The City Harvest story is one of godly vision, faith and perseverance which has impacted both the local community and nations beyond its shores.
|CN PHOTO: Michael Chan|
It is hard to imagine that just 20 years ago, City Harvest Church—with database attendees numbering over 32,000 now—comprised but a handful of young people. Then, a 25-year old computer science graduate, Kong Hee, was working as a missionary in the Philippines when the Holy Spirit said to him, “Kong, raise up a new generation of believers that would take Asia by storm.”
While he had no idea how the vision would come to pass, he had a burning passion for the Lord as well as an affinity for young people. With a group of 20 youth, he started CHC (then known as Ekklesia Ministry) in 1989. Says John Lam, one of the 20 who started the church with Kong, “Back in those days, there was no youth church in Singapore. It was totally unheard of that a church could be independently started by young people.”
Kong began to teach the church strong biblical principles about praying in tongues, evangelism, the power of fasting, prayer and giving.
“Though we were young, we were strongly committed to core spiritual values like prayer, fasting and living a godly life of obedience and holiness. There was definitely a spirit of revival and consecration in our midst,” says Lam.
Under Kong’s discipleship, rooted in the basics of Christianity, they persevered and grew in faith.
Today, as the largest church in Singapore, holding multiple services every weekend in two locations (Jurong West Street 91 in the Western region, and Singapore Expo in the East), CHC retains the same practices, which form the foundation, or as Kong puts it, “the DNA of City Harvest Church.” CHC members still pray strong in tongues and they still fast. Overnight prayer meetings are held regularly. Prayer 365, started last year, ensures that at any day throughout one full year, there is a City Harvest cell group praying for the church.
This DNA is further perpetuated in CHC’s strive for excellence in all it does, from its lively praise and worship reminiscent of rock concerts to the large scale events it organizes, such as Asia Conference.
“Everything we have done is by the grace of God. As we continually yield ourselves to Him, truly, He has taken us from glory to glory. It has been an exhilarating ride with the Holy Spirit,” says Kong.
The Three Core Pillars of CHC
Even as CHC’s membership grew from tens to tens of thousands over the past 20 years, more important has been its positive influence and its contribution back to the society and community at large—carried out through three core pillars, the first being the Great Commandment: loving God whole-heartedly and loving people fervently.
Says Kong, “Our love for God must translate into loving our neighbors. We want to find a need and meet it, find a hurt and heal it. We want to take the anointing of God outside of our physical confines into a broken-down world, to build a ‘church without walls.’” When Kong preached this message in 1995 exhorting the congregation to love unconditionally, and be tolerant and accepting of those different from themselves, the church saw an exponential growth.
Through entities like City Harvest Community Services Association, CHC has been able to meet the needs of the community, regardless of class and religion. In fact, CHC’s congregants today encompass the English-speaking, Mandarin-speaking, Tamil-speaking, dialect-speaking, the intellectually-challenged, Indonesian and Filipino nationals, among many others.
Some of the departments under CHCSA are FIRSTHand, which befriends and supports HIV/Aids patients from Tan Tock Seng Hospital, and Talking Hands, which serves the hearing impaired community in Singapore. Another department, RAYZ, provides home therapy to the intellectually-challenged, which includes one-to-one tutoring services as well.
On the overseas front, during the 2004 Asian tsunami, CHCSA was the first international disaster relief team to arrive at Banda Aceh. The church also rallied together its members in providing much-needed humanitarian aid for the victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
Through its affiliate churches, CHC has also been able to reach out to the needy in other Asian cities. Passion 99 Church in Taiwan started a gift-giving program in a district in Taipei to help bring cheer to the city as it waddled in the gloom of the economic downturn. As a result of that outreach, many depressed and suicidal individuals have responded to their acts of kindness and sought help from the church.
The second pillar is the Great Commission: to preach the gospel of the kingdom throughout the world, from the urban cities to the rural villages. “Jesus didn’t just die for our own countrymen, He laid down His life for the whole world,” says Kong. “The key to successful missions is still church-planting.” Through an active missions ministry that seeks to disciple locals to build relevant, contemporary, Spirit-filled churches, CHC today has 29 affiliate churches and six Bible schools in the region.
Parallel to the church’s efforts in carrying out the Great Commission is the set up of the School of Theology in 1994, a full-time Bible college that aims to train potential pastors and missionaries to establish strong local churches in their own cities and nations.
Kong says of the heartbeat of SOT, “God wants to move through local churches to bring revival and blessing to the world. Our desire is to see strong local churches built to fulfill God’s plan.” He adds, “We long to see not just more workers sent out to fulfill God’s purposes, but trained workers deployed to be carriers of God’s spirit wherever they go.”
Throughout the six-month program, students will be taught courses including 21st Century Evangelism, Church Growth and Leadership, the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, the Five-Fold Ministries and Homiletics, which is the art of preaching. So far, the school has produced over 4,000 graduates. One of them is Kevin Loo, who enrolled into SOT in 1997 (then known as City Harvest Bible Training Center Singapore). Equipped and with a new, impassioned outlook toward ministry, he returned to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and started City Harvest KL, now a strong church of 1,500.
The third pillar is the Cultural Mandate: to bring 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 and to be useful citizens—in other words, to have a ‘holy wordliness,’” explains Kong. Through this message, members are inspired to be representatives of Christ in the marketplace of business, education, government, arts and entertainment, and the mass media. They are exhorted to listen to the “messages” that are coming out of popular culture in order to better understand the needs of the present generation. “Only then can we effectively meet those needs and speak a language the people of the 21st century can understand,” he says.
But how has the church been able to retain the core values that it had started out with while ensuring that every member is being discipled and cared for, even as it expands? The answer—through a strong cell group system. Every week, over 700 cell group leaders each lead one or two cell groups, averaging 15 people. Kong explains, “As the 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.”
In particular, the cell group system helps foster strong bonds of friendship among the members, enabling positive peer influence to keep the right values intact in each member. Thus, 20 years after the first 20 young people started the church, CHC continues to be a strong spiritual sanctuary for the young and old alike.
For Lam, who came to Christ and joined the church at the tender age of 19, he attributes the man that he is today to what he has learned in church. “Before I joined CHC, my biggest struggle was finding my purpose in life. Now, my life, my purpose, my visions and my dreams have been entirely molded by being in CHC, where I gained understanding about the kind of life that God wants me to live.”
Today, Lam, who is now 42, is the chief financial officer of a marine company and enjoys a loving marriage with his wife Khoo Li Li, his former cell group member. They have two children, age 9 and 6 who are in CHC’s Children’s church. “Our children are blessed to have their godly values shaped at a young age. They have a great future ahead of them.”
The Children’s Church itself is no child’s play. With the aid of over 400 volunteers, it not only teaches a Bible-based curriculum but also offers elective workshops to help develop the children in a more holistic way and equip them to become all-rounders in future. The electives touch on social entrepreneurship for the young, social etiquette and performing arts, among others.
As the church looks ahead to the coming years, the members endeavor to become strong pillars in society. “The City Harvest DNA is one of love, acceptance, creativity and progressiveness. We want to positively bring these values into the societies that we are working in, and re-present a Christ who is loving, accepting, colorful, creative, progressive and sophisticated,” says Kong.