What started as a simple call to “find a need and meet it, find a hurt and heal it” 20 years ago became City Harvest Church’s turning point. We look back at two decades of the Church Without Walls movement.
In its 27 years as a church, City Harvest Church has birthed many things, but perhaps few as significant than Church Without Walls, started in 1996 out of a God-given vision to go beyond the walls of the church to bring the love of Christ to the lost and those in need.
Out of that vision, a plethora of outreaches to children from low-income homes were started, as well as to the intellectually-disabled people, dialect-speaking and Mandarin-speaking old folks, those with terminal illnesses and youth at risk.
As each outreach grew, they splintered into branches: Dialect Church,
Chinese Church, Jesus for All Minds (JAMs) Church for the intellectually-challenged, City Harvest Community Services Association (CHCSA), and in addition, there was the budding Children’s Church that embraced the Church Without Walls vision wholeheartedly, by reaching out to the children from the heartlands, or public housing estates.
A CALL THAT STARTED IT ALL
It is a story that has been told time and time again at CHC: in 1996, while at a conference in Hawaii with his wife Sun Ho, Kong Hee, senior pastor of CHC, received a word from God that directed him to the first two Commandments: “To love God wholeheartedly and to love people fervently.” Excited, Kong shared the vision with the church and commissioned the members to bring the love of God outside the four walls of the church and to build a “church without walls”. He challenged them to find a need and meet it, to find a hurt and heal it.
At a recent dinner marking the 20th anniversary of Church Without Walls on July 15, Eileen Toh, pastor overseeing three of the Church Without Walls ministries, recalled how a conference call with Kong and Ho, who had just received the revelation in Hawaii, changed the course of her ministry and led her on the exciting journey of building the children’s ministry.
“The conference call happened in June 1996,” she remembered. “There were about 10 of us gathered round the phone listening to the encounters Pastor Kong and Sun had had with God. Pastor Kong suddenly said, ‘Turn your attention to me, Eileen! I want you to reach out to the children outside the four walls of the church.’ That phone call shook my life because I never thought of myself as someone who would work with kids. I always thought I would become a youth pastor, because I was leading a youth cell group at the time. Fire started burning in my bones. I told God, truly, if You can use anyone, Lord, You can use me.”
Riding on the faith of Kong and Ho, Toh and her team started the children’s ministry in 1996. “I was afraid and felt inadequate in so many ways,” said Toh. “I remembered going to Pastor and Sun’s house over many nights, and they would patiently guide me through the programs and the logistics of the first Big Day event (usually held on a Christian public holiday like Christmas or Easter) we were planning. On our first Big Day, from the usual 40 kids we saw weekly, we suddenly had 270 kids coming for Christmas. There was no turning back. By 2009, we had 11,000 kids in the ministry.”
Zoe Yue, 44, a pioneer of the JAMs Church, remembers how, right at the start, she and her peers heeded the call and began supporting people in need. “We wanted to support Pastor Kong in the vision to serve people and bring church to them. During that time, because our church was small, all the members are involved and we went all out to serve. We started going to orphanages, old folks’ homes, and to reach those with special needs. We went to Ubi Hostel, a training center for those with special needs. We visited them every week and slowly, as we prayed, doors were opened for us to bring them to church. This is how JAMs was started.”
The Church Without Walls 20th anniversary dinner, held at Ban Heng Restaurant at Harbourfront, saw 279 ministry leaders from Harvest Kidz, Dialect Church and JAMs, three of the ministries birthed in 1996, all overseen by Toh.
Toh told the room that the past 20 years have not been easy. “The challenges and struggles we faced were very real. But I always remember what Sun said to me, ‘We ought to keep on sowing, then we will reap; and when we reap, don’t stop sowing. Then we will reap again.’ Isn’t that true? That is why we are here today.”
Toh had tears in her eyes when, during the dinner, she thanked Ho, the guest-of-honor. “Thank you for your faith, believing in me and the three ministries,” she said to Ho. “The fruits that we have borne today are not just ours but also yours as we celebrate 20 years and more together with you.”
WHEN WALLS COME DOWN
The Church Without Walls story continues today because of the dedication of the workers and volunteers. During the dinner, the pastor of Dialect Church, Maria Tok, and pastor of JAMs Church, Lily Yong also expressed their deep appreciation for the ministry workers who had served for over 10 years. For the past two decades, these unsung heroes have visited members, conducted programs and bussed them to church every week.
Emily Loo has served elderly members for over eight years as a Dialect Church worker. She personally visits over 30 elderly members every week. “As the elderly get older, their bodies become weaker, and it’s hard to gather them in a single place to hold cell group meetings. Some are so weak that they cannot even attend service and so they miss out on the Word of God. That is why we want to be the channel that brings church to them. When we visit the elderly, we share testimonies and the Word of God with them and also pray for them. Many of them are illiterate, they can’t read the Bible, so we are their walking Bible, showing and sharing Jesus with them.”
To Loo, a smile on the faces of the seniors is her best reward. “I feel tired at times but the moment I see their smiles, see them praising God or just saying a simple yet powerful ‘Hallelujah’ or ‘Praise the Lord’, I know it’s all worth it.”
Because of the efforts of the ministry workers, the three ministries have grown not just in numbers, but also in influence. From being a small Sunday school class, Harvest Kidz has grown into a bustling ministry with 12 full-time workers and 409 volunteers taking care of 2,204 children today. The ministry has also gained a strong reputation in the Christian network, resulting in regular visits from foreign churches who come to study its curriculum.
Each weekend, the Dialect Church charters 17 buses to bring some 320 members from over 30 estates across Singapore to CHC’s Jurong West worship premises. In recent years, the Dialect Church has also started conducting programs for the elderly across 20 senior recreational centers and family service centers in Singapore, such as Care Corner, Fei Yue and Sunlove Neighborhood Link.
JAMs Church started with Yong looking after four members with special needs. Today, the ministry has 31 buses ferrying over 100 members to three worship services weekly. They also have 80 volunteers on rotation who conduct home visits, cell group meetings and personal Bible study sessions for the members every week. Since 2012, JAMs has organized two local conferences, both addressing issues faced by family members of those with special needs. The ministry has also organized workshops for churches in Indonesia, to teach those churches how to conduct worship services for people with special needs.
At the dinner, Ho thanked all in the room who have taken the Church Without Walls call and run with it, whether worker or volunteer.
“Psalms 134:2-3 says, ‘The Lord builds up Jerusalem; He gathers together the outcasts of Israel. He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.’ Jerusalem as we know is the City of God and this is the character, this is the heartbeat of God. And you have been doing the same thing for the past 20 years,” said Ho.
“To the eyes of the society these people may not be so special, but you love them. He heals the broken-hearted—so many of you were there when a kid needed a hug or needed that encouragement. You bound up the wounds, and lifted those who may feel they are worth little in society. And we all know that when we serve the broken and the wounded, we are doing it unto the Lord.
“My brothers and sisters, you have done all this unto Jesus.”