Interview with Nathan Avidan, ex pastor of City Harvest Church (Partial transcript) <Interview Transcribed by Singapore Shophouse>
Host: On the line, I have Nathan Avidan. Nathan has spent 17 yrs in the ministry as a pastor and he is focusing his attention on the Church in the nation of Singapore. I’ve asked him to come on Fighting for the Faith to discuss the Kong Hee scandal, and its implications on the churches in Singapore and the world. Nathan thank you for coming on Fighting for the Faith
Nathan: It’s my pleasure and honour to be here.
Host: We’ll start off with the Kong Hee scandal, because that’s in the news, and even here in the United States we get news of what’s going on in the Kong Hee scandal. Tell me ,why is it that it is the state of Singapore that is taking the lead in addressing what clearly is sinful behavior when it comes to Kong Hee and his wife Sun Ho, and the mismanagement and breaking of trust when it comes to the finances of their church? Why is it that the state and not the (other) churches? I haven’t heard a lot of grumbling, rebuking or even warning of Kong Hee and his ministry from the other churches in Singapore? Is it that the other churches have remained silent regarding Kong Hee?
Nathan: From my lens, I think the church Fathers – the older, more experienced Ministers – they have failed to discipline, repudiate, check and demand accountability from younger Minsters like Kong Hee on how he conducts his Ministry. This is a common phenomenon among the churches in my city. I would point to the direction of the Church Fathers, those who are older who should know better, they are the leaders for the body of Christ in Singapore.
Host: Why have they remained silent?
Nathan: One reason is that Kong Hee has grown in his ministry, this City Harvest Church, from 1994 to now, almost 20 years, to one of the largest congregations in all of Asia, about 30,000. I think the church Fathers are insecure about this, because it’s like they have lost in the numbers game. Their ministries have not had such large numbers attending their Sunday services. Because of that, they don’t think they are in the position to correct the younger Minister. They don’t make the numbers so they disqualify themselves (from commenting). It’s connected with an Asian mindset that “we’ve lost this game, this competition, and it looks like this younger guy has done better than us, because he’s got the largest attendance.”
Host: In other words, they’ve capitulated to a worldly mindset that numerical growth somehow means the blessing of God?
Nathan: Yes, you’re right.
Host: We have the same problem here in the United States. It doesn’t sound to me that it’s an Asian mindset. It might well be a worldly mindset that somehow if somebody is successful, that means God must be blessing him. Which is sad to hear, because basically they are allowing themselves to be intimidated into silence due to the fact that he has a large church. And because he teaches a false doctrine, that means there is a larger number of people who are not taught the Christian faith correctly.
Nathan: Yes you are right. That would constitute the second reason why he can go on, and nobody in the city is tapping him on the shoulder saying “Hey you’ve to stop this and check that what you’re doing squares with the Scripture, or does this glorify God?” I only know of one person, who is an elderly Minister who warned Kong Hee in his office, but he was promptly told to leave. He was an adviser for City Harvest Church back in 1994 for a few years. Kong Hee used to open himself to this person. He is already in his late 60s. He was told to leave the office after he warned Kong Hee that going into the music industry in America is not going to glorify God. He spoke to Kong Hee at the time when Kong Hee was deciding whether to shift the Crossover project from China and Taiwan to the US.
Host: When Sun Ho’s video came out, the one where they paid millions of dollars to produce, it was just debauchery, it was absolutely raunchy. Was there any outcry from pastors or church Fathers in Singapore about this Christian pastor’s wife had produced?
Nathan: There was an outcry but I don’t know if the word outcry is the correct word to describe how they voiced their outrage, the shame that this brought to the rest of us. City Harvest had already isolated itself from the rest of the body (of Christ) that nobody could get into this fortress. The real and raw outcry could be heard from netizens online. There was hundreds of thousands (of comments expressing) outrage, feeling, anger and shame coming from outside the City Harvest Club. I don’t want to call it a church because it’s not really a church. It’s some club, and these people in the club, until today they are still giving this blind loyalty to Kong Hee and telling everybody that there’s nothing wrong, and I’m talking about leaders who have been with him in the past 25, 30 years.
Host: You brought up something very important. You talked about the fact that Kong Hee has set up a fortress that local pastors and Christians have no way of having any input or say in what he does or teaches. Is Kong Hee accountable to anyone who attends City Harvest Church? Do they have a voter assembly? Do they have the ability to discuss these things and challenge the things he’s done or taught?
Nathan: In 1994, my wife and I were staff of City Harvest Church.
Host: so almost 20 years ago you had some say on what was going on in there?
Nathan: I was appointed a pastor for the adult section because most of the church then was comprised of young people from 13 to 18, 20 years old. There were just 200 or 300 adults who were married with children, and I was the pastor for this group. I was also a staff so I could see first hand how Kong Hee and his leadership operated. I am able to vouch the fact that he was surrounded by yes-men. They were not real men. They were not challenging his decisions. They were not asking him to validate his statements or doctrine from the Scripture, or how the word of God should be applied at the grassroots level. Nothing of this. Because all of the staff were children, apart from me and my wife, Kong Hee and his wife. My wife was the administrator for the church at that time. She could tell you that the way the funds were managed at that time. If we look at the modus operandi of Kong Hee and his wife, as far as finances are concerned, in 1994, and extrapolate to what has happened now, culminating in this scandal, this trial, we could see that nothing has changed in terms of how they used their funds. There was very little or no accountability.
Host: It sounds like they set up a cult of youth. You’ve basically described a scenario where there’s a bunch of young men, you called them boys, who don’t have real world experience in ministry over a long period of time, don’t have real experience in the corporate world, and they’ve no doctrinal depth to them at all. So they created this cult of youth with these young men, and they refused to listen to anyone who is older and more experienced. It’s almost like they set it up on purpose so that men who had experience, men who are older, men who are doctrinally sound would have no way to bother them or get into their faces and challenge what they were doing. Do you think it was intentionally set up that way?
Nathan: I think so. I could share with you that there was once when Kong Hee spoke to me and told me we were not to associate with the older people, the old guards. I don’t want to quote his exact words because they were not nice. If there are any older Ministers whom he would be accountable for in Singapore, these would be Ministers who danced to his tune. The moment he sense that they are not supporting what he wants to do, his plans or his agenda, then he would slowly back off and slowly distance himself from them. For the longest time, Kong Hee has been accountable to people outside of Singapore. Like Phil Pringle. Like Roberts Liardon, who was pretty close to Kong Hee in the starting years of City Harvest Church, until it was found out that Roberts was gay, then they stopped getting him to come in. Before that Roberts was pretty supportive of Kong Hee and was vouching for him as the rising man of God in Singapore. The other guy would be Ulf Ekman from Sweden. Ulf Ekman was one of the very few Ministers from outside Singapore who spoke some good words to Kong Hee and his wife. For example he cautioned them about this “drivenness” that their ministry had. Kong Hee is a pretty driven person – he’s driven to be successful, wrongly defined in getting the numbers. In the formative years, he was always talking about having 10,000 people in his church. His vision. He wants numbers. He’s always been mad about numbers. Even the way we operated the cell groups – I had to lead 15 cell groups, every night I would be preaching in a different cell group. I was newly married then, we didn’t even have time to build on our own marriage. There was a lot of drivenness. Everyone was driven to perform, to work hard, to get numbers, to call people, to invite them to service, etc. It was so fast – these guys who came in to deposit the word of God. I would not doubt that there were good words, good messages to teach the fledgling church at that time about Christ. There were good people who came from overseas. But there was hardly time given for the children, for God’s people, to digest the Word, to assimilate the Word into their lives and to apply it to their marriage, etc. He is a very driven man. He’s not led by the Holy Spirit. He’s driven by this mad, ungodly zeal to be the biggest and the best – there’s this perfectionistic thing about him.
Host: I have a concern. I watch the service of City Harvest Church online and it’s clear to me that the majority of people attending the church are very young. Late teens, early twenties. I don’t see anybody in City Harvest Church who has grey hair, wrinkles or is matured. It really is an appeal to a younger crowd. The thing is, they are not being taught the truth, they are not being disciple with any depth. This does not bode well for the Church in Singapore for the long term because they’ve captured the youth and moving forward the church would be shaped by them. What do you think are the long term consequences of Kong Hee’s style of ministry and the impact he has on the Church in Singapore?
Nathan: I think Biblically speaking, the long term effect, which is already happening, is that there is a breakage of the continuum that is ordained of God – a continuum of what is being transferred from the Fathers to the Sons. One of the serious problems that the Ministers in Singapore have is that we are all isolated and we are doing our thing. We are just running the flocks and congregations according to what we believe is right. They don’t really believe that there is one body, that there is one Holy Spirit, that there is One Church that Christ sees our city having. We are very disintegrated. We have been isolated through wanting our own agendas.