Earlier this year, Pastor Kong Hee led four groups of City Harvest Church leaders a series of spiritual retreats. City News finds out what they learned.
It all began with Kong Hee, senior pastor of City Harvest Church, embarking on a month-long silent retreat with his wife Sun.
“When Sun and I had our silent retreats, we were intentional about waiting on the Lord, to find rest for our weary souls and to have our strength renewed,” Pastor Kong told City News. “We enjoyed it so much that we thought it could be something life-changing for our pastors and church leaders.”
Their silent retreat involved removing all distractions, including electronic devices. He explains, “Silence and solitude are a form of self-denial, which is a necessary part of following Christ (Lk 9:23). We deny ourselves of things that have cluttered our lives, which have caused us to become so busy in work and life, so that we can make space to focus on and connect with God. Silence quietens our minds so that we can be attentive in His presence. Solitude is being alone with God, to be found by Him (1 Chr 28:9). Remember that Jesus constantly looked for ‘lonely places’ to commune with His Father, to listen to His voice, and to answer Him, ‘Here I am, Father.’ Sun and I have discovered that in silence and solitude, we can give attention to the life of the spirit within, to be more aware of God and His desires for our lives.”
Pastor Kong conducted four similar spiritual retreats for CHC leaders over March and April. The gadget-free retreat spanned on average four days and three nights and were held at YWCA Fort Canning. Given that this happened during Phase 3, all safety measures were adhered to.
The first retreat involved the Reverends and senior leaders of the church. Pastor Tan Kim Hock, Academic Dean of the School of Theology was one of them. “With the exception of the married couples attending the same retreat, the rest of us had a room to ourselves,” he described. “Light snacks had been prepared in each room and basically all the things we needed were in the room, except that the TV remotes had been ‘confiscated’. The main rule was to surrender our devices for the whole period, so no phone, no laptop, no Internet … just Bible, notebooks and one another.”
Pastor Lee Yi Lun, who attended the second retreat with fellow associate pastors, elaborated, “The purpose of the retreat was a spiritual one, for us as pastoral staff to set aside time intentionally—without any electronic gadgets—to recharge ourselves in the Lord, to take time to study and learn the Word of God, to be discipled by Pastor Kong and Sun and to strengthen our relationships with our senior pastors and fellow pastoral staff.”
“The idea was to really have a much needed ‘Sabbath’,” added Pastor Kim Hock, “for the pastors and pastoral workers to take time to reconnect with God and one another – through prayers, fellowship and especially studying the word of God together again, much like Acts 2:42.”
STUDYING THE WORD TOGETHER
Each day, the leaders participated in three two-hour sessions with Pastor Kong, in between breakfast, lunch and dinner. Every day ended with a walk together.
Although the content was essentially the same—they learned what it meant to be Protestant, Evangelical and Pentecostal, and also studied the Book of John—each group of leaders had a different experience with what was being taught and discussed.
Pastor Yi Lun said, “Pastor Kong covered the doctrines, beliefs and what we stand for, and what stand against, for example, Liberal theology and Cessationist theology. It is so important to have clarity because clarity is the foundation of purpose. Doctrine unites us; it is important we have clarity in what we believe in as the church leadership. Pastor also did a Bible study of the Gospel of John, covering the first 18 verses on the doctrine of Trinity, Predestination and freewill.”
For Pastor Glordia Goh, who attended the fourth retreat with other leaders from CHC’s Church Without Walls ministries, the big lesson was what Liberal theology really was. “What I thought was church lingo and ideas popular in Christendom today stem from Liberal theology,” she shared, adding, “The next big lesson for me was the understanding of the Trinity. Through the trinity we know how to love one another, the trinity is a real model of love, never allow disunity or unloving things among them. How the Trinity honour, love and work together in unison is a model I would like to learn and exhibit in my daily living.”
For the senior leaders, there was doctrinal discussion next to practical church matters, but it was the honesty and openness that had the greatest impact. Pastor Kim Hock shared that the intimate sessions “gave us a very nostalgic feeling as we were brought back to our early days of Bible study with ‘Brother Kong’, without handphones or gadgets, just the Bible and a notebook. I really liked the openness with which we shared and dove into the word of God, and as the Lord led, discussed practical issues that CHC is currently dealing with. It was awesome to be in such company where we can be genuine, vulnerable and heartfelt in our thoughts and emotions, where we could let down our hair and be free and safe in the love of God.”
Pastor Kim Hock added that the sessions were “fluid” and filled with free discussion and ‘bunny trails’. This led to some revelatory moments. “As Pastor was sharing about the need and urgency to be strong in doctrines and knowledge of God’s word, which will in turn translate into our spirituality, and ultimately guide our morality and practice, there was an ‘Aha’ moment when we all realised this would be the blueprint for CHC in the next wave of God’s revival and work,” he said, adding that the special weekend edition of Coffee With Kong was the product of those “Aha” moments, spelling out the structure and focus for CHC.
“In those few days, we revisited key doctrines, clarified and established these ancient spiritual landmarks. The focus on why we are Protestant, Evangelical and Classical Pentecostal goes back to the history that God has developed in CHC over the last 32 years. I felt such a grace and mercy of God, that after 30 over years of busy ministries and mission works, God gave us the right time to pause, ponder and put in place the firm foundation of His word and revelation to CHC.”
THE BEST AND THE WORST
Though the retreats were short, there were some tough moments for the leaders. For Pastor Kim Hock, who has had some health challenges this past year, it was hard sleeping in a place other than his own bed. “As I grow older, I am more rested in a familiar place,” he smiles. “So while the room was great, my sleep was interrupted by my body preferences. So I was still kind of tired physically even though we are given more than eight hours of sleep. Also, my wife’s birthday happened to fall on one of the days, so with permission I took the train home, gave her a gift, and returned to the hotel. I guess missing my wife was hard too!”
Pastor Glordia appreciated the time away from technology, except for one morning when a group of them had gone for a walk and were caught in a heavy downpour. “It was tough not having our handphones during an emergency,” she recalled. “We were stuck and had to get back in time to prepare for the next session.”
For Pastor Yi Lun, the worst thing was the sense of inadequacy sparked by the sessions. “As Pastor Kong was teaching us the Word, I was so deeply challenged to study the Word more, because the more I knew, the more I realised I don’t know! I was provoked in my spirit to set aside even more time to study, read, memorise and meditate on the Word. If I were to lead and shepherd His people, I must be able to shepherd His people in the truth of His Word. But how can I impart, teach, encourage if I do not know the Word in depth? I felt that there is so much more I can do in this aspect.”
But each of the leaders had a great experience being alone with the Lord, taking time to worship and commune with Him, and also to fellowship with one another. It was also a great opportunity to connect and learn with Pastor Kong without time constraint—a rare thing!
“I really appreciate the safe space created for us to share our hearts and ask questions,” shared Pastor Yi Lun. “I stay amazed at Pastor’s ability to teach the Word in a simple, succinct but yet powerful manner, and his dedication to the Word. Whenever we asked him questions, he was so open to answer them; no question was too silly. There was one question posed to him one night—he actually took two hours to research, study and draft out a comprehensive answer, coming back the next morning to share with us in depth and with patience his answer to the question.”
“Initially it was stressful being so up close with Pastor Kong, but his friendliness and humour put us at ease. We got to know him on a personal level as well and he was very open to share his life and his experience. That, to me, was an honour,” said Pastor Glordia, adding, “Also, it was such a fun time fellowshipping over meals, walks and during our breaks. We spent so much time together that we missed one another when the retreat was over.”
Pastor Kim Hock also experienced great fellowship. “To be able to hear Pastor speak from his heart, in such a ‘raw’ manner, is always a privilege. However, to be able to discuss and fellowship in such a small, but power-packed group, is something one can only wish for. Most of us in this group have known one another for more than 30 years. The feeling is surreal: we know how ordinary we are and where we come from, and how we journeyed. However, to look and consider each of these reverends today gave me an awestruck feeling: what a privilege to be able to share and journey with some of the best giants of faith in our generation! Only in eternity can we comprehend the greatness that God has placed inside each of these men and women of God! I am just so eternally grateful to God that I have the honour to know them and to work with them.”
APPLYING WHAT THEY HAVE LEARNED
Each of the leader groups now have monthly Bible study sessions with Pastor Kong. There are also plans to hold another series of retreats later in the year, pending the COVID situation. But what is key is that these leaders have refuelled their passion for sound doctrine and bold preaching, building a strong foundation for CHC’s future.
“I think in the midst of so many voices and opinions in our world today, to be able to articulate our faith and experience, in a clear and concise manners that make sense to world, is of utmost importance,” said Pastor Kim Hock. “The phrase in John 1:14 is my constant mediation this season. The word of God must become flesh in us, embodied in our lifestyle. It must become clear and evidence in its power and practicality, so that we can behold His glory and demonstrated the grace and truth of our Father. I hope to be able to contribute in the clear articulation of our faith and revelation that God has given to CHC, so that the next generation can catch on and build upon the solid foundation of the truth in God’s word. At the same time, I want to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit so that the supernatural power of God will be seen unreservedly with the bold preaching and teaching of the gospel, both personally and corporately as a church.”
For Pastor Glordia, it has become imperative “to be mindful of the books I read and sermons I listen to, to be able to discern, ‘Is that right theology?’ The next thing is to increase in my knowledge of God’s Word, to read it it with fresh insight and understanding. Knowledge in this case does not puff up but knowing the Bible increases our love for God.”
Slowing down and meditating upon Scripture is Pastor Yi Lun’s intention after the retreat. “My two key takeaways are first, to love the Word and take time and energy to study the Word. In all that we do, the Word must be our non-negotiable standard. In whatever that we read or listen to, we have do it through a Biblical lense, a Biblical worldview. Even when doing ministry as Pastors, we are to shepherd our sheep with the Word of God,” she explained.
“Second, it is to be a person of both truth and love, to walk in truth and to do it in love. In our world today where truth is so transient, there is a pressure to compromise on truth in the name of unity. But love without truth is hypocrisy. Love without truth has no character. Truth and love are two sides of the same coin. As believers, we are to guard the gospel faithfully, spread it actively and living it out bravely!”
CONDUCTING YOUR OWN SPIRITUAL RETREAT
It’s not just pastors and leaders who should go on spiritual retreats. It’s an important practice that all members can and should make time for.
Pastor Kong explains how you can arrange for your own personal spiritual retreat.
“The most important part of a silent retreat is to keep ourselves physically away from all forms of distraction. We put aside all electronic devices such as mobile phones, tablets, laptops, and other communication devices. We must learn to trust God that in those few hours or days when we are disconnected from everyone and everything, there will be no emergencies that God can’t handle without us,” he says.
“During a silent retreat, you should have your physical Bible with you, as well as some reading and writing materials. Spend time in worship and prayer. One major thing you do in a silent retreat is to learn to reflect on your life in the presence of God. Reflect on all that has happened in the past days and weeks. Be totally honest with God and tell Him all your thoughts and feelings concerning the people and situations you have encountered – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Be truthful in revealing how you really feel.
“As your mind quietens in the silence and solitude, wait for God to respond to you. Ask Him to teach you what it means to be Christlike in all those situations. Ask the Holy Spirit to remind you of Jesus’ words in the Bible. Read relevant Scriptures and use them in your prayers. Finally, journal down your thoughts and spiritual experiences. The more you can encounter God this way, the more your spirit will be rested, nourished, and built up. Most of all, you will find the transforming grace to become more and more Jesus-like in your everyday life.”
“I realised the Person I missed the most was God”
The spiritual retreat proved to be a transformative experience for CHC zone supervisor Catherine Lee.
To be honest, I once had a conversation with my husband where I naively said, “Aren’t doctrines also man made? We should just focus solely on the Word of God, right? Then, we would never go wrong.” But after the sessions with Pastor Kong at the retreat, I am fully convinced and convicted on the importance of doctrine.
Pastor has taught quite a bit about doctrine in church but at the retreat, he covered it in greater detail. Also, we were given the opportunities to ask questions and hear from Pastor himself, so this huge profound topic became more digestible and I finally felt like I understood much better.
The Bible is the main and ultimate source of the beliefs and instructions set based on our best understanding of the Scripture. As a leader, I began to realise that my understanding of doctrine will influence my way of thinking about God and salvation. It shapes the values and priorities of my zone and cell groups, and strengthens love and unity among members. Having understanding of our church’s doctrine allows me to run the vision of the House with clarity and purpose.
I believe my group was the one with the most questions. We had so many spontaneous questions that the first night, Pastor Kong spent the night researching the answers with Pastor Kim Hock and Pastor Junxian. He slept just one hour that night just so that he could give us the answers. That’s the level of dedication Pastor has towards us.
The hardest part for me was catching up with Pastor’s teachings. There was such great depth in what Pastor had prepared for us, I needed time to fully understand. After each session, I wished I had my laptop so that I could search out the meaning of some words, or do a little more research to have deeper understanding. The more I heard from Pastor, the more I realised there was so much more I needed to study and learn. I didn’t want to shortchange myself.
We were blessed to each to have a room to ourselves. Initially, it was a little awkward being by myself in the room—I started calling up my peers so I could go and meet with them. After the first night session, I went back into the room and started praying and worshipping. I had no guitar, no Spotify but, my voice became my only instrument of praise and worship.
Soon, I was totally comfortable being alone with the Holy Spirit. I found myself being so aware of His presence. I woke up fresh each morning, ready to pray and worship. On the second night, I couldn’t stop reading the Word of God. I was writing notes and reading out loud the verses. At some verses, I would start to pray and intercede for my zone and my family. It felt so good and I felt so free.
Many asked if I missed my husband and three children during the retreat. I told them, honestly, no. In fact, I realised who it was that I missed most during the retreat: I missed God. I missed being just alone with Him with no agenda, no interruption, no distractions. I loved being so, so close with the Holy Spirit.
I could sense a difference in my worship and ministry after the retreat. In the various meetings with my different members, the presence of God became so much more tangible. And I realised it was because I have become more intentional in slowing down to allow myself to be more aware of His presence.
During one of the breaks, Pastor Kim Hock and Pastor Junxian were discussing some things, and [fellow zone supervisor] Josephine Lim and I asked to have a peep into Pastor Kong’s Bible. Pastor had told us that this was the Bible he had used during his years in prison, so our curiosity was piqued. When I opened the Bible, I was almost in tears. Every page was filled with ant-sized writing, so neat and so small, it was almost impossible to read. I had to squint my eyes in order to read them. At that very moment I realised just how much Pastor loves the Word of God. Nothing stopped his pursuit to know and understand the truth, even when circumstances were opposing and hard. I told myself then that I will make a resolute attempt to love and guard the Word of God so much more in my life, and to never become complacent or casual with it.