2019 marks 20 years since Dr AR Bernard, senior pastor of Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, New York, first stepped into City Harvest Church on August 17, 1999. Since then, he has returned almost yearly to teach its congregation on a wide range of topics, from manhood to purpose, core values to Christ in culture. He was back earlier this month with three transformative messages. City News caught up with him.
Dr AR Bernard is, as CHC’s executive pastor Sun Ho calls him, the spiritual advisor and father of the church. His is a gift of deep wisdom, built from years of study, revelation and experience.
Married for 47 years to Pastor Karen, Dr Bernard is father to seven sons and grandfather to 24. His upcoming book—the first after his 2017 book Four Things Women Want From A Man—is titled Lessons For My Grandchildren and is scheduled for a year-end release. In the book, Dr Bernard presents his signature deep concepts, a legacy of wisdom to pass on to future generations.
In this interview, Dr Bernard delves deeper into what he preached at the Marketplace Meetings on May 10, as well as the weekend services. He also talks about how to be a wise Christian in a world that’s increasingly complex socially.
Dr Bernard, at your services you brought back concepts that you spoke to us about five, 10 years ago—such as core values, Christ in culture—with new insights and application. Why now?
Whenever I go anywhere to minister, it is out of the overflow of what God has been speaking to my heart. But it’s also me trying to be prophetically sensitive to the context of the people and the experience of the people. Messages should always be sensitive to the context, where are people spiritually, where are they emotionally, intellectually? What are they experiencing in their society, whether it’s here in Singapore, as a church, as an organization, as a ministry? So, I try to be sensitive to those things, not just coming in with the latest hot message. No, it’s to speak life into the congregation and to illuminate their thinking. It’s also to speak in a way that furthers the vision of that church, of that organization. But these are the things that I think about when I come. These are not the things that I’m recently teaching in my church. I talked about this months ago, last year. So, it’s really being prophetically sensitive. And I use “prophetic” because the prophetic is predictive of the future, but primarily analytical to the present. So, the prophet analyzes the social, political, moral, spiritual, economic conditions of the society, of the context, and then becomes sensitized to the presence of God in that context. And then he speaks as the voice of God into that context.
Some people asked what’s happened to the seven mountains of society—why have you condensed it into three sectors now?
Because I never agreed with the seven mountains (laughs). You see there’s only one mountain in Scripture and that’s the mountain of God, and everything flows into that one mountain. But it is true that society is experienced in those three sectors: government, not- for-profit and for-profit. And all social institutions fall under one or more of those three umbrellas. So, it’s a lot easier to understand than to sit back and say, “Do I go under Entertainment? Arts? Education?” No. What’s your gift? What do you bring to the table? And in what capacity will that gift be the greatest blessing for the common good? Is it public service? Promote the welfare of society from government? Is it through humanitarianism—where you specifically address social needs, social crisis? Or is it in the for-profit sector, where you bring creatively a good, a service to the marketplace and then out of your wealth and success, look back, give back to community through the not-for-profit sector? I think it’s simplified, right?
Does it also work better in the current context of society today?
It’s (society’s) all changing; those three sectors never change. No matter what changes under them in the society, they remain the same. They’ve been consistent.
Do all the three sectors necessarily agree on what the common good is?
No. Common good has to be debated: what’s good for the society as a whole? What sacrifices have to be made? That’s why it’s a principle that requires discernment, wisdom, insight, judgment. We have to debate the common good.
On that topic, there’s now the trend of diversity and inclusivity in society. But there seems to be very little space for the debate for the common good because on the one hand, the Christian community is like “No, we can’t have these developments” and on the other, the LGBT community is like “But we should have the right”.
They’re both right. For the Christian community, it’s a moral issue. For the LGBT community, it’s a civil rights issue. And if we don’t make that distinction, then there’s a problem. Because the rights of Christians should be protected, just as any other member of that society. A civil right is the right to participate fully in the social and political life of a society. That doesn’t necessarily mean that participation legitimizes the choices of the individuals who participate. There are a lot of things within society that I consider immoral. Do I now go and close down everything that I consider immoral? Now I’m imposing my feelings and standards upon the society as a whole. What if that were to happen in reverse? And Christianity has experienced marginalization around the world. In fact, 75 percent of religious persecution in the world is perpetrated against Christians.
So, we have to rethink our relationship with society. Just because I live in a society that a consensus subscribes to a particular lifestyle and I don’t, that doesn’t mean now that I have to evacuate that society. Because I’m not going to find any society on the planet that’s in full conformity to my moral compass. The beauty is that in exile, like Israel and Babylon, they could still build houses, plants gardens, marry (off) their children, be successful, pray for the peace and prosperity of the city (Jer 29). God was telling them to pray for an idolatrous government! That’s kind of like, “What?!” Because if the government prospers, then you prosper. So we have to understand the solidarity of the human family and our connection to society at large.
Even the Christian community is not monolithic. We act like we get along. We don’t! There’s diversity, there’s debate, there’s conflict, there’s tension between doctrines, belief systems, methods of baptizing… So, we cannot be hypocritical and pretend that even in our own community there’s total conformity, there’s consensus—there isn’t.
What advice do you have for Christians then?
Jeremiah 29! (laughs) “Build houses, plant gardens, marry (off) your children, pray for the peace and prosperity of the city!” If it prospers, you will!
To some extent, all this has succeeded in painting Christians as intolerant and unwilling to “play nice”.
Here’s the difficulty: truth is exclusive. And because truth is exclusive, it won’t always be inclusive of the values, norms and mores of society. That’s reality. So, remember Jesus said, in the parable of the wheat and the tare (Matthew 13:24-30)—do we pluck up the tare from the wheat? Jesus said, No, let them stay there. Jesus, in so saying, said that we will have to deal with that coexistence, we try and make it more manageable as we live out our faith. That’s the mature way to look at it.
Too often, it’s “them and us”, “right and wrong”. Nobody knows the dimmer switch—it’s either off or on. No—there are degrees in between off and on. And let me just say, identity dysphoria is a big deal globally. Not just in terms of gender, in terms of race, ethnicity, class. That’s why my lesson today (Sunday’s message on “The Image Of God”) levels the playing field. We begin with the image of God—therein lies our instrinsic value, worthy and dignity. Now, we build on that. I can’t dismiss you because you’re black or white or Asian, or you went to Harvard and I didn’t. Now this is the criteria society uses to judge our worth. Because I didn’t attend an Ivy League because my family doesn’t have any money, am I any less the image of God? Am I any less a human being? Am I any less in value, dignity and worth?
If anything, as Christians, we should be equalizers within society. But I will tell you, a lot of our Christianity experienced here in Asia, is seen through Western eyes. Because it was Western missionaries who brought the Gospel to Asia. And they had a very specific imperialist, colonialistic lens. So, they don’t look at society through the lens of a collectivist; they look through the lens of an individual. And Eastern culture is a collectivist society: it’s community first, then the individual.
It’s been said, it’s hard to continue to obey the Great Commission in a world that’s increasingly closed off to Christianity. But what are some steps we can take?
We’re not here to make the Gospel acceptable; we’re here to make it available. At the end of day, each person that hears it has to make the choice. Unfortunately we’re trying to make it acceptable. Jesus never told us to do that.
In your message you told us to “Be equipped. The 21stcentury needs a generation of believers who can think and articulate and counter those who don’t know Him.” How exactly should we be equipped and how exactly should we counter them?
By learning all the things I’ve shared! It’s unfortunate because the Bible is a book that you can pick up and read and get the story. But getting the story doesn’t mean you get the meaning. That’s at a different level. If we could all pick it up and get the story and get the meaning, He would not have given us teachers, pastors, prophets, because we’d have no need for that. So, we need good teaching, that’s so important. We need exegesis. We need those who can extract meaning from the Scripture. We need those who are looking at the Scripture not with a modern lens overlaid, but through the eyes of those who wrote it. And the writers of the Scripture had an ancient world view, not a modern world view. So we’re going to try and understand what they’re trying to say, trying to communicate, we have to see through their lens, not overlay it with our own. That’s what we do: we come along and we put a modern lens on it: “It’s gotta mean this” and these writers had no idea what we’re talking about.
Someone asked me to ask you this: When you read a piece of Scripture, how do you study it?
So, your question is “How long did it take me to prepare the messages?” (laughs) 45 years. This doesn’t happen overnight. This is the accumulation of study and knowledge and experience and discernment and wisdom that has become a part of me, who I am. It’s not like you can take a course and next week, do what I do.
Where do we start?
Let me give this statement: Context determines meaning. There are seven principles to Biblical hermeneutics. One of them is context. Begin there. Understand the context, understand the perspective of the writer. The people in the story who were experiencing it. The Bible was 30 percent precepts and principles, 70 percent narrative, stories of people’s lives. Understand it from their perspective so that you can get the meaning that God was trying to convey. Context determines meaning. That’s a good place to start.
You have to have the right tools: great concordance, commentary, different translations, all of that, a library of great thinkers in the Christian faith that you read over time. It’s exploration, it’s a journey. I hate to use this but it’s how I think: it’s like martial arts. I’ve studied different styles of martial arts over the years but as I study style, I take it and build it into a system that’s growing and developing in me.
It takes work to mine—it’s like digging for gold, for treasure. And you have to be willing to dig into the context, the language, the meaning of words. Because they unlock revelation. And God arranged it in such a way that it’s not to be easy. Remember Jesus’ disciples said, “Why are you talking in these parables? We don’t understand this! What are you doing?” He said, “Because to you, it’s given to understand,” meaning he would explain it to them. But to those others—the Jewish leaders—it was not given to understand. What’s a parable? “Para” means “alongside”; so there’s a surface meaning, but there’s a another meaning alongside that that’s hidden. So, it’s only those who are willing to search, to dig; those are the ones who discover the hidden meaning. But it’s hidden on purpose. Because your desire to search, to dig, is an expression of your seriousness. Jesus was saying, Everybody’s not serious. So, for those who are serious, there’s another meaning to be discovered here.
You said something shocking about millennials. You said parents have taught their kids they’re blessed and can do anything they want when they grow up, but when they go out to the world, there’s nothing there. What are practical things both parents and millennials can do to solve this crisis?
It’s not the world they imagined. [They have to be have] clarity, purpose, intentionality, realism. Especially the realism. Realism is accepting the facts of life. And accepting them doesn’t mean you resign yourself because of them. It means that you understand the playing field, what you have to work with. And you go to work! If to get from here to there, there are obstacles in the way, I don’t quit. I identify the obstacles and I consider, how do I get around them? How do I get over them? How do I go through them? Those obstacles are facts. I love when they (the 12 spies in the Book of Numbers) came back with the report: “There are giants in the land!” (laughs) Okay, what does that mean? I’m just letting you know what you’re going to face going in. It doesn’t mean quit and go back to Egypt, right? Faith approaches life in terms of possibilities, not limitations. And that’s what sets us apart. We see the giants but we see the possibilities. We see the obstacles but we see the possibilities.
So are Christian parents and children in a good position to deal with this?
Absolutely, because they have a history. Whatever generation you’re born into informs you and shapes you, your thinking. When you were born dictates the culture that you’re going to experience and the culture that shapes you. So, millennials were born into the highs and lows of pop culture, there were certain world events taking place that were influencing culture at that time, they’re affected by them: technology, economy, behavioral norms, cultural values. A parent has to consider, okay, what world are my children being born into? What are the behavioral norms? What are the cultural values? So, instead of just saying “you can be great, you can be wonderful”, no, let’s give them understanding. Let’s understand the influences that are going to shape your life coming from the cultural context you’ve been born into. If you’re born into a society where the economy is booming, wonderful! But know that economies are cyclical, so there’s ebb and there’s flow; then flow, then ebb. So, we need to better equip them by having real conversations with them. That’s what millennials want: they want a real conversation. They may not like the content, the realities, but at least they’re equipped.
That’s a whole lesson in parenting!
Don’t feel bad. God was a parent. His children went wrong. And they had a great home life. Can’t get any better than the Garden of Eden, right? And they still made bad choices. And He only had two children, Adam and Eve. (laughs)
You said you began by shepherding your congregation, then community, city, state, nation? Can you elaborate on what do you to shepherd nations?
I’m here in Singapore, speaking to a society that is not my own. And yet what I have to say is relevant to this context. I’m a 50 percent partner in a US$1.2b housing development project in the city of NY. I’m being called by Hong Kong, by Seattle, Washington to look at our model, to see if it’s possible that it can be replicated in some way. So, you go from your first and immediate jurisdiction and then God continues to expand you out. I shepherded a little congregation at one time. It continued to grow in influence and status; that led to me shepherding a community. When I say shepherding, I’m talking about influencing the community. Then the City of New York. Then the state of New York. Then the nation as a whole, advising presidents over the last several decades. And then globally.
What would you say you did right to get into that flow?
You know what, for any Christian to grow and mature, they have to remain open. Too often, Christians can be very closed. They think they know, they’ve arrived, “we got it and this is it”. So, they’re not open to any conversation, to any growth and development, to new insights. And it’s only arrogance that makes us think that we’ve arrived. We’re not God. And I will tell you: the more I know, the more I realize I don’t know. That make sense? The amount of knowledge out there is vast!
I have some questions from Bible School cohort. Many of the SOT students are pastors or church leaders. Here’s one: What should this next generation of pastors do so that they can continue to impart God’s truth to future generations and change their world?
Be relevant. And that means two things: be practical—the message, the ministry can be used and applied on a day-to-day basis in a person’s health, relationships, family, money, every aspect of life. Be practical. Secondly, it means, be socially applicable. Give the people a lens through which they can make sense of the world around them, socially, politically, economically, experientially, morally. They want their faith to be a lens. They want to be able to look at political, geo-political situations, social, moral, economic climates and make sense of it through the lens of their faith. If their faith is irrelevant, then they’re not going to see any reason to go to church, to have a relationship with God, to read the Bible. Because it has nothing to do with their life experience.
That means that these leaders have to be socially aware. They can’t live in a Bible, just them and Jesus. They have to have a social consciousness. On Sundays, if there’s some big event in the news, my congregation expects me to opine on whatever took place. Give them a perspective, a way of understanding it that’s related to their faith.
I don’t think many churches do that much…
No, we don’t, that’s how we can lose the millennial [Christians]. The millennials are globally connected. They’re having conversations about the issues. They need answers. They need a language with which to articulate their positions. Many of them don’t have it, so they get embarrassed having conversations with their colleagues, their friends, their neighbours who may not be Christians. The Bible says be ready to give an answer to everyone who asks you the reason for the hope that is in you. So, millennials want to be empowered with the truth.
Another question: What is your daily prayer schedule like?
I’m a bad example. (laughs) You have to find what works for you. When are you most alert? Creative, open, reflective, contemplative? Is it 5 o’clock in the morning? Is it 10 o’clock at night? But you need to know yourself: once you can identify when you are more creative, contemplative etc, set aside that time to study, to think, to pray. Because remember, how you arrange your life creates a rhythm, a rhythm creates a pattern. So, you want to arrange your study time, your prayer time so that it becomes a comfortable rhythm that reflects your personality, not somebody else’s. So, it creates that rhythm, then becomes that pattern. You have to think about your own responsibilities, your own schedule and how to work around that. Me, I’m always studying. People say “Always?” I say “Yeah.” Every moment. Because I’m always thinking. So, a question will come, and if I’m driving, I’ll pull over and explore it. I’ll capture it and set it up so I can come back to it, revisit it when I have more time. What drives me is my curiosity. I need to know! I need to understand! (laughs)
Final question from the Bible school students: If you had a chance to ask God one question today, what would it be?
I would ask Him why couldn’t I know what I know sooner? (laughs) And He would probably tell me “because you had to go through all that you went through to get there.” I would have loved ot know this stuff in my 30s and 40s, but I probably didn’t have the character to support it. Knowledge puffs up. And when you know a lot, you can become arrogant if you haven’t had the time and experience with real life to humble you along the way. So, I can anticipate His answer.
Tell us about your book, Lessons For My Grandchildren.
The publisher wants that one first (instead of Four Pillars To A Blessed Life, which Dr Bernard was writing last year) because they feel that that one will move quickly. It’s a unique concept and they’re excited about the project. The manuscript is done—I’m reviewing it while I’m on this trip, adding some things. I would love to see it out for Christmas. It’s a book written at an eighth grade level but with complex concepts. I want the lay person to get it; I want the academic and the intellectual to be intrigued by it. I want to capture every level, every imagination that I can. But it’s a book that’s being written in such a way that no matter what the person’s faith or ideology, it’s a book they want to give to their children, or give to their grandchildren. It’s a book that uses revelation, but more so, the natural light of human reason to understand God, our desire for God, what it is to be human and what it means to live in this world. It deals with issues of life and dignity of the human person, the dignity of work and rights of workers, the sacredness of family, solidarity, subsidiarity… deals with all these concepts. But in layman’s language.
It’s been 20 years since you started coming to CHC. How do you feel your relationship with us has developed?
I feel like a spiritual father or grandfather (laughs). You are dear to me as though I was there when this church was planted. So I’m a part of your past, your present and your future. I feel a sense of responsibility. And that’s why I would never have abandoned City Harvest, Pastor Kong, family, the leadership, in spite of all that you’ve gone through.
Watch more interviews with Dr AR Bernard on the CHC App: Pastor Sun Ho goes deep with Dr Bernard on millennials, marriage and ministry.