Church in Crisis?!!
Once Rev Edmund Chan had put it so aptly, he said that many people tend to think that the world is in crisis and the church is in need, but in actual fact, the church is in crisis and the world is in need. But it really takes humility to acknowledge this. Some churches would not admit this for many reasons. One, not all churches are in crisis. Some are thriving and growing very well. Two, we have our regular members attending the churches every Sunday and people are either in Sunday classes or cell groups or even both. Three, no church is perfect. It will be too pessimistic if we fix our eyes on the negative side. We should focus on the positive. How then is it possible that the church is in crisis today?
I would like to share some wrong assumptions. First, a church which is growing in numbers is a healthy church. But this may not always be true. Many church-goers may just be nominal Christians. I have also heard people going to a big church because there is no need for accountability. If a church starts a funding program to help educate the children for example, people with their children will start flocking to the church. There are also people who are paid to respond during altar calls for big rally so that the church can get more foreign funding. You see the same people attending different rallies and accepting Christ again and again.
The second assumption is that if members are regular in church, either Sunday school or cell groups, mean that the people are spiritually healthy. While it is better than them staying at home, we need to know that many people attending church today may be spiritually weak. Today with the advance of technology, some are just doing their own things with their smartphones and not listening to sermons. Sunday schools are also imparting more knowledge than transforming lives. Some cells have also become a place to pour their woes on each other rather than building each other up in the word of God. There are also people who share their own faulty interpretations of the Bible and the leader just keeps mum, out of respect or he does not know the answer himself. The latest faulty interpretation is about the claim that our late founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew has received salvation saved because of the age, the day and the time he died. They concluded that Mr Lee is saved because he died at the age of 91 which they relate to Ps 91 that he is now in the secret place of the Most High. Mr Lee died on 23 March, so they related it to Ps 23 that the Lord is now his Shepherd. Mr Lee died at 3:18am which they claimed that it is related to Ps 31:8 that the Lord did not hand him over to the enemy. This message that has been passed around is rather worrying.
Third, highlighting the negative side of the church is bad. Just seeing the negative side is obviously bad, but that does not mean that the church need not deal with the negative and just focus on the positive. It is just like burying our heads in the ground. There are obviously weaknesses that the church needs to strengthen and issues we need to address.
If we check the statistics, the state of the church today would be even more worrying. We would know that many people in the church do not fully believe in the Bible. There are also people who do not read the Bible or pray. Right now, the LBGT issues have even changed the constitution in churches and some nations. What causes this crisis? I would humbly suggest two reasons here due to constraint of space.
Neglecting personal discipleship
While I was in Thailand, I realised that the churches are very strong in fellowship. They have a lot of programs to involve people and bond people together, but they tend to lack in personal discipleship. When I came back to Singapore, I found the same problem. We tend to leave discipleship to discipleship class or Sunday school, but the focus of these classes is usually the impartation of knowledge. The teachers hardly have the time to disciple and guide the students personally. This problem has a further implication. Churches with weak personal discipleship usually have leadership succession problem. As a result, the same old leadership are stuck with their roles without enough leadership renewal. Gradually, people who are not ready or equipped are being put up to serve as leaders. Secularism also slowly crept into the church and diluted the Gospel. Holiness becomes distant.
Focus on management and funding
As the church increases in size and structure, more time is needed to manage the church. There are more committees and thus more meetings. More funds are also needed to run the church. This problem is even more pronounced in churches in the third world countries. They tried their ways and means to network with foreign churches so that they could get more support. Sometimes, they resort to unrighteous means just to ensure people put in their money. But what I want to highlight here is that more time is required for the leaders to handle management and financial issues. Pastors hardly have time to disciple and groom the next tier of potential leaders. Besides, they still have to spend time to prepare their sermons. In short, the time they disciple others is reduced even though they should be the best people to disciple their potential leaders. Some leaders even hand over this most important task of discipling leadership to their lay leaders. They gradually detach from the lives of people because they have too much administration work to cope with. While I was a missionary in Thailand, I noticed that most foreign missionaries are not involved in pastoral issues concerning the lives of people. They just preached with the help of their translators and support the local ministries. They did not know what was happening to the lives of the people they are preaching to. Perhaps, they think that their task is just to preach the word. But to me, discipleship is missing. If we see the model of Jesus or Paul, discipleship is never just accomplished on the preaching level. They went down to group level and ultimately, personal level.
What can we do about this crisis? Firstly, clarify our faith. This is crucial today because many of the church-goers today may not be clear about their faith. They might be following their parents or friends to church or they may be attending church because of some welfare benefits they are receiving. I believe that there is even a need to re-evangelize some churches so that the people know what they believe and follow. Only a person who truly understands the love of God can commit to live his or her life to God.
Secondly, return to the basics. We need to bring back the emphasis of holiness in the church. This holiness must be built upon the Word of God and prayer. But more than just reading the word of God and praying, we need to handle the word of God correctly and pray according to His will. Sad to say, many people who twisted the word of God can preach more passionately and lively. Thus they persuaded more people and drew a larger crowd. What’s worse is that the audience is not able to discern what is false among the truth. They are intrigued by the preacher’s eloquence and entertainment offered. We really need to return to the basics so that we can differentiate between what is true and false. We need to keep secularism and nominalism out of the church. We also need to get rid of the power play and politicking in church so that there is true unity in church. Rather than vying for power, we need to be good team players to accomplish the common vision of the church.
Thirdly, bring back personal discipleship in church. What we need is not more classes or groups but more personal discipleship and mentoring. I also believe that pastors should disciple as many key leaders as possible because they should be the best disciple makers in church. I believe that this is one of the most important tasks that they need to do. They must not think that they are just the planner. The cost of the lack of personal discipleship is just too high for the church. We will have weaker leadership in church. I myself witnessed this in the mission field. Once a bible student graduated from seminary, he is often left on his own to become a ‘pastor’ and is no longer accountable to anyone. No one guides or mentors him. He still fights for power in church, get drunk and even fight. Basically, he still needs a lot of guidance though he had finished his seminary studies. When we wanted to help the churches, their interest is how much we would support them financially rather than how we could help them spiritually. This is sad but it happens. We need personal discipleship so that we can guide a disciple to live transformed life for God.
Fourthly, keep the church structure lean to reduce bureaucracy. When the church structure gets too bulky, you will have more committees and administration. Time to get things done becomes longer. You get less personal and duplication in ministry increases. We need to keep things simple in church; there is no need to always to have more. As we add things, remember to take some things away as well so that the people are not over-taxed. If there are duplicated ministries, trim them down so that people would not be too busy or tired for discipleship. Make it conducive for people to meet up one on one starting from the within the cell groups. Remember that our ministry is about relationships and building relationships take time. For the first two years of mission work, I could hardly disciple anyone because they still did not trust me enough with their lives. It was only on the third year that they started to open up. But we often forget that trust has to be earned! People do not trust you with their lives just because you are the pastor. It is easier to get an event done than to disciple a person effectively! So we need to be more people-oriented. We need less theory and techniques but more relationships.
Fifthly, focus on learning than getting things done. I know we get worried when things are not done properly. We tend to focus more on results. But only when we focus on learning can a person improve the next time round. Do we show them how to improve and what they can learn from their serving? Or are we more interested to know where have we gone wrong and whose fault is it? Jesus never jumped on the faults of His disciples; instead He showed them the right way. The process is more important than the progress. When we have the proper process; we will surely achieve good progress.
Lastly, create a culture and structure of personal discipleship. We need to talk about it and long for it so that it is a norm to share lives with one another. We also need to re-structure the church so that personal discipleship can take place. Nowadays, people usually keep things to themselves; they do not see the need to consult other spiritual leaders over their decisions. Last time, while I was in the youth ministry, the youths could talk almost about anything under the sun except their spiritual lives and the decisions they are making. We need more accountability build upon the word of God so that discipleship can take place naturally. Encourage people to share about their spiritual experiences and lessons. Get them to talk about their choices in life and how they derive their decisions. Create an open spiritual culture.
This is the heartbeat of CTD. We hope to restore authentic Christianity in the church by highlighting the importance of it to others. We hope that everyone would stay close to Jesus and live a life to glorify Him. Will you join us in this movement?
Spiritual Hype or Depth?
Once I was trying to peel an onion but when I picked it up, I was surprised to find that it was hollow. The onion was rotten to its core though it still looked very nice on the outside. Is our spiritual life like this? Nice on the outside but rotten inside? I hope not. As our life gets busier, we are in a greater danger of neglecting our spiritual life. We may not even pay attention to it, thinking that it is alright.
Generally speaking, there are three groups of people. The first group are those who are growing and maturing in the Lord. The second group are the nominal Christians. They are only Christians in name, not concerned about obeying the Lord but still living their own carnal life. The third group is the most worrying group. They are those who seem spiritual but may not really be. They may be very hyped up with their Christian life but may not have depth. Of course, only the Lord and ourselves know which group we belong to.
There are many things in the Christian life that we can get hyped up with. We can get hyped up with serving God. Some people are so busy serving God that they neglect their spiritual life. There are also those who get hyped up by ‘new’ teachings. They especially like to hear about things like numerology and symbolism; certain things we are not sure what the Bible really meant or intended. We can also get hyped up by prayers. We can pray in tongues and pray aloud and passionately but we do not pay attention to the proper interpretation of God’s word, as such we can end up distorting the meaning of God’s word. One example is the way people are praying for prosperity. Another example was about a prayer group deducing from the date and time of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s passing to claim that he was saved. Some others are hyped up about their leaders. This usually happens in Charismatic churches where the charisma of the founding pastors command unreserved obedience. They are often treated as though they are gods. Members seldom question whether their leaders are doing the right thing. Many others are hyped up by prophecies, signs and wonders. They pay more attention to prophecies by the present day ‘prophets’ than Word of God in the Bible and seek after the manifestations of God more than obeying the word of God. A recent example would be seeking after gold dust and gems. Finally, there are those who are hyped up by spiritual experiences. These are not the usual testimonies about how we all can experience God or receive answers from God, instead their focus are on experiences such as going to heaven and hell, or certain near-death experiences which are not normative. I had heard about a church preaching and conducting Bible study solely based on all these strange encounters. Certainly, these can make us feel excited, but these should not be the anchor point of our faith.
Though many of these practices may not be totally wrong (some certainly good if practiced correctly), but we cannot say that they are surely right too. Some of these experiences are extra-biblical and subjective. We must be careful lest we drift away from God when we seek after these more than after God Himself. Though I myself come from a charismatic background, I caution all of us against various kinds of spiritual hypes but instead aim to build depth in our relationship with God through the word of God. My advice is to focus more on objective truth that is derived from the proper interpretation of God’s word rather than subjective truth that usually come from experiences and manifestations though I know that they can be so real.
The bottom line is that our understanding of God must always be based on the Word of God and not on experience alone. We should always seek God Himself rather than manifestations of God. We need to grow to be more like Him and be rooted in Him and His word. Remember that hyped-up spirituality will not make us more spiritual; it only make us look spiritual.
Grow in Faith!
As we begin this New Year, many of us would like to see ourselves growing in faith in the Lord, but how can we really grow our faith? Is it just spending more time reading the Bible and praying more to God? Sure, these are essentials, but they are not the end. Many of us can get stuck in this great resolution that we made and soon enough, the year ends without us trusting more in the Lord. After all, faith is something intangible, and probably vague as well.
As we looked into the Bible, we can have a few glimpses of various people who grew in faith. There is Abram who responded to the call of God to leave His homeland to an unknown land. There is also the young David who stood up and fought against Goliath. We also see the four friends who brought their friend who was lame to Jesus by lowering him down through the roof. Even the tax-collector, Zecchaeus, promised to give back the money he had cheated from the people. There are countless examples. Perhaps, the common thread in all these biblical examples would be a respond to act upon something after hearing the word of God or knowing about God. The people never just sit there without acting upon something. Their faith grew in the Lord as they act upon what the Lord directed them to do.
But what are some of the things that people are often challenged to? There are two aspects that I would like to highlight here. Hopefully, these may help us sense what the Lord in doing in our lives and thus motivate us to take a leap of faith to trust in Him.
The first aspect is that we are often challenged to sacrifice. As in the case of Abram, he had to sacrifice his ties with his household and the comfort he used to enjoy in his homeland. Later on, before God made a covenant with him, he was also challenged to sacrifice his long-awaited son, Isaac. Similarly, when God wants to lead us to a greater level of faith, we are often challenged to sacrifice something dear in our lives. These are often things that cost us. For that matter, a sacrifice would not be a sacrifice if it does not cost us or no longer cost us. As such, in our faith journey, God would continually lead us to sacrifice our “Isaacs”, may it be in terms of relationships, finance, career or comfort, etc. However, let us remember that our sacrifice is never greater than that of the Lord Himself, in case we adopt a victim mentality. Jesus is our greatest example of sacrifice and as such, we must be careful not to give the Lord a “cheap” or “convenient” sacrifice.
The second aspect is that we are challenged to take risks for God. Again, in the example of Abram, he was to take the risk of setting out to the Promise Land without knowing where it really was. He also had to risk taking the life of his son Isaac and believed that God would resurrect him. But after entering the land, he failed twice for not risking to tell the people that Sarah was actually his wife. We also see Rahab risking her life by lying to her own people that she did not see the spies from Israel. Daniel is another great example, not to mention people like Paul and Jesus, of course.
We can see that the test of faith is closely related to risk taking. In taking risks for God, our faith is often challenged. Without the need for risks, we can easily depend on our own experience and expertise. But when God leads us to greater faith, we are venturing new grounds to face uncertainties that our experience and expertise may fail us. We are often “cornered” to just trust and depend on the Lord, period.
If we really want to grow in faith this year, then be prepared for this great adventure. Our reading of God’s Word, prayers and circumstances in our lives would challenge us to make new sacrifices and even take risks for God in new grounds and uncertainties. For some of us, it may be a career switch. For others, it may be forsaking our holidays to do something more meaningful. Some may need to learn to give beyond their means or to serve God in a new ministry. Some may need to take the risk to challenge someone to receive Christ, while some may be taking a yoke of discipleship. In any case, sacrifices must be made to God and risks must be taken as we grow from faith to faith. But just a note of encouragement, there will be no sacrifice too painful or risks too big for us, God’s provision and grace will surely see us through and make us stronger in faith.
Philosophy of Ministry
Many of us started serving the Lord with lots of zeal and passion. But as time goes by, we are sucked into the busyness and hectic nature of ministry. We realized that many people are not listening to our sermons, people are not growing the way we want them to and the church seems to be stagnant in growth. By and by, we get busier running programs and attending meetings. Sometimes, we can even end up losing our first love as we serve God. The initial zeal and passion have become a drag. We preach and teach without purpose and we pastor without love and concern. We just get the job done.
Our zeal and passion may not be able to sustain us all the time, it may one day diminish. We may one day feel lost in ministry. What is important is to have a clear philosophy of ministry. This answers why we serve, how we serve and what we want to see through our serving. The question of why we serve is a question of both motivation and calling. We should be clear that our motivation is none other than the Lord, Jesus Christ Himself. His sacrifice on the cross is what that sustains us. It is not our momentary zeal or our ego. The other aspect concerns our calling. We need to know what God calls us to do. It is from this calling that we are able to derive our vision and mission.
With regards to how we serve, it refers to the basic values and principles underlying our service to God. For example, we may list integrity as one of our values. It can also be sincerity or love. They are the important values and principles that we hold on to as we serve God. They are the things that we would not compromise.
Another important components of our philosophy is about what we want to see in our ministry. Sometimes we can end up serving for the sake serving. We can be teaching or preaching very well, but what do we really want to see? Are we just informing the congregation? Or are we more interested in transforming them? Are we more interested in church wealth more than church health? Are we more concerned about quantity than quality? Ministry is definitely not just about delivering our job, we need to know if our congregations are becoming more Christ-like. In fact, our chief purpose in our ministry is to help people to be restored to the image of God, so that they may be blameless before God. The implication is that if we lead people to the Lord, we would not stop there. We would lead them to mature in Christ. If we are preaching or teaching, we are going to ask if people are transformed to be more like Christ rather than asking whether they know more about the Bible. This component would determine how faithful we are to the calling of God for us. It will also decide how we use of time and how we channel our resources for ministry.
It is important to work all these out as we serve God. Let us take some time to seek God and clarify our philosophy before jumping into anything. God’s calling is sacred, do not abused it or misuse it. May God grant us His wisdom and strength.
A Welfare Gospel?
We have all heard about the ‘health and wealth gospel’, and we have been aware of its pitfalls. Its main problem is to interpret different genres of the Bible as prescriptive and to claim all of them as promises of God, even though it is clear that certain genres like Proverbs are never meant to do so. Our faith, thus are not and should not be hinged on the outcomes of whether we are healthy or wealthy as a result.
As much as we are aware of the ‘health and wealth gospel’, we must also be increasing careful of what I call the ‘welfare gospel’. We understand very well that the Gospel from from our Lord Jesus Christ is a whole gospel. It does not just address the spiritual aspect of our lives, but also the physical, social and even economical aspects of life. Basically, Jesus met the people at their points of need. However, we also know that Jesus never stopped there. He would then move on to meet their spiritual needs. This is the whole gospel ministering to the whole person. While it is commendable that the church today are engaging more in social services, we must be careful that it is not an end to itself. By observations, the church is winning more converts through social services than friendship today. This poses a new challenge for us too. More people are coming to church because of certain benefits that they received. If the church fail to move these people from their physical needs to spiritual needs, these people would end up treating God like an ATM machine. They would always be making demands in the church rather than learning to give and serve. As a result, the church may be constrained by this ‘welfare gospel’ they are offering.
It is therefore vital for the church to disciple this group properly. We must disciple them to move from need-centred to Christ-centred. We need to be careful not to be too caught up with serving them that they continue to live their old lives. As much as the church is doing well with their social services, let us keep our focus to make these services a godly one. Never forget that our purpose is to make disciples and not just doing good.
Are We Driven?
We live in a busy world and the bad news is that we are going to get busier further down the road. In the past people thought that they can have a good rest when they retire, but now they still have to work their guts out even when old. Probably they can only stop when they enter their graves. The situation is not better in the church either. Rather than being a place of solitude and spiritual rest, the church has become very much like the working world. It is driven by results, sizes, strategies and techniques. We have become the ones who engineer her success rather than God. In the past, the pagans brought along their beliefs and practices into the church when the whole Roman Empire ‘converted ‘. Today, we also bring the things of this world to manage and run the church. That’s why we are seeing many ‘CEOs’ in the church. The church is corporatized. The church is marketed like a product.
Not that we should not learn from the world or should not adopt things from the world. I think we should and even move on to contextualize and adopt the things of this world to win the lost, but we must be careful of building our own Babel. Though seemingly more spiritual on the outside, the Lordship of Christ is being eroded gradually and subtly. We can be known for being alive but we might be dead on the inside.
We need to strengthen what has remained. We need to let go of our drivenness which so often has resulted in burn outs. We need to forsake that competitive spirit that tend to compare with one another. We need a humble spirit dependent on God rather than try to prove our own ability. It’s time that we fully surrender ourselves to God.
Delivering A Sermon
Sermon does not end with it’s preparation but in it’s delivery and response. A well prepared sermon can be delivered in a boring manner. Preaching is the proclamation of the Word. It is not about reading our script. As such, preachers do well if they are well prepared for delivery and response of the sermon.
My purpose here is not to talk about the part on sermon preparation. I would like to focus more on sermon delivery. Firstly, we need to be familiar with our script. The sermon must speak to us and convict us before we preach it to others. If we are not familiar, we will be pausing too often. We would not be able to build up a climax in our sermons.
Second, we need to project our voice and use it to give life to our preaching. We must not mumble but project our voice with gusto. We can create a stereo effect of our preaching by mastering a few techniques. We need to learn to go and pause, fast and slow, high and low, soft and loud. Though this maybe seen as a technique, but it can come naturally if we feel for our sermons. If we preach with our hearts, our passion will overflow and it will be felt. Our sermons will come alive.
Thirdly, don’t quote too many verses. Some preaching are like reading a series of verses. People are so sick of flipping to so many texts that they give up. Use sparingly. This is not a teaching seminar. Two to three supporting verses should be more than enough for each point. I would probably use less than that unless I am doing a topical sermon.
Fourthly, use analogy, testimonies and illustrations wisely. It’s good to use stories especially if they are used appropriately. Stories help us to remember the points more easily and they can convince the audience more easily too. Real life testimonies make the sermon real. The worst case is to make people feel that our sermons are too holy beyond their reach.
Fifthly, leave room for the Holy Spirit. Don’t be too strict to follow our script. Speak naturally and allow the Holy Spirit to add in new things in our sermons. Sometimes, the Spirit of God can just remind us of fantastic stories that speak a thousand words.
Lastly, know what kind of response we want to achieve. Don’t just end with a prayer without a challenge. God’s Word demands a response from us. Don’t just end it with a summary of our sermons. Go ahead to challenge people to commit to God.
My hope is that preachers would not bore people with the Word of God but to make it come alive for the Word of God is living and active.
Preaching A Good Sermon
Preaching a good sermon good sermon is never easy. It should accomplish three goals. Firstly, it should convince our heads. Secondly, it should convict our hearts and lastly, it should challenge us to commit our hands. But all these must be done through the power of the Holy Spirit. Preaching is not about entertaining but it is about engaging our minds, enlarging our vision and hearts, and enriching our lives. Preaching is not about informing but it is about internalizing the Word of God, igniting our passion and inspiring our lives. May God bless all His servants who have this awesome responsibility.
Two Fold Purpose Of Mission
In missions, we tend to put our focus on the field. We think that God’s purpose is only for us to reach the lost. As such, when we go for mission trips, we pray for the lost and conduct many outreach programmes. Though this purpose of God to reach the lost is evident, we may have neglected another aspect of mission.
Consider the story of Jonah, is God only interested in the salvation of the people in Nineveh or is God also interested in the life of Jonah? God seems to tell us that He is interested in both. In the story, the author was putting a lot of emphasis on Jonah himself. God wanted an obedient messenger to get His message across. God awaited a response from Jonah in order for him to get to work.
Missions is not just about transforming the people in the field, but also transforming the messenger. We have been so task-oriented in missions that we have forgotten about ourselves! How can we miss out such an important purpose of missions. God expects us to be more like Him as we do His work. He is totally interested in us as well as the field. He wants to transform us as much as those people in the field. In fact, God can at times hardened the hearts of the people in order to teach us some lessons. This is especially evident from the lives of the prophets.
Perhaps, we need to reflect more when we go for missions next time. Listen to what God is saying concerning our lives. Let God accomplish the work in the field, but also let Him do the work in us too.
Giving Thanks And Feedback
The Bible tells us to give thanks in all circumstances. But this is not a license to shut up every feedback. The differentiation must be made.
To give thanks in every circumstance means that there is always something that we can thank God for in every situation. In good things or bad things, there is God’s will and purpose in it. We can give thanks to God as He reveals His plan to us.
However, in these circumstances, they may be a result of both good and bad choices. As such, there is room for improvement and change. Giving thanks and feedback can coexist together. Giving feedback does not mean we are not grateful to God. It does not negate what God is doing at all. In fact, it brings our thanksgiving further. Not only can we give thanks for the work God is doing, we can also be responsible to improve and correct the wrong we made.
However, feedback is not negative. It is given to build and not to destroy. We must not use the opportunity to give feedback as a license to criticize others. We should also take note that it is easier to give feedback than receiving feedback. It is always easy to spot something that is not right and question why we did not do it better. But we should also have the humility to receive feedback from others so that we can improve. This exercise can take place both in personal and corporate levels.
Let us be thankful to God in every circumstance, let us also be open to give feedback and receive feedback. This can bring about improvement not only in our church, but also transformation in our personal life.