It has been 11 years since Pastor Derek Dunn left Singapore to start City Harvest Church Orange County. He talks to City News about the new things God is doing in the church and the old things to hold on to.
Even though he departed Singapore more than a decade ago for the United States, seeing Pastor Derek Dunn at CHC’s pulpit preaching feels as though he has never left.
The pastor of City Harvest Church Orange County returns regularly to Singapore, always to share a timely message. The last time CHC saw him was in 2019, before the pandemic struck. Last month, he came back bringing a powerful message on the power of the Holy Spirit and the outpouring of the Spirit this year.
We sat Pastor Derek down and asked him, having engaged with Christians on both sides of the Pacific, what he believes God is doing in the world now.
COVID, CHANGE & THE CHURCH
“I would say small as the new big,” he replies, explaining that COVID has changed the church’s way of doing things. “Some megachurches are struggling, but people are basically going back to relationship. The pandemic got people to evaluate what is really important, which is meaningful relationships and all the things that took a backseat during the megachurch years.”
Pastor Derek notes that this principle of relationship also applies to businesses: Walmart supermarkets, Starbucks cafes, small shops are thriving where there is the element of a personal touch, “where someone knows your name,” he says. This has become attractive to people.
While he recognises that as Christians, we still love big encounter meetings, and he affirms that we must get back to the assembling of the saints, he believes that God can and will move in small meetings.
“When there’s two or three gathered, God is there,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be three thousand. When in a big meeting, we can depend on others to build the atmosphere and ride on the coattails of corporate anointing, but in smaller gatherings we can experience Him too.”
He declares, “We all carry God. Don’t get stuck on the form.”
Pastor Derek is no stranger to change. As an American youth, he came to Singapore as a missionary and wound up serving in City Harvest Church for 16 years. In 2011, he uprooted his life, family and successful ministry—he was CHC’s executive pastor and led a thriving zone—and returned to the US to plant a new church.
He remembers how “when I walked through customs [to board the plane] I cried, because I was leaving my [CHC] family.” But he says that God has been there throughout the change he endured. “There has been no loss in the Kingdom,” he explains. “And even though I’m not involved in everyone’s lives the way I was, there is still love and friendship.” In fact, he feels the friendships he has maintained with his CHC friends and former colleagues is equally close and more intentional than before. “I see the beauty of the Kingdom displayed through how these relationships have evolved.”
Relocating is a major change and Pastor Derek certainly felt the stress of entering the unknown after many years of successful ministry. Now, 11 years later, he encourages Christians to trust in God and to obey Him, knowing the He will lead us in the right path.
“On the other side (of the Pacific), I’ve connected with people that—if I hadn’t let go of Singapore—I never would have connected with. And so, I think that’s the beauty of the Kingdom in different seasons: God always makes it up to you.”
He is doing similar things that he did in Singapore: connecting with people, serving the community, marrying couples but just “in a different territory that God has called us to.
“Whenever we put something on the altar for God, he always gives it back to us beautifully.”
OBEDIENCE TO THE CALL OF GOD
When Pastor Derek started CHCUS, there were periods of struggle, especially over the things that he had given up. He recalls a conversation he had with God.
“The first four or five years was slow,” he describes. “We were trying to break the 100-person barrier. You would get people coming, then school break happens and you lose 25 people.
“One day, the Lord challenged me, ‘Look, if you never grow beyond 250 people, would you still be happy and do this?’
“I said, No, in all honesty. I knew that was the wrong answer. But coming from CHC, it was hard. I used to get more people in a leaders’ meeting than I now got in church service. But it made me examine myself: ‘Am I doing this for God? What is my motivation?’”
When Pastor Derek looked at Jesus’ own ministry, he was encouraged: Jesus attracted multitudes of 5,000 but there were just 120 in His church on the day of Pentecost. Jesus had 12 leaders but one bad apple—all He had was 11 men and they transformed the world.
He explains that in a driven culture, there is the natural and normal desire to want to be successful, but one must be careful not to operate from an orphan mindset of wanting to do more to win approval. It is challenging because even in the church, people are celebrated when they are outwardly successful. Yet God rewards differently, says Pastor Derek. God rewards obedience and He is not in a rush like we may be.
“There could be a pastor in some small town that had 50 people his whole life and he gets the same reward as a megachurch pastor, because in the Kingdom of God, God rewards obedience,” he elaborates. “The intercessor who prayed every day faithfully on her knees will not be rewarded less if that’s what God called her to do.”
He clarifies: “Of course, we all want to impact our cities. There’s power in that. But there are a lot of megachurches and all they do is cause traffic jams. They don’t really impact. So just because you’re big doesn’t mean you’re making an impact.”
Obedience also means yielding to God’s timing, says Pastor Derek, not striving or trying to spiritualise our striving by praying or fasting in an attempt to move God.
“Like Jesus said, love each day, don’t worry about tomorrow. Plan, strategise, but if it doesn’t happen and God takes it a different way, would you be okay with that?
“Right now, I’m not worried about tomorrow or next week,” he says. “I’m doing a City News interview and I can be comfortable that I’m in the right place at the right time. And I can enjoy it. So enjoy the moment and don’t be rushing or striving to please God or please man—that’s bondage.”
THE KINGDOM CULTURE OF HONOURING
God placed a sense of destiny in Pastor Derek to plant Him a church. But he had to wait seven years before the timing was right for him to leave, with the blessing and encouragement of CHC founders Kong Hee and Sun.
Satisfaction, to him, is living in the perfect will of God, at the right place and right time, and to hear those words from the Lord: “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Everyone has a different purpose, says Pastor Derek, but every one of us can find fulfilment and joy in living out His unique purpose for our lives.
Pastor Derek found that when he started CHCUS, he needed to win over the trust and respect of the people in America, many who distrusted leadership. Some had been hurt by the church before, but there is also a growing culture of disdain for authority, he notes. Being disrespectful to leadership is an attitude that can creep into the church, and he is adamant that it should not be tolerated.
“If we don’t honour one another, and we don’t honour God, we don’t honour the spiritual authority that He has put around us, we don’t have blessing,” he asserts. “When you have order and you have a culture of honour, blessing flows.”
Pastor Derek shares a story about a couple in their late 60s who attended his church. “They thanked me and said this is the first church that they attended that didn’t closed down. Statistics show that across the globe, churches close down within the first three years due to mismanagement or even morality issues. What they told me really broke my heart, and made me determined that we’ve got to keep going.”
God has also been speaking to Pastor Derek about generations. “The younger generation is looking for what’s real, and if it is not genuine, they’re not going to do it, they will mock it. Jesus went for young fishermen who were all about making money and they probably didn’t have the best vocabulary. But what happened he gave him a vision for something larger than themselves. He was real. They saw the power of God, and they were hungry for that. In the world today, everything’s about the supernatural. It’s all vampires and witches and warlocks on all the shows and even kids’ books. The youth have a hunger for the supernatural and we need to give them that. If not, they’ll go to the dark side which seems real, but is a counterfeit. So I think we have to demonstrate the power of God, the reality of God, that it’s not just a philosophy or just teaching, or just a culture—‘this how you behave as a Christian’. When they experience the power of God, there’s transformation.”
Young people need to know their purpose, he adds, not to be rebels without a cause, but having Christ as their cause.
Pastor Derek points out, “God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; it’s all three generations flowing together. Abraham wasn’t obsolete just because Jacob came along. Isaac honoured Abraham, Jacob honoured Isaac. We need to continue to honour those who have gone before us. Even if their method isn’t our method, the message is sacred.”
CHCUS, A CROSS-CULTURAL CHURCH
At his church, Pastor Derek is focused on getting the CHC message, DNA and culture through to the third generation. The first generation sees the move of God, the second sees the work of God. For the third generation, they inherit what has been built but they need to be captured by purpose as well. He draws a parallel to CHC in Singapore and the generations that have gone from Hollywood Theatre to Jurong West and now, Suntec.
One of the unique things about CHCUS is its multi-racial, multi-cultural environment. “I’m not American. I’m not Asian. I’m Kingdom,” says Pastor Derek. “I’ve taken things on from Asian culture that is Kingdom and parts of American culture that’s Kingdom, but then I have filtered out some other things that are not so Kingdom. Los Angeles is multiracial and multicultural, so when people see our website, they’re drawn to it because there’s a lot of diversity.
“We’ve got Chinese on the stage, we’ve got Japanese, we’ve got a Mexican guy, a black singer, we’ve got a white singer… I don’t care about your style. If you’re black and you’re a bit more Gospel, as long as you’re anointed, do that. I create a culture where we can celebrate diversity, but it has to be anointed,” he says.
“People look at us and go, ‘Well, what’s your programme? What did you do to attract these people?’ I’m like, we didn’t do anything. We just love people. We’ve come to a place where we’ve set a culture that’s inclusive, a culture where everyone feels loved regardless of where they’re at—you have struggles, I have struggles. And because of that, God works in people’s lives.
Pastor Derek shared that to stay hungry for God, he makes a commitment to examine himself periodically. He is intentional to check his heart, his prayer life, his attitude of serving – not to get caught up in the doing, but to have the right motivation.
As the lead pastor of his church, he also intentionally stays in fellowship with other pastors, and ensures that he has authority over him. When there is a chance to be involved in what God is doing, he is there, be it dancing with young people, or flying to Singapore to receive, to minister or to be a contributor attending the service, he’s all in.
“Every leader needs an Aaron and Hur to hold up their hands—we can’t do it alone, no matter how gifted or anointed we are,” he says. “We need people who make themselves available. Leaders will just plough through because we’re leaders, and we don’t want to come across as needy. If we’re having a bad day, it’s not like we can not preach. We have to get up there and get into faith. That’s the burden and sometimes the loneliness of leadership.
“Paul loved Timothy because he encouraged him. So to me, that’s what honouring is, when you’re there to contribute to your leader. Even if you don’t get a thank you, I know God appreciates it, because that’s the Kingdom culture.”