watching videos showing how DPM Teo Chee Hean kept batting questions back at students at the recent Pre-U Seminar with "What do you think?"

First of all, let's examine the "Pre-U Seminar". Things might have changed. In my time only the top "student leaders" were invited to this event. As I failed miserably to get myself elected I was, of course, not "invited" to this seminar.

DPM Teo was facing the potential leaders of tomorrow and what he did was use a staid "What do you think?" with the excuse that he wanted the young people to think.

You know these are smart students when one young man, obviously having heard the "WDYT?" question several times, emphasized that he wanted the DPM's view and even called him "Sir" after giving his own view.

I am not sure if "Sir" answered that particular question, or if he batted it back.

The whole point of the Pre-U Seminar was that the participants get to ask the guest speakers questions. Hopefully intelligent questions, but nevertheless the guest speaker's role was to enlighten, give his views, explain, provide the big picture.

I was especially annoyed that the "Arts" student who spoke so eloquently did not seem to get her answer. So let me say to her, arts and classics students are the most respected students in the UK: the best students study arts and classics, the next best study science. Of course those who are good in science do not think that way.

However, in the real world, we need both scientists and artists and classicists to make the world a better place. (And the best are social anthropologists, needless to say.)

I digress.

I often say to young people that knowing the answers is important. One must know one's times tables, basic science and all that. But the most intelligent people are not those who have all the answers, but those who ask the best questions.

Good research is not led by knowing the answers. There is no need for research if you already have the answers. Knowledge is advanced by scholars who know which questions to ask.

And I heard good questions from these students. It was most frustrating that the guest speaker did not rise to the occasion, to enthrall them with his wisdom and inspire them to think about duty, responsibilitiy, government, governance and sundry moral questions that were clearly important to them.

I asked my son, do you call this the Socratic method? He said sometimes his teachers would do the same. "Look carefully (at the map, at the picture, etc) and tell me what you think."

But at his age (12) the teachers are dealing with imparting information at the "knowledge", "comprehension" and "application" levels. Socrates wanted his pupils to think about moral issues, about matters where there might not be right or wrong answers. The Pre-U students wanted a discussion on the level of "analysis", "synthesis" or "evaluation" (according to Bloom's taxonomy of knowledge).

Cleverly posed questions lead a student to the conclusion that the teacher wishes him to draw. But each of these questions would provide a clue or hint to lead the student on such journeys. This is sound instructional methodology.

A generic "What do you think?" in response to sincere questioners who really wanted to know what the DPM thinks is a cop-out.

It is no different from the two-year-old who responds to every new bit of information with "Why?" when in fact they wanted the who, what, where, when and how, but two-year-olds are usually not clever enough to do this, and settle for the generic "Why?" which drives most parents crazy.

We asked for your opinion, Sir, and you are the only person who owns the opinion. We can't get inside your head.

We wanted to know the "big picture" and you, Sir, as a government minister, has the whole picture. Why did you not share it?

We wanted to know how your government views certain trends which are troubling young Singaporeans, and you, Sir, in government is why we have come today to listen to you.

To say "What do you think?" and pretend that he was trying to get students to think is tantamount to ...

... What do you think? :-)

Next year, Pre-U Seminar participants should learn one of these retorts: "With respect, Sir, I would very much like to hear your opinion."

Or, "Never mind what I think, Sir, we would like the big picture from your vantage point. Sir."

Or, "Sir, we have come all dressed up to meet you in anticipation of learning from you, how can you so liddat, not tell us what you think?"

No, delete-delete the last one, OK. Say, "We are young. We are ready to be fired up. All we need is a spark. Sir, have you anything to say that would inspire us, set us on fire? "

Or, "Sir, the Singapore education system has made us into robots and it seems that the government make us out to be unable to think for ourselves. So I'm asking you, a minister, to please enlighten us. Leh."

Don't say Auntie did not teach you. Go and tell your friends, OK?