Evolve or go Kodak
Generations grew up referring to “Kodak moments” as photo moments to capture on film. Today, many young people do not know Kodak. In 2012, it filed for bankruptcy. Kodak was disrupted. Kodak lost its purpose. It did not see the changes happening all around which fundamentally changed what it meant to capture moments—people were shifting from film to digital photography.
I fear many churches in Singapore will go down the same path as Kodak. I wonder whether church leaders are fully cognizant of the fundamental changes in the horizon. When these changes come around, they will hit hard. And who will suffer but the remnant, including the young future leaders of the Church?
Evolution is necessary. Not that we fear the death of the Church, for that wouldn’t happen because God will not permit it. But we should fear becoming a Church that has forgotten her first love and her first works, and become lukewarm and be spit out of Jesus’s mouth.
What’s the problem?
The problem is that the Singapore Church does not understand her mission.
The problem is that the way we are doing Church can actually be antithetical to her mission.
For example, I still hear church leaders say missions is overseas cross-cultural evangelism. By this measure then, local missions is deemed less. Why should this be so? Missions is always local and global. Missions is done where the Jesus follower is. Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the end of the earth.
Then we ask, why only evangelism?
I was told some faction within the Church here says there is no missions of the Church if there is no verbal proclamation of the gospel. That makes me wonder, do they even understand what the gospel is at all?
So what is a person who encounters and believes in Christ without a purported proclamation of the gospel (as was in Luke 7:50; 17:19; Mark 10:52)?
So what was Paul’s and Barnabas’ first mission trip from Antioch to Jerusalem to provide famine relief for the Jewish Christians? A vacation?
So what is the work of breaking down walls of hostility and reconciling people within the family of God? Extra-curricular activity?
So what were the many instances of Jesus healing, raising people from death, feeding the hungry, touching (and not merely healing) lepers, and crossing social divides? Works of pity? Or the outworking of His mission? The same mission given to the Church?
Another thing some young people are wondering: if the mission of God is given to the Church with a big C, why is my local church only doing its own thing? Why don’t churches work together and work with parachurch ministries for deeper mission partnerships? Why only come together at some pom-pom waving event?
What is God’s mission for the Church?
I consider Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians. John Stott says that it was John Calvin’s favourite letter, and it concisely and comprehensively sets out the Christian good news and its implications. Though it is not usually used as a text for missions, I suggest that its first chapter sets out a clear and simple understanding of the mission of God. Paul first declares the ultimate purpose of God, which is to bless His people richly “in Christ”. The constant refrain of being “in Christ” (Ephesians 1:1-10) culminates in the declaration that God’s plan for the fullness of time is to unite all things in Christ (v. 10).
Paul then declares the Kingship of Christ (vv. 20-22).
The mission of God then, given as the mission of the Church, is to unite all things to Christ the King. Because only by union “in Christ”, made possible through Christ’s blood shed on the Cross, we are blessed and we become the Church that is the “fullness of [Christ] who fills all in all” (v. 23).
The Church then becomes the body of Christ, the family of God, and the temple of God. The mission of the Church is to unite all things to Christ.
What’s so significant about this?
This is a wider vision of the Church’s mission than what many of us are doing or thinking currently. It’s integral mission or holistic mission.
It’s not evangelism only. It’s not justice only. It’s not good works only. It’s not preaching only. It’s not spiritual formation only. All these things are to fulfil the mission of God: unite all peoples and all things to Christ the King.
Often, when we think of missions, we think of the Great Commission in Matthew 28. Yet, the Great Commission is a culmination of everything Jesus did and said in the gospel of Matthew.
To fulfil the Great Commission, we have to do the mission Jesus Himself embarked on: proclaim the gospel of the Kingdom of God (not a gospel of being saved to heaven), teach the ethics of the Kingdom, and demonstrate the Kingdom of God through holistic healing (Matthew 4:23; 9:35). This is integral or holistic mission.
Such holistic healing includes:
- Spiritual healing–forgiveness of sin and casting out demonic strongholds;
- Relational healing–uniting marginalised people into community and uniting conflicting tribes;
- Physical healing; and
- Ecological healing (Matthew 4:23-9:35).
The Great Commission Jesus gave His disciples to teach people everything to obey He commanded necessarily refers back to this mission: proclaim, teach, and heal.
To unite all things to Christ, we proclaim, teach, and heal.
To unite all things to Christ, we reveal the character of Christ.
To unite all things to Christ, we do good works that reflect the character of Christ, prepared for us beforehand to do (Ephesians 2:10). These are works of justice and mercy, of healing and reconciliation. We must follow the way of Jesus, and do even greater works than He did during His Incarnation.
To unite all things to Christ, we preach the unsearchable riches of Christ, bringing to light the mystery of God’s sovereign plan set long before (Ephesians 3:9).
To unite all things to Christ, we live our lives reflecting the character of Christ, in a manner worthy of our calling (Ephesians 4:1). This is not just about private morality (Ephesians 4:17-24), but living out our faith and mission in our communities (Ephesians 4:25-32; 5:1-21), in our churches (Ephesians 4:1-16), our marriages (Ephesians 5:22-32), our parent-children relationships (Ephesians 6:1-4); in our work (Ephesians 6:5-9).
We do all this as an outworking of the gospel and as the pursuit of God’s mission for us, whether we are in Jerusalem or Singapore, in Asia or the Middle East, all to the end of the earth. This is integral / holistic mission.
Is it that hard to understand this?
It seems so. We organise our churches, preach our sermons, teach our Sunday Schools, plan our programmes, conduct our bible studies, as if everything is disparate.
As if missions is nothing but overseas proclamation of Jesus dying for sins so that others can enjoy eternal life.
As if good works is nothing but things we may want to do only when we are free and need a feel-good trip.
As if our morality is nothing but a rule we just have to observe.
As if being good in our communities, neighbourhoods and marketplaces is only a matter of being like a model Sunday School student to our non-believing friends and colleagues.
As if preaching Jesus’ cross and resurrection to others is the only thing needed to be done.
In the modern urban setting we are in, we have no credibility and no opportunity to talk about Jesus’ cross and resurrection if we do not do the holistic mission of Jesus, the good works of holistic healing, and if we do not live out the character of Christ in our neighbourhoods and workplaces. We would be hypocrites. And sadly, many non-Christians perceive us as such.
When we do all that wrong, we run contrary to God’s mission for the Church. We undermine the mission of uniting all things to Christ. Why? Because of instead of unity, there is division. Instead of revealing the character of Christ who welcomed little children and spent time with the dregs of society, we present Christ as an agenda-driven, contradictory, domineering, triumphalist force.
Why are so many of us like this? I believe it is because many of us are driven by Singapore culture, rather than Kingdom culture. We are driven largely by what increases our church membership numbers. We are driven largely by the budget we need to plan for each year. We are driven largely by our buildings and land leases. We are driven largely by the fear of losing out, the fear of making mistakes, the fear of being undermined. We are driven largely by self-righteousness, the righteousness based not on Christ but our intellectual ability to rationalise and systematise and exegete and do expository preaching and what-have-you. What does that all sound like? It sounds like a common Singapore attitude, doesn’t it?
Our work is to believe; to have faith; to take risks. No one has ever experienced faith without taking risks. The greater the risk you take, the more faith you have to exercise, the bigger your vision of God when He comes through.
But that’s not true for most of us.
Most of us are safe and comfortable. In the Bible, when the people of God became safe and comfortable, they lost the plot.
The only time when we can ever be safe and comfortable is when Christ returns and brings all things to completion.
If we continue down this safe and comfortable path, we are just paving the way down to our extinction. No more Kodak moments. Just bankruptcy. Spiritual bankruptcy. Moral bankruptcy. Purpose bankruptcy. Existential bankruptcy.
What needs to change?
1. We need to change the culture of the Church. A guru once said, culture eats strategy for breakfast. That is true as far as I have observed about human groups. It could be a corporation, a society, a church. We need to change the culture of the Church to be about exercising bold faith. You can pray all you want, but without exercising faith, you are just a dud. Imagine the church of Antioch in Acts 13 praying and praying, and when they hear from the Spirit that they need to send Paul and Barnabas, they say, “I think better not, it’s very dangerous”; “no lah, they should stay and help grow our church numbers”.
2. We need to change the structure of Church. The typical modern Singapore church has assumed a certain organisational corporate business model. The Church is Singapore, Inc. A typical Singapore local church is at once: (i) an educational centre; (ii) a social club (predominantly a music club); and (iii) a business offering various services (some offer merchandise as well) to non-members. Well, there is nothing inherently wrong with all that. But is this corporate business model serving the mission of the Church?
Let’s consider this. Is our ‘education’ (through the many sermons, bible study, workshops, and forums) training members to earnestly desire seeking how to unite all things to Christ? Is our educational pedagogy didactic and mainly about building up knowledge? Or is our educational pedagogy inculcating bold faith, obedience to God, and risk-taking for Kingdom adventures? How many Bible studies and expository sermons are needed to get a Christian to believe, obey, and embark on His mission? I believe our education and discipleship needs to be more about experiential on-the-job learning, followed by processing, unpacking, exploring, and studying the Scriptures and ourselves before God. That seems to me how Jesus did it with His disciples.
Is our ‘social club’ encouraging true unity in Christ within? Or do we have many divisions within our social club? Foreigners and Singaporeans? Blue collar and white collar? Rich and poor? Chinese and minority races? People with abilities and people with disabilities? People with physical illnesses and people with mental illnesses? People who can contribute tangibly and people who cannot?
Is our ‘music club’ stirring people to be present before God, to gaze at His beauty in His house, to minister to God and to one another, to contemplate His worth and His works, or just a karaoke session?
Is our ‘business’ with all its different services and merchandise showing people the character of Christ? Or are they just bait and switch tactics to bring people to step into our church buildings?
Is our planning driven largely by our budget or by God-given enterprises? Are our partnerships across the Kingdom of God and for the Kingdom, or are they just quid pro quos to benefit our own church numerical growth? Are we working together with all the different parts of the body of Christ in pursuing a single mission?
3. We need to change how we lead in the Church. Many church leaders still take the top-down approach. You can do that. Just expect that many of your people are not with you. Even if they show up for your programmes, their hearts may not be there. And if their hearts are with you just because you say so, and not because they believe in what you’re doing, then it means they’re probably following you as an idol, not following Jesus. You can talk about obeying church authority. And your young people will just leave eventually and go to another church that resonates with them. And no, it’s not because the other church’s music is better.
I can tell you what I observe about myself. I will follow a leader who has engaged with me before he asks me to do anything. I will follow a leader who genuinely listens to my views. I will follow a leader who is clear about the mission of God for the Church. I will follow a leader who empowers me to take risks and try Kingdom ventures, and walks with me when I fail. I will follow a leader who nurtures the potential in me, and not assume that I’m just a young kid who has no clue about life. By the way, I am not being ageist here but Jesus disrupted the powers of His time when He was 30 years old.
Disruption and Existence
So we come back to the story of disruption and existence.
If the Singapore Church does not disrupt itself, she will be disrupted and bankrupted. There is hope yet. We are at a season of transition. A season of leadership succession. Even the nation’s leadership is preparing for transition phase. We must disrupt ourselves for the mission of God. Of course, the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church. But will the Singapore Church fail to fulfil her mission?
When we stand before God, when we account for all that we have done, when we present the glory of the nation which the kings of Singapore bring into the heavenly city, will we receive the blessing of God—“well done, good and faithful servants”? —or the disappointing silence of God?