7 May 2023 marks the 34th year of City Harvest Church. A CHC member who has been there since the start shares a glimpse into the past and reveals that the values and beliefs of CHC have remained constant over the years.
City Harvest Church celebrates its 34th anniversary and what an amazing journey it has been! In the early days of CHC, the congregation was small but packed a passionate punch. The people were mostly youths and young adults, vibrant and full of energy. Those who have been with CHC since its early days note that the church has indeed come a long way and its leadership has matured over time. With no overarching ministry to guide them, founders Pastor Kong Hee and Sun Ho, along with the pioneering batch of leaders had to figure out the best way to run the church. Hits and misses were part and parcel of the growing process.
More than half of City Harvesters today have little knowledge of what the church was like in the first 10 years. So here is a look into the beliefs, the quirks and the fun that the early City Harvesters got up to back in the day.
HOLLYWOOD THEATRE: BURSTING AT THE SEAMS
From June 1995 to end 2001, the church met at the old Hollywood Theatre, an old cinema located along Tanjong Katong Road. Weekends with back-to-back services were a sight to behold: queues began early on Sunday from the entrance of the hall, filling up the entire foyer of the theatre, snaking all the way down to the carpark—the whole area where Kinex Mall now sits. Voices had to be raised in order to be heard, and amazingly, one could locate his or her cell group in the midst of the chaos without a cellphone. All this would be happening outside while an earlier service would be taking place inside the hall. The whole building would be pulsating with music and people praising the Lord with thunderous clapping and dancing. The ground level of the hall would be packed from wall to wall, front to back; and the second floor balcony would be completely filled. Says Michael Chan, 52, who has been attending CHC since his teenage days, “You could feel the balcony on the second floor literally shaking as we danced and jumped in praise. Looking back, all I can say is thank God for His protection!”
For cell group leader, Yu Cuilin, that second floor balcony held a very special place in her heart. She recalls a service when Dr John Avanzini was preaching and he gave an altar call inviting the people to give to the Lord. The ground floor was packed with people thronging forward to toss their giving into a box that was on the stage. There was no way the people on the second floor could make their way down to give. “Dr Avanzini told those on the second floor to throw their offering down to the ground floor and the people below would see that the offering got into the box. What a sight it was to see money raining down from the second floor as we threw our offering down in faith,” Cuilin recalls in amusement. “That was a miracle offering for me because I had no money to pay for my Bible school fees. But I trusted God and threw my money down. That miracle offering opened heaven for me as I clinched a tuition job that was so good, it supported the entire two years of my Bible school fees. How our hearts were so pure and hungry for God!”
AREA CLEANING AND WASHING TOILETS
Hollywood Theatre was the first building CHC called home and the members took ownership of it. Back when no one heard of cleaning companies, every cell group took turns to do area cleaning after the weekend services. Members arrived in church dressed to the nines, and once the crowd cleared after the last service ended, cell groups on duty would stay behind to vacuum the carpet that covered the entire floor area of the theatre (including the second level). Formal shirt sleeves and pants were rolled up and long skirts were swapped out for shorts as the 10 toilets in the building had to become sparkling clean under the watchful eyes of Pastor Yong Te-Chong. Only after his nod of approval was given were the cell groups free to go off for fellowship, happy and fulfilled.
Besides the cell groups, Bible school students of the then-City Harvest Bible Training Centre, now known as the School of Theology, also had area cleaning duties. Colin Lim, 49, was studying in CHBTC and served as a facilities officer that looked after the building. “I remember there was a Bible school student who refused to wash the toilets. She insisted that God had given her a call to enrol in Bible school to be equipped in ministry, not to wash toilets,” laughs Colin. “I said to her, ‘Sister, if you can’t even wash a toilet in the house of God, how are you going to build a church for Him?’ And I proceeded to show her the right way to clean the toilet bowl. Her eyes were filled with tears and I took it to mean that the Lord was touching her heart,” he chuckles.
FASTING EVERY WEDNESDAY
City Harvest Church has always been rooted in spiritual disciplines and this was evident even in the early days. Pastor Kong, as the shepherd of a very young congregation then, was resolute in instilling Bible study, prayer and fasting in the congregation’s lifestyle. Bible study was conducted every week, not in a big class but in small groups of twos and threes. Wednesday was the stipulated fasting day from 6am to 6pm, or 24 hours. Members would fast without fail, and no reminding was needed because it was a lifestyle. Prayer meetings were a staple occurrence above and beyond weekly cell group meetings, while overnight prayer meetings lasted till the wee hours of the morning. The members bonded while going through the spiritual disciplines together, encouraging and cheering one another to fight the good fight and finish the race.
31 December every year was a highlight for the church. It was a night of praise and worship, testimonies, hilarious skits, performances and awards presentation. Some of the awards given out included Best Cell Group, Best Cell Group Leader, Most Evangelistic Cell Group, among many. But the most heartfelt award of the night was always the Courage Award. This was given to a member or leader that had gone through immense challenges in the year yet was able to finish the year strong. The night usually ended ringing in the new year with tears and hugs.
Pastor Eileen Toh remembers how, one memorable year, she was supposed to push the button that would release the confetti at the stroke of midnight. However, towards midnight, the countdown party had taken on a more sombre note with the church crying out to the Lord for a revival. When the clock struck 12, someone pressed the button as planned and confetti flew all over the solemn scene. The effect was hilarious—even if no one laughed.
Today, the awards ceremony has been adopted by SOT, which gives out awards such as Best Team, Best Student and yes, the Courage Award remains the highlight of every SOT graduation service.
Someone once called City Harvest Church a large Sunday School, a comment the members and leaders were none too thrilled about. But it was true that there were many members who were in secondary schools and tertiary institutions. Concerned for their studies, and for the fact that the members showed up in church every other day during the week, the church leadership decided to implement compulsory study hours. Every schooling youth had to clock 20 hours of personal studying time a week, above and beyond school hours. If one did not hit 20 hours, he or she was not allowed to show up in church or at cell group. One might say that these were drastic measures, but clocking 20 hours became a badge of honour and pride when the time came to submit study hours to your cell group leader. Repeated offenders that consistently fail to hit their target of 20 hours per week had to do the penalty for the week, usually involving plucking the tails off bean 1kg of bean sprouts or peeling bags of onions—again, under the watchful eyes of Pastor Yong. Emphasis was placed on members being salt and light in their studies and bearing a good testimony of Jesus Christ to their parents.
VOW OF SINGLEHOOD
Among many of the life-changing messages preached in the early days was one about being single-focused for the Lord. Many of the youth decided to put boy-girl relationships on hold and commit themselves to growing in their spiritual walk with the Lord. This was known as the vow of singlehood which lasted anything from two to five years. Making a commitment to be single-focused on God was not an easy feat for youngsters with raging hormones. But as with all things to do with the Kingdom of God, the vow of singlehood was taken very seriously.
Pastor Bobby Chaw, one of CHC’s executive pastors, and his wife Cindy were among those who decided to spend a few years of their youth pursuing the Lord instead of a relationship. When their singlehood vow was over, Pastor Bobby felt led by the Lord, and found himself attracted to Cindy whom he married after three years of courtship. He reveals that his son, 20, has just completed his own vow of singlehood. “I do think being single-focused on the Lord is still relevant today, especially more so now. Youth these days have a lot on their plate: they have academic pressure, they grapple with interpersonal tension at home and in school, and then there’s also building and strengthening their relationship with the Lord,” explains Pastor Bobby. “It might be wise for our youths to consider being single for the Lord for a reasonable period of time where they need one less thing to deal with.”
REVIVAL OF LOVE
A defining moment of CHC’s journey was the birth of the Church Without Walls movement in 1995. CHC outlined its modus operandi to love God wholeheartedly and love people fervently. But long before that, since Day One, it was the love for God and His people that motivated the church to reach out to the marginalised: the children, the elderly, the intellectually-disadvantaged, the sick and dying, the poor… Fast forward to today, 34 years later, this is still the definitive feature of CHC. In fact, Church Without Walls has expanded to reach out to more groups including foreign workers, cancer patients and unwed mothers.
Today, the church continues to emphasise the love of God and outreach to the poor and needy. Despite the many hurdles CHC has gone through, it has not wavered nor sidetracked from the call of God upon it since the leaders were youths.
To the new generation of City Harvesters, it’s your time now to continue the legacy and take the church to new heights. Slay your tens of thousands and do even greater things for God.