When I first joined City Harvest Church (CHC) in 2003 as a 16-year-old, I hadn’t even heard of the place, much less formed an opinion about it.
My first impressions were that it was just another Christian place of worship, albeit one that was energetic, filled with young people and refreshingly alive (for a church).
Fast forward to 2014 and CHC is now a household name, though for the wrong reasons. The scandal being that its church founder and a group of leaders are accused of misusing more than S$50 million in church funds.
But this piece is not about the ongoing court trial, but my memory of my experiences in the church and why I left around the time the authorities’ investigations into its finances started.
Believe it or not, CHC was a very inviting place, even for an awkward teenager.
It was inviting not that everyone coddled you in hopes that you would remain a part of the congregation, but you truly felt the sincerity of those who wished the best of you.
I had friends and church leaders who cared for me the best they knew how, guiding and encouraging me whenever I was feeling down.
A bible passage quoted by members is still one of my favourites today, from 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 (New King James Version of the bible): “Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
Many times, my Christian friends would remind me of this verse so that I may recall how God loves me and how I should love others. For an undiscerning teenager, this was guidance served on a platter. The secular world is rarely this clear with its values.
“Love God wholeheartedly, love people fervently” was the catchphrase CHC members gleaned from the above verse, courtesy of pastor Kong Hee’s avid use of the sentence as well. And boy, did it catch on. People were using it during prayer meetings, lunchtime conversations and in casual chit-chat.
Sadly, a catchphrase was all that it was.
After several years there, the reality of staying faithful to God and being a practising follower of Christ sank in.
Like an old-time couple falling out of love, the honeymoon phase dissipated and all that remained was an expectation to stay a dutiful Christian, which, at minimum, meant keeping up with your personal prayer time (“quiet time” as they called it), bible reading, paying of tithe (a cell group leader keeps track of this) and attending weekly cell group meetings and worship services.
Still, despite the routines, I kept on going because I loved God, which, to me as a Christian then, was the cornerstone of my faith. People mattered, but they shouldn’t cost me my belief.
At this point, I had been in the church for about three to four years, and instead of giving up, I dived deeper into my faith – I joined a school to study theology. The School of Theology was started by CHC.
GIVING BUT NEVER GETTING
At some point in my journey with the megachurch, it embarked on the now infamous Crossover Project, fronted by Kong’s wife Sun Ho.
Unlike how she is perceived now, Ho was a worship leader and had good repute among members. She was known to be kind, understanding, and above all, a great listener. Many members loved her and spoke fondly of her.
Her provocative ‘China Wine’ music video was shown to the entire congregation during a normal weekly service, which was also the first time I saw it. Most of my church-mates and I simply thought that it was an edgy, contemporary thing to do. None of us thought too much about it – there are much worse and cheesier music videos out there.
I did support the endeavour for what it was – a way to spread the faith to non-believers through pop music, and I was on board hook, line and sinker.
I was so into it I even dressed in Ed Hardy clothing (gasp!), the clothing line Ho and Kong were stocking in the retail store they owned.
So, I would be attending theological school dressed in garish clothing. But it felt all right because everyone else was doing the same.
As students, we were expected to lead by example. Intrinsically, that meant going the extra mile in all we do. Pray more, give more, love more, believe more and doing so ever more willingly.
I don’t remember giving a cent directly for the purpose of the church using it to fund Ho’s album production, but I do remember that Kong was unabashed about asking people to give more.
“Give and you shall be given back ten fold, a hundred fold, a thousand fold,” he would quote from the bible.
My tithes and offerings had to be going somewhere, and if it was used to finance Ho’s music career, I was none the wiser.
Not that it mattered. To me, and to many believers I knew, we were giving unto God. If the person who managed the finances was corrupt, it didn’t matter. What mattered was what I know to be good and true.
In retrospect, how ignorant I was.
There was always the promise at the back of my head that I would receive tangible blessings in return – Christians are human after all.
There was also time for people to give their testimonies during weekly services, where a church member goes on stage to recount how he or she gave and gave till they enjoyed a life of overabundance because God finally blessed them back.
Sure, Jesus never taught that God is a genie in a lamp ever ready to barter-trade with you, but people were swept up by such emotionally charged speeches.
I recalled the testimony of one cell group leader who was so blessed in so many ways.
She found God during her university days and was one of those who had to finance her own education through part-time work. Tough as it was, she said she always gave her tithes regularly and never failed to believe that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
My recollection is foggy, but her testimony was memorable because she got her entire extended family up on stage as a show of force. Apparently, she had always prayed for her family to receive Christ and after many years of dedication, her siblings, aunts, uncles and grandparents have all converted, all thanks to her years of giving, she said.
She even found financial stability after many years of struggling, which she also attributed to God’s divine work. For a young adult who had to finance her own undergraduate studies, she had indeed come a long way.
ROAD TO PERDITION
At about my fifth year there, the Crossover Project was in full swing. This was a happy thing for many in the church, which espoused a “Cultural Mandate”.
This simply meant the leadership wanted believers to be out there in the real world making a positive impact in business, culture and every other sphere in society. “I want to build a church without walls,” Kong would often say. Yes, catchy.
To church members, Ho had been doing a great job evangelising to the masses as well. No one bothered, save a few, to question the legitimacy of the endeavour. And as far as I was concerned, there was nothing amiss.
Fatigue, however, caught up with me.
Years of blind obedience does take a toll and you begin asking yourself why you are supporting all these causes that, for all intents and purposes, you have no part in, save your monetary input.
Being at CHC was never a simple matter of believing in God. You had to put your trust behind the leadership too, if not, you were ostracised. Never directly, of course – non-adherents would be “talked to” by leaders.
Questioning the leadership was also tricky business at CHC. There was that sense of self-censorship, regulation between peers and finally, top-down pressure to conform.
I once asked why do we pray for things if Christians were to simply follow God’s will. It was answered unsatisfyingly. The leader ended the conversation by praying for me to have greater faith to overcome this “doubt” that I had.
This began a journey of more questioning for me, though I no longer voiced it out, lest I was dismissed as being faithless.
At this point, the probe from the Commercial Affairs Department had already begun and my exit from the church was underway.
For me, I was uncomfortable with the way the leadership treated its members. It was a culture that bred endless guilt trips.
I kept my close church friends in the know about my leaving, but they did little to convince me otherwise. Following my subsequent distancing from the church, they stopped contacting me.
They did call or text me during Christmas and Easter periods, hoping I would return to the fold. It was like their friendship was contingent on me being Christian again.
In 2012, when the arrests were made, I was already on my way to recovery from “deconversion”.
The trial is still ongoing and the dust is yet to settle. But for me, a former avid member of the church, it no longer matters what the results are.
Whether the leaders are found to be guilty or not, it will at least offer some closure for the many thousands who have given the best years of their lives to a cause that just might be pointless.