Twenty-five years ago, he founded City Harvest Church. Kong Hee talks about a quarter century of ministering in this church, and the future he looks forward to.
What are your thoughts about CHC reaching 25?
This 25th year marks our silver anniversary. Silver in the Bible always speaks of refining. I’m not mystical but I believe God is in the process of refining us. We are not old as a church, but neither are we young anymore. Being 25 means that we have all grown older as a church, but it also reflects that we have come to a place of strength, stability and maturity. I am excited about this.
I’m very grateful for what God has done for us. I grew up in a very small neighborhood church with 60 members. To be perfectly honest, when I started the church 25 years ago, I never dreamed that CHC would become so large and that our ministry would be so far-reaching. Every day, I pinch myself and feel like I’m living in a dream — a dream from God that I pray I’ll never wake from. It has been an exciting journey with many highs and lows; but overall, I must say that every day in the last 25 years has been an exhilarating adventure with the Holy Spirit. Every single day is thoroughly worth living for. I’m very, very grateful to the Lord for allowing me to be a part of this amazing journey.
Has God given you a vision for the future of the Church?
I have a very strong sense of destiny for our church. I feel that God has raised us up for such a time as this, with a very clear message and purpose for our generation. Just as how the Bible describes David, I want CHC to serve the will of God for our generation. So I’m very excited because I feel that the message of the Great Commandment, Great Commission and the Cultural Mandate will get even stronger. In fact, it’s such a simple idea: loving God wholeheartedly and loving people fervently. When we had that revelation 20 years ago, you wouldn’t hear it being interpreted this way. But these days, everywhere you go — in Asia and now even in the West — believers are saying that the whole purpose of the Christian life and the Church is to love God and love souls. In retrospect, we have been a little piece in God’s gigantic jigsaw puzzle of life, modeling a relevant church that impacts its contemporary culture for the glory of God.
Fifteen years ago, when we talked about being relevant and engaging culture, it seemed like such a novel idea. Many churches had created a religious subculture within the culture God had planted them in. Walls had been built to prevent the world from “contaminating” their members, and their members from engaging the world. Even those who sought to be progressive often tried it only within the “safety” of the four walls of the church. But now, we see churches all around the world, both in the East and West, teaching their members to truly be the salt of the earth and light of the world — within the context of their society. I’m very excited about that. I’m humbled that God has used CHC in a small but significant way to help bring this message of cultural engagement to the wider body of Christ.
What’s your view of the different demographics of your congregation?
For those who have been in church since the beginning, and for the “Emerge alumni” (those who were youths but have since grown up to be working professionals with their own families), God has been speaking to Sun and I about coming up with something for them. We just had our “Higher Conference” with the hope that, like Emerge, it will become a movement that inspires those in their thirties and forties to move on to greater things. We now have tens of thousands of Emerge alumni, not just here in Singapore, but all around Asia. I believe God is bringing a new spiritual wave of revival among this group of working professionals and young parents.
When it comes to our present youths, obviously you can see that they are very post-modern in their mind-set. In fact, with better education and exposure to so much creativity, our young people are bolder to try new things, such as the pre- and post-service programs at this year’s Emerge Conference. Even for me, when I minister to our youths today, it requires me to come out of my own comfort zone!
I’m very impacted by our young people when I see their love and hunger for God. They really have the passion to do God’s will for their generation. In my opinion, their heart for Jesus is the most precious thing, above and beyond all the outwardly cool things they are doing. In fact, I met a working professional, who commented that during the Emerge weekend, he was at Millennia Walk having lunch with his family, when he saw this bunch of very energetic and dynamic youths who looked so sharp, so well-dressed, and so full of life. He said that, before long, he realized they were all from CHC and thought we must have been having an event for the young people. He was not a Christian, yet he was very impressed and could easily tell that these were CHC youths. He had a very positive perception of them!
Twenty-five years ago, God gave you a mandate to raise a generation of young people who will take Asia by storm for Him. It is clear that you have done that with all your might. Are you satisfied with what you have done so far? Were there any surprises as you set about fulfilling the call?
As always, when you look back, you always feel you can do better. But if I consider both the ups and downs and average them out, I can only give thanks to God for what He has done among us! Like what the Bible says, we can only stand back, look in awe, and acknowledge that this is indeed the work of the Lord. In that sense, I am very satisfied, notwithstanding all the challenges, and I am very thankful that God is sovereign and has done amazing things in spite of our human weaknesses and inadequacies.
I think the biggest surprise for me was the fact that God had such a big work for us to do. I just never expected that. Like what I have said, I grew up in a very small, neighborhood church. In fact, our entire congregation back then was only about the size of some of our bigger cell groups in CHC today. I never would have imagined that someday, I would be the senior pastor of this amazing church —and for 25 years now! It goes to show that God can truly do exceedingly, abundantly above all that we could ask or imagine, according to the power that works in us (Eph. 3:20). God really keeps His promises. He is a covenant-keeping God. He chooses to use imperfect vessels like us to bring His perfect salvation, healing and restoration to a broken world.
What is your prayer for the church and for yourself for the next 25 years?
In the next 25 years, if the Lord Jesus permits, I want to do even more for Him. A catch phrase these days is YOLO, or “you only live once.” Actually, we live eternally. But as I live out my lifetime, I want to maximize all my gifts, talents and abilities, and pour my life out for the glory of God. So I feel that until that day when I can’t do it anymore, I want to continue growing CHC and raise up more disciples, not just among our local congregation, but also among our affiliate and associate churches all around the world.
My prayer for City Harvest is that we will never lose the passion of loving God and loving souls. I think when all is said and done, whether we are teenagers, working adults or in the “vanguard” years of our lives, we must never lose sight of the fact that all of life is really about loving God wholeheartedly and loving people fervently. My prayer is that our church will keep on winning people to Christ. That’s our calling, that’s our DNA, and it will never change.
What are you most pleased with in the last 25 years of building God’s church?
I can’t pin-point exactly what I’m “most pleased with,” but I can give you a few things that I am very thankful for. I’m very thankful that God would entrust us with His visions and dreams, and we could partner with the Holy Spirit to see these visions and dreams come to pass — things like building a strong local church that is contemporary, relevant and compassionate; building a “Church Without Walls”; embarking on the Crossover Project, and at the same time, having a congregation that is spiritual and walking in holiness, loving the Word of God, strong in prayer and serious about obeying the Lord. I think to be able to be relevant and holy at the same time is something that I’m very grateful to God for. It is a tension that’s not easy to balance. Thus far, by the grace of God, we are able to balance them reasonably well.
I’m very thankful for the number of disciples we have locally and globally. We didn’t just raise up church members. We also raised up disciples who are equipped, well-trained, and willing to carry the cross to obey the Lord Jesus Christ in all that He wants them to do. CHC is a disciple-making church with a disciple-making mission. Our disciples today are powerfully impacting the nations of the world, in every realm of society, and I’m very grateful for that.
Of course, I’m very thankful for the fact that in spite of all the challenges we have gone through, City Harvest is still very united as a people, and the atmosphere of faith and love is ever present. Usually, the older a church gets, the more divided the people can become. Cynicism seeps in and members become jaded by life and ministry experiences. We can become very skeptical about people, the church and its leadership. But we see in CHC that even with all the responsibilities piling up as we get older with family and work, all our members are still keeping their passion for Jesus alive. There is an inner longing to be the bride of Christ that glorifies Jesus. I’m very thankful that after 25 years, the presence and power of God is stronger than ever before, and every time I walk around in church and interact with people, they always say to me, “We love to come to church because the presence of God is so strong. We love the worship here because we can really experience His power.” These are things that I am so thankful for!
What do you think could have been better done and will be better done in the coming years?
I think the challenge of any growing church is the dilution of discipleship, pastoral care and spirituality. The older an organization gets, the more everything becomes institutionalized. The challenge here is to keep the fire and passion going from one generation to the next without any dilution. Life is a series of exchanges. It’s not perfect: you gain some, you lose some. We have gained a lot in the sense that our missions work has experienced explosive growth. The fruit of our missions work is seen all around the world. Today, we have 77 churches in the harvest family. We also have two Bible schools. Beyond that, our influence in missions is even greater through the local denominations that we partner with in Asia. All these didn’t just happen by chance. We worked very hard, put in a lot of effort, and invested a lot of manpower and resources. But the downside of that was that it took Sun and I away from CHC from 2002 to 2010. We lost eight years of active local ministry in Singapore.
Do I regret this? Yes and no. The upside was that we did impact the world, but the downside was that I couldn’t be more involved in a critical growth period of our church. Today, we have set up a good blueprint for how overseas missions should be done – through church planting, Bible School training, evangelistic missions, Crossover Project, marketplace ministry, and cultural engagement. Moving forward, for the next 25 years, I hope to refocus on our local church again, to further strengthen those who have grown up with us, and to also raise up the next generation to do even greater works.
What was it like when CHC first started and you and the pastors were still very young? What was the great thing about youth? What was the biggest challenge?
When Pastor Aries [Zulkarnain] first came, he was always in his school uniform, and carrying his Yonex badminton racket. He was very, very young, and was always sweaty. It was the same with all the rest. Pastor Tan [Ye Peng] was a school athlete and came in his running spikes. Pastor Kenneth [Sim] wouldn’t go anywhere without his “Alibaba” pants. Back then, we had a steep learning curve, but expectations were low. Very few actually expected us to succeed. But I must say that I never had any major problem with that group. We made do with what we had. We didn’t have a lot of money, but it was a very exciting and fulfilling experience to trust God for the payment of our weekly hall rentals and ministry needs. We did not have a lot of equipment but with the little we had, we could conduct anointed worship services. I think the amazing thing was that the presence of God was very real, and God was tangibly with us.
Because our members were young and very, very zealous, there was always a challenge of walking in balance — managing schoolwork, time with the family, and serving the Lord. What’s more, 25 years ago, Christian population in Singapore was much smaller, and some families tended to be a little more concerned if their children received Christ, got water baptized and became fervent in serving God. So I had to always ensure that our members put in enough time for their studies and that they went home for family dinners. Some wanted to come to church during every possible moment of their lives! I had to tell them to go home.
Who were the first group of members? Can you name them?
The first group of people were Yong Te-Chong, Choong Tsih-Ming and I. Three of us really prayed and prayed. Others came later: Sun, Karen Yeow, Fong Kai-Mun, Eileen Toh, etc. Later on, Tan Ye-Peng, Jacqueline Tan, Aries Zulkarnain, Wu Yu-Zhuang and Bobby Chaw.
Every one of them became cell group leaders. They were mature beyond their years. Sun went to the Philippines to do missions work (with an even younger Tammy Lim) when she was only 19 years old. We were all very serious with our life and faith because we had a strong sense of divine destiny. God blessed the pioneers with the gift of leadership. As leaders, nothing was impossible for us, and everybody just instinctively made things happen.
What is the fondest memory you have fellowshipping with them — can you give us an anecdote? Any bad memories?
Fondest memory? All the weekends we spent together. Weekends started on Friday. They would finish school and then we would have overnight prayer meetings, praying from 10.30pm to 5am the next morning. Then everybody went home to rest, and came back for the Saturday and Sunday services. We were among the first Protestant churches around to have Saturday night services. These days, many churches have Saturday night services to reach the youths and young married couples.
Our church was only a few hundred people then, and I knew almost everyone by name. We fellowshipped a lot. We ate together at hawker centres, and had many picnics and barbecues. The pastors and staff hung out on off days and went on vacations together. Every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday night, I would be eating at a hawker centre with different groups of leaders. Our relationship was very close and deep. One of the things I had to sacrifice to build a big church and ministry is such personal, small group fellowship. I can’t really do these things as often as I’d like anymore.
Any bad memory? No, those formative years were ordained by the Lord.
Of all those from the first days, who were your close friends and co-laborers?
In those days, Sun, Chong, Ming, Karen, Peng and Jacqueline were some of my closest friends. They still are.
When did the need for a church office come about?
From day one, we needed a place for meeting, counseling, Bible studies and prayer. So we had a tiny church office from the get-go. We were using an office space at Bedok Town Centre, on the second floor above KFC for a short while. Our church office then moved to various venues like Alexandra Road, Mackenzie Road and Joo Chiat Road before we settled at Suntec Tower 3.
Were there any full-time staff? Who were the first staff members you had?
For the first two years, we didn’t have any paid staff. We had no money to pay anyone so all of us served as volunteers and took part time jobs to earn money for church expenses. We earned money not just for ourselves, but also for our baby church. If I remember correctly, I believe that our first paid employee was Sharon Lee Loy Lin. She was my secretary, and an amazing one was she!
For Sun, Chong and I, we were paid a little later. I took a salary only when our church was about 200 people. I was giving tuition to Indonesian students and the rest of the time, I was doing the work of a pastor. Everybody did what needed to be done. Sun could be leading songs during the service, and washed the church toilets after the service. Chong had pastoral duties. Apart from preaching, I was in charge of publishing the church bulletin, and programmed the first database for the church.
I think we all grew up together and the pressure of having to meet expectations wasn’t there. So whatever we learned, we quickly applied. And we just kept on learning and growing.
What was it like being the head of the organisation, seeing that none of you had much working experience? How did you know what to do?
Being young in age and coupled with a lack of real working experience, we experienced some “growing pains.” Some of these growing pains included the ridicule we would face from more established societies. Some scorned us and labelled us as a “giant Sunday school,” a “youth church,” an anomaly in terms of how a proper church should look like. For the first seven years, we didn’t have many businesspeople. The average age of our members was 19 years old, which caused a lot of parents to be worried and wondered if CHC was a bona fide church. We really needed to depend on the Holy Spirit’s wisdom and guidance every step of the way. Many times, Sun and I had to do a lot of explaining to parents, and make home visits to assure them that their kids are not in a crazy sect. That was our biggest challenge until we moved to Jurong West. The moment we had a physical building, people were more assured that we were a proper church. Thank God for that!
Sun and I were also the first couple to get married in church, so in that sense, we went before all the rest and that allowed us to later guide them along in their own relationship issues. Shortly after we got married, in that same month of December 1992, CHC was registered as a society with the ROS. That was definitely a huge breakthrough for us as a young church.
Back then, all of us learned along the way and grew through our shared experiences. We made mistakes and became wiser. We depended a lot on the Holy Spirit. For sure, I think we developed resilience. When John the Baptist introduced Jesus, he said, “He will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire.” I think we are privileged to be a church that has experienced both. Our church is a very resilient church, a deeply rooted church. Our foundation in Christ and His Word is very strong. I’m very proud of CHC and our members. I think you can only develop faith, persistence and perseverance when you go through very difficult times and hardships. God has certainly done that among us. Today, I can say like the Apostle Paul in Phil. 3:10 that as a church, we have experienced the power of His resurrection, and also shared in the fellowship of His sufferings. It is a great honor to be able to live out that Scripture in our lifetime and in our ministry.
Name your most memorable moments of the past 25 years.
- When God called me to start the church in May 7, 1989, that was a memorable moment. That started a revival that is still ongoing today.
- When we moved into Hollywood Theatre in 1995, that was a very memorable experience. For a church of young people to raise enough money to renovate and pay for the rental of a cinema, without any financial support from wealthy people, that was amazing.
- When I went to Hawaii in Feb 1997 and God gave us a word to build “a Church Without Walls,” to find a need and meet it, and to find a hurt and heal it. That sparked the massive growth in CHC.
- When we moved into Jurong West in Dec 2001. Against all odds, we built a church four stories underground and within seven years, totally paid for it in cash. And again, that was done with a congregation that was primarily youths! I mean, that was truly a miracle building!
- The Crossover Project in 2002 that started the chain of events that brought tremendous revival in the Far East, especially in the Chinese-speaking world. Its impact is still being felt all throughout Asia and is now beginning to filter into the West.
- In 2003, we started Emerge and that became a movement all over Asia. Emerge has impacted the way youth conferences are being run, both in the East and West. The way we did Emerge, we were able to balance three things: campus ministry, passion for Jesus, and engaging of pop culture.
- In 2007, when I started to put together a series of teachings on Cultural Mandate, I didn’t know that the impact would be felt throughout the body of Christ.
- In 2010, becoming co-owners of Suntec Convention Centre was a monumental step for us. It has encouraged a lot of churches worldwide to have faith in God for greater things in their own ministries.
We all know Pastor Kong as the pastor, but what was your journey as a dad like?
To Dayan, I am daddy and “papi.” I’m his play buddy, and he likes to play with me, whether it’s soccer, swimming, or watching “SpongeBob” together. (By the way, I love SpongeBob!) I taught Dayan how to swim and he is not afraid of water, but he prefers soccer. But I’m glad he is athletic, because I love sports. Most people would agree that his body shape is like mine and the older he gets, some say the more he looks like me. (Err, his mommy probably disagrees!)
Dayan is also at an age where he is very open to God. So I’m also his pastor, and he looks to me for spiritual guidance. On his own initiative, he asked to be water baptised in September.
To Dayan, I’m the one who introduced the whole world to him because he travels with me on many of my mission trips. Little Dayan took his first overseas flight when he was only six months old. To date, he has already lived in four countries as a missionary’s kid.
I think that there was a very critical moment when I almost failed as a dad, and that was during his first five and a half years. The fact that I was travelling all around the world doing missions work, I hardly saw Dayan. I probably only saw him 10 to 11 days a month. We have lived together in Taiwan, in the US, in China, but even while I was with him, I was often doing ministry. So there was a season when our relationship was not as healthy or close as it ought to be, especially for the growing up years of a very young life. One of the best things that happened in these last four years is that in spite of the challenges, God brought Dayan, Sun and I back together. Dayan and I are now very close as father and son.
God made it such that for the last four years I couldn’t travel very much. As such, I really enjoy spending time with him, reading to him, playing with him. For a pastor and missionary, it is the greatest joy just to be able to be physically around for your son.
What were some things you learned from being a husband and a father?
As a dad, I learned what the Father’s love feels like. The biggest lesson I’ve learned these four years is a deeper revelation of how God my heavenly Father loves me as a daddy would love his son. I learned God is not distant, aloof, or judgmental. Rather, He loves me very passionately and deeply. I am the apple of His eyes. We all are. Dayan shows me how much God loves me.
As a husband, I learned how much Jesus loves me, just as Jesus loves the Church like a husband loves his bride. And I learned that the marriage relationship cannot be taken for granted. Again, for those eight years when God was using Sun in overseas ministry, I also didn’t see Sun all the time. I was too busy doing missions around the world. I have learned the wisdom of Jesus’ words: “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his own soul?” Or in my case, to lose my soulmate? Similarly, the best thing that happened in the last four years is that Sun and I are physically together again. You can’t take marriage for granted, and that’s why making marriage work is really a 24/7 thing. Love is a choice and a commitment, but fanning the flame of love is something that we must keep working at, and keep applying ourselves to.
You have a busy schedule, how do you find time to spend with Dayan?
I try to wake up early in the morning to bring him to school. Every night, I try to be the last person that he communicates with before he sleeps. The best is when we read a book together, or if we play soccer together. But no matter what, we always pray together before we sleep. Dayan will not go to sleep without saying a prayer together with Sun and I. I try to take him with me — as often as his studies will allow — for ministry trips. So that he can be in church with me, or if not, he will be in the green room together with me and the other pastors. I like him to grow up always with the consciousness of why daddy is doing what he is doing. I also want him to love the presence of God and the house of God. Dayan is always in church — in services, prayer meetings, leaders’ meetings, or on mission trips with me, whenever possible. He loves the house of God.