City Harvest Church is a church that has been built, piece upon piece, person by person over the last 25 years. City News Weekly looks back at its foundation years through the eyes of its members.
The theme for this year’s anniversary celebration—CHC’s 25th year, its Silver Jubilee—is “Because Of You”.
The “You” refers to God. It also refers to those who obeyed the call to start this church, and it refers to those who built it—the church members.
Despite its glossy corporate image, CHC is very much a people church, says Serina Perera, who joined the church at the age of 16. “Our credo from Day One has been to love God wholeheartedly and to love people fervently,” she explains. “It was each member reaching out to another person, one to one. That’s how the church was built and still is being built.” Today, Perera is a fulltime staff member of the church and also a worship leader.
Kong Hee, the founder of CHC, was serving as a youth leader at Marine Parade Christian Centre (MPCC) at that time. After he preached during a chapel session in Anglican High School in 1986, revival broke out among the youth.
Among those who heard his message was his future wife, Sun Ho, CHC’s executive director today. She recalls, “I remember it was a very short session. At the time, I was not a believer and the sermon didn’t make a lot of sense to me but I remember being very touched for some reason—of course, looking back now, it was the Holy Spirit. I remember lifting up my hand. After the meeting, I was so shocked that I wasn’t the only one who responded, so many of us did. And that was the start of the revival.”
Soh Chiew Bee, a civil servant in her 40s, was another one who responded to Kong’s altar call that same day. “Pastor Kong was invited by one of our teachers, Mrs Jane Yang, to speak on ‘Rock Music and Backward Masking’ during that Religious Knowledge lesson. I remember sitting throughout the lesson thinking, ‘Chey, I don’t even listen to such music.’ But when this young man gave the altar call, the presence of God was so strong that I found myself responding to the altar call. After the meeting, one of his cell group members followed up on me, and together with many of my close friends—Lillian Cher, Sun, Karen Yeow, Siew Lan, Tian-An—who also responded, I started attending the cell group in MPCC.”
Soh and her friends were only the beginning of the revival. The move of God spread to other secondary schools, and soon MPCC was filled with teens every weekend. It was that year—1986—that Kong received a Word from God “to raise up an army of young people who would take this nation by storm, and ultimately go all over Asia to proclaim the message of the Gospel until the Lord returns.”
At that point, Kong’s heart was set on being a missionary and he was about to embark on becoming a staff evangelist with Christ for Asia, a Singapore-based missions organization. However, the youth group he was leading—including his first two cell group members, Choong Tsih Ming and Yong Te-Chong—asked him to continue discipling them in the ways of the Lord. With support and advice from other senior pastors in Singapore, Kong decided to obey God’s call and start a new work. In 1989, Ekklesia Ministry was launched with a group of 20. Their first service at Peace Centre saw an attendance of 135.
THE “GIANT SUNDAY SCHOOL”
Soh, one of the 20, was studying for her A-Levels that first year of Ekklesia Ministry. She remembers the challenges the young congregation faced. “Back then, we had a lot of youths who faced parental objection—we always called it ‘PO’. Some would get caned after returning home from church activities. But the love for God and for the House of God was so great that many would still come, in spite of PO. Most of the members were between 17 and 20. Pastor Kong was the oldest and only working adult. No wonder they called us the ‘Giant Sunday School’.”
Realtor Abishag Ng, 39, first attended Ekklesia meetings when she was a 14-year-old student at Tanglin Technical Secondary School. “I would only attend cell group meetings after co-curricular activities as church service on Sundays were out of the question. Later when church moved to World Trade Centre in 1991, I grew stronger in my faith and decided to make a stand. I would wake up at 5am on Sundays to mop the house, practising and stirring up courage to say: ‘Dad, can I go to church?’”
Ng would sometimes sneak out to church and her parents would cane her when she returned. “I would encourage myself that these canings were nothing compared to what Jesus had gone through for me,” she says, adding that water baptism drew great objection from parents. “Our water baptism sessions were often interrupted by parents who didn’t allow their kids to be baptized. My classmate’s mom even called the police.”
Despite the obstacles, the young ones persisted and served God with all their hearts. Banker Josephine Lim, 42, who was in Soh’s cell group, recalls serving as an usher at that first service. “In those days, we helped out in everything we could possibly do: we took turns to do physical arrangement—that is, to move the musical instruments and set up the place.” In her cell group, she was the “prayer coordinator”: “I had to call the core members and check if they prayed an hour every day and I would leave a message in Brother Kong’s answering machine with the update every Wednesday,” she remembers.
True to 1 Timothy 4:12 to “Let no one despise your youth, but be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity”, they took God and the things of God seriously. Says Lim, “We met almost every day because we would be having Bible study sessions with new joiners, which were many on a weekly basis. We would also be doing home visits, street-witnessing and conducting prayer meetings.”
Apart from Kong, the only adult at the start of CHC—who wasn’t a parent of a youth member—was Paul Chong, 52, who works in CHC’s Harvest Kidz department today. Chong first met Kong when Kong was assistant to Paul Tan, the former principal of Tung Ling Bible School where Chong was attending. “Brother Kong was in his final year in Computer Science at NUS, working part time for Brother Paul Tan. I was 27, a logistics supervisor at a multi-national offshore gas company. At the time I was a Sunday School teacher at another church. I would attend Brother Kong’s Bible Study classes and cell group at MPCC after going to service at my church.”
Chong is best remembered for his Datsun twin cab truck which became the church’s default vehicle, used for ferrying equipment to and from service and meetings, and to bring members home. Chong served as the senior pastor’s PA and driver at the start of the church on a voluntary basis. Finally, in 1996, “I was the first DFO (duty facility officer) of the church, opening up and locking up before and after service.”
The Life Stages Of A CHC Member
Educator Chin Khen Theen, 41, fondly recalls attending 7am prayer meetings at Tampines Junior College, led by Sandy Yeo, now CHC’s drama director and Bobby Chaw, now the Dean of CHC’s School of Theology.
Coming from a non-Christian family, he could not take part in many of the church activities until he entered National Service, where he became part of the Military Fellowship led by pastor Choong Tsih Ming. He served in the PA (physical arrangement) Ministry, where every Sunday, he carried equipment from the church office at Mackenzie Road at 5.30am to Westin Hotel where the prayer meeting and service were held, and then returned the equipment in the afternoon before preparing to “book in” to camp.
Chin’s life since joining CHC has been shaped by the church, he says. From 1994 to 1997, while he was pursuing his degree at the National University of Singapore’s Science Faculty, he was part of the NUS Campus Fellowship led by pastor Tan Ye Peng, also a Science undergraduate then. “We would have Bible study and discipleship meetings at the NUS Science canteen with Pastor Tan, Yong Fu, Sai Song, Kim Hock, Bobby, Dawn and many others,” he remembers. “Pastor Tan always asked us many thought-provoking questions and sent us back to pray and think.” Chin took over leadership of the Fellowship from Tan in 1996 until 1997.
Chin is just one of many pioneers who gave fully of themselves and played a part in every key event of CHC. He was baptized in the waters of East Coast Beach in 1994, attended City Harvest Bible Training Centre (now SOT), led activities in the youth conference Emerge, traveled with Kong and Ho to Surabaya during the Crossover Project as a security detail, and he has been a cell group leader for the last 17 years. Since his first cell group in 1997, Chin has trained up a multitude of cell group leaders who now have their own groups.
EVERY MEMBER A MINISTER
CHC’s vision statement reads “we are a church… where every member is released into ministry, discipled in the Great Commandment, to obey the Great Commission and the Cultural Mandate.” It is often in serving that CHC members discover their gift or even their calling.
“I was just a regular cell group member till 1994 when I started serving regularly in the music ministry,” says Benson Kong, 39, a senior field operations manager for an international company. Benson joined the church when he was 15.
He started out as a trainee in the music ministry. “The trainees would attend weekly music practice and the music ministry prayer meetings. We had physical arrangement duties—setting up and keeping the musical and sound equipment during practice and services. In fact, I carried equipment for several months before I even played the first note on my saxophone.” After one year as a trainee, Benson was put on duty to play for services.
“Most of the musicians were still in school—a number of them from the Anglican High revival—and the oldest were in their early 20s. The band worked tirelessly as we were committed to give the best to the Lord, even if that meant the music practices ended at one or two in the morning at times.”
But all that dedication and hard work cemented the bonds between members, and grew the ministry’s capacity. “We had one hour-long praise and worship sessions and on some days we would cover over 20 songs!” he remembers, rattling off “now so foreign” names like CFNA, Hosanna Integrity and Maranatha. “We had much more time to linger [in the presence during worship] then.”
He adds, “Around the mid-’90s we started to write our own songs. Brother Poh (worship leader Teo Poh Heng) took the lead with ‘We Are A Church’.” Benson had a year off the ministry “due to my parents’ concern about my GCE O Level results, but God did not forget about me: I returned to the ministry in 1994 in preparation of our first live recording.”
In 1994, the first of CHC’s many albums was recorded, titled Against All Odds. Benson played the saxophone in the studio recording.
Benson’s gift and faithfulness as a ministry member opened the door for him to work full time in church as the faculty head of the visual arts department at CHC’s former School of Creative Arts from 2001 to 2003.
Today, the church still sees the married father of three serving regularly on stage, playing his saxophone. “Fortunately, I am still allowed to ‘do my damage’ through my saxophone after all these years,” he quips. “I picked up guitar and percussion along the way but those are best kept in my closet so that the damage can be contained. God is merciful. Hallelujah.”
A TRUE SHEPHERD
From the beginning, as the leader of the church, Kong cared for his members by meeting personal needs. When City News Weekly spoke to church members for this story, it seemed his list of good works stretches across decades.
“One thing that Pastor Kong did for me which no one knows is that, when I was in the second year of junior college, he enrolled me in an Economics enrichment class and paid for the $200 course when my parents were going through a divorce,” says Lim, adding that her church family was her pillar throughout that difficult period.
Soh recalls, “Hardly anyone knows this: I was looking for part-time job after my A-Levels and PK offered me a job transcribing the teaching tapes (!) of his Bible teacher, Brother Paul Tan. I think the pay was $800 per month. I would listen to Brother Paul’s teaching and transcribe word-for-word onto stacks of foolscap paper. It was many years after that that I found out that it was really PK who was paying me out of his own pocket because Brother Paul really didn’t need those transcripts.”
It wasn’t just financial needs that he met. Chin says that over the years, the words spoken to him by Kong have shaped his life and blessed him. “Around 2000, Pastor Kong shook my hand and called me ‘Khen Theen, teacher extraordinaire’,” he remembers. “It became like a rhema word to me as an educator.”
In 2008, during Christmas, Chin and his wife availed their home to Kong’s discipleship group. “Pastor prayed for us to have a child—we were married in 2001—and the following year Wan Ee became pregnant and Egan was born in March 2010 and Eben in Feb 2014.”
25 YEARS AND MANY MORE TO COME
If 25 years ago, these pioneers had been told that the church they helped to build would lead more than 130,000 people to Jesus through a mission using secular music called the Crossover Project, and that this very mission would see the church come under fire and its leaders in court, what would have been their reaction?
“I would have thought ‘Wow, so exciting! I want to be a part of this!” says Ng. “Because that was the kind of thing that happened last time. We had water baptism in East Coast Beach and we had to do it chop-chop before the police came. So we all knew the danger of putting our leaders in a position of crossing the law while doing the right thing spiritually. Many of us were teens, we didn’t get our parents’ permission to be baptized. But we did it because it was for the God’s cause. If we had to pay the price for populating God’s kingdom, we just had to pay it.” The church later started giving out consent forms to members under 17 who sought to be water baptized.
Lim offers a philosophical take. “We went through a stage in the very early days when we encouraged our members not to watch movies and to destroy all secular music we owned because we were at an impressionable age,” she recalls. “Fast forward 15 years: Sun is launched into the secular music industry. Were we entirely wrong 15 years before? To some, yes. To others, setting ourselves apart from worldly entertainment was a learning journey: it taught us to consecrate ourselves and to put away distractions.”
Truth is: the ongoing trial involving senior pastor Kong Hee and his team has sifted the congregation. Some have moved to other churches, many have stayed, new people have joined the church. But in CHC, the cell groups, the ministries, the prayer meetings have all carried on. The good works of the church and its affiliates—helping communities in Singapore and overseas—have not stopped.
“CHC is family,” declares Benson. “I do not walk out on my family just because we are going through a hard time. When I walked through the hard times in my life, CHC was there for me and I will do the same for my CHC family.”
Soh says that two things have kept her in CHC all these years: the presence of God during worship, and the revelations of God during preaching. “I think we will be here for the next 25 years, and more,” she says. “We’ve learned from Scripture that it is ‘normal’ for the church to go through trials and tribulations. Whatever can be shaken will be shaken. For those who left CHC and went to another church I believe God has a purpose for them there. For those who have backslided I pray that one day they will return to God and go back to church, be it another church. We are not the ‘only true’ church in Singapore. We are who we are, according to God’s plan and purpose for CHC. I don’t think we are the perfect church. We don’t always get it right. I believe those of us who choose to stay in CHC will reap the rewards, through the messages, the worship, the fellowship and all.”
Each member has a wishlist for the next 25 years of CHC’s existence. Lim looks forward to the church learning from and growing out of its challenges. “I would be very disheartened if we do not learn and undo the mistakes we know of. No corporation as big as ours is without adverse news, but how we handle and grow out of it will differentiate us.”
Soh’s wish is to see CHC “continue to grow in number so that more can come to the saving knowledge of Christ, and to grow in our impact in the marketplace.” Benson echoes this: “I pray we will be blessed to be a blessing as we continue to make disciples of all nations. Remember, the best days are still ahead of us.”
As the founder of CHC, Kong Hee’s prayer for the church is “that our members will never lose the vision of loving God and loving souls. I think when all is said and done, whether we are a teenager, or we are working adults or in our vanguard years, we must never lose sight of the fact that all of life is about loving God, loving people and loving souls. My prayer is that our church will keep on winning the lost locally and all around the world. That’s our calling.”
CHC: THE FRUIT OF THEIR LABOUR
The first 20 members of City Harvest Church planted a small seed in 1989 and watered it with the Word, sweat and tears. Built upon Jesus Christ, the cornerstone of the church, CHC had its foundation in those early years of consecration, sacrifice and persecution that its pioneers went through, focused on the mission to love God wholeheartedly and to love people fervently.
1) 1986-1989: Ekklesia Ministry began life in 41A Amber Road, where Kong’s five youth cell groups from Marine Parade Christian Centre met nearly daily.
2) The infant church, with its core group of 20, held its first meeting at Peace Centre on May 7, 1989 and saw 135 in attendance. Within a year, the 20 had grown to 364 in 1990.
3) By 1991, that number had doubled to 650 and the congregation had started worshiping at World Trade Centre. Ekklesia Ministry was formally registered with the Registry of Societies as City Harvest Church in 1992.
4) In 1993, church services moved to the Westin Stamford Hotel as the congregation grew in size. This was the year CHC registered as a charity.
5) CHC moved into the former Hollywood Theatre on Tanjong Katong Road in 1995. The Church Without Walls movement was launched that year and the congregation grew exponentially.
6) In 2001, the church moved to its “miracle building” in Jurong West St 91. This was the first building fully owned by CHC. Here, the congregation grew to 18,000 by 2005. The church had a vision of a new place in the marketplace, and the second Arise & Build campaign was launched.
7) At the end of 2005, CHC moved East to Singapore Expo, where it rented Hall 8 to hold its burgeoning congregation. The congregation size peaked at 32,000.
8) In 2010, CHC became a shareholder in Suntec Singapore, and now uses Level 6 as its worship location in the heart of the city.