Defence counsel (for City Harvest trial) recently asked the church's longest serving trustee Mr Tan why the church was so secretive, even to their members (here referring to the chalking up of huge loans, which was subsequently used to finance the questionable crossover project). Mr Tan then replied, "If it is so obvious that we are doing this as a church, we might turn away a lot of potential seekers who do not want to be associated with the church until they become believers."
I squinted at the answer (when I read it in the Straits Times yesterday). I find it quite pretentious. What might it be that when made more obvious could “turn away a lot of potential seekers”? It can’t be the message of the Cross. It can’t be about the love of God. It can’t be the sermon on the mount. It can’t be the promise of Jesus about overcoming the world. Obviously the church didn’t need to be secretive about all of that. So what do the church want to keep less than obvious about for fear of repelling pre-believers away? What is holding them back to be frank and open with the "potential seekers”? And how about the part regarding their concern that potential seekers may “not want to be associated with the church until they become believers”? Underscore "until they become believers".
What distinguishes the believers from the potential seekers? What privileges does becoming a believer in City Harvest have over “potential seekers”? Are they more agreeable, pliable or flexible? Are they more enlightened, more spiritually informed and more open to the mysterious works of the church? Is it only believers in the church who will wholeheartedly embrace the crossover project with the aim that every gyration of the body in what appears to be no more modest than a swimsuit will bring about a genuine conversion of the heart?
Or, doesn’t this all hint to something that is more than just a simple evangelistic message? Doesn’t it suggest to the layman with average common sense, whether a believer or not, that there is certainly something more to it than meets the eye when the church leaders prefer obliquity to clarity? Doesn’t this remind you of a second-hand car salesman tempering with the odometer before a sale with the aim of giving the wrong impression of how much mileage the car has travelled? Isn’t this why the car salesman has to be less obvious about his sale pitch so as to not “turn away a lot of potential seekers” or in this case, potential buyers?
To be honest, I will never expect the congregation as a whole to be informed of everything that the church does. That would be too impractical and administratively messy. Imagine putting up on the big screen a long list of rolls of toilet paper, cartons of detergent and reams of paper purchased by the church during Sunday services. That’s overkill and brainless I know. But I am sure on matters of such importance like piling up million-dollar loans to finance extravagant music videos about staged licentiousness, booze and fornication with the less-than-obvious message of repentance and salvation, the congregation as a whole ought to have the right to be informed.
What's more, I am quite sure that the leaders had prayed over the crossover project and had thus received what they had perceived as divine endorsement. This has to be presumed since the defence of the trial is all about theological legitimacy. If this is so, shouldn't the leaders, like Moses armed with the decalogue, confidently and triumphantly declare to the congregation everything about the crossover project leaving nothing out. Too naive?
Now, I am not suggesting to the leaders to ask their church for approval on whether all that sexually provocative hip-bopping, dry humping and body bumping are ultimately earnest evangelism at its post-modernist best. Or whether China wine and Kill Bill are evangelistic tools that aim to expand the Kingdom of God to the furthest regions of the unsaved world. All that is obviously debatable. But the church leaders should at the very least inform the congregation about what they are doing, how much is roughly invested in what they are doing, and maybe elaborate a little on why they are doing what they are doing.
If it helps, for a visual demonstration (since a picture obviously paints a thousand words), maybe the church can set up a sneak preview of China Wine just before its worldwide release so that the congregation can have a foretaste of what the future of evangelism is all about and hopefully have their collective faith further edified. Wouldn’t that be what is minimally expected of the church leaders who are the trustees of the people’s money, the shepherd of the people’s hearts, the custodian of the people’s faith and the protector of the people’s trust? Is that asking too much from the leaders? Should they even endeavor to be less than obvious if what they are doing is something that is obviously glorifying and praiseworthy?
Now, enough of the serious stuff and the rhetorical questions. I have cheekily culled 4 lessons (addressed to hypothetical church leaders of course) that I have learned from the reply given by the church’s longest serving trustee. Here’s a recap, “If it is so obvious that we are doing this as a church, we might turn away a lot of potential seekers who do not want to be associated with the church until they become believers.”
And if you are someone who operates on the same level of satirical irony as I do, you wouldn’t really take these 4 lessons too seriously. So, please indulge me as I unpack them in a way that makes the real message I intend to convey less than obvious. I call this less-than-direct approach "serving up a taste of one's own medicine".
1) 1# lesson: Never be too honest with your new members or newcomers. And don't worry or sweat too much about it since they will eventually come to understand why you as the church leader need to do what you as the church leader need to do. That day of enlightenment will ultimately come when they are sufficiently immersed or indoctrinated in the compelling teachings of your church. At this juncture, it is important to believe by faith that they will one day come around to equally believe by faith in what you are planning for them - just as long as you do not make your true intention too obvious to them.
2) 2# lesson: Never assume that your congregation is mature enough to understand whatever you deem is in their best interest at heart - even if it would possibly take a stretch-until-breaking-point of logic and reason to interpret what you deem as in their best interest is in fact in their best interest. If you pay no heed to this second lesson, that is, to mindlessly assume that your congregation is mature enough to lend their blessings to whatever you do under the naïve guise of expanding-the-kingdom-of-God, then you not only run the risk of bleeding membership from the get-go but also turn potential pre -believers into inveterate non-believers for life.
3) 3# lesson: Never show or discuss your doubts or reservation about a particular project to your congregation. I have to add this in as a preemptive defence because you are behind that pulpit for a reason (unless of course you happen to be behind that pulpit for a purpose other than merits). The congregation naturally looks up to you. Next to the Holy Trinity, you are their eyes, mouth and ears to the other realm. You are the spiritual bridge that connects them to the object of their worship. As such, the general rule is to never share with them your doubts about a project even if you really have genuine doubts about it. This is especially so if you happen to smell a rat midstream. The congregation looks to you to complete what you have in the first place convinced them to start. So, it is almost equivalent to the unpardonable sin to express your reservation halfway when the congregation had been so drummed up by your weekly fiery sermons before the project commencement that they would automatically associate such doubts as coming from the dark side. Therefore, be wary of expressing your reservation even if you have good reasons to do so because at certain point in your project, the majority stake of it will unknowingly be transferred over to the vanguard section of the congregation and you can do nothing about it except to go with the raging flow (which is actually a flow that you had once quite unwittingly created).
4) And here’s the final 4# lesson. Always believe that you can get away with anything if you are of the earnest (though often misguided) belief that you are doing it all for the Kingdom of God. Hence, when the heart is untainted, as one can always claim, there can be no corrupt intent. This obviously takes a lot of faith and it is not to be attempted by ordinary and sincere Christians in the context of a home group. For such a spiritual leap into the realm of the impossible, or as some critics may call it "delusional", you will need a big enough congregation who will faithfully believe in and pray for you to the very end despite what is painfully obvious staring at them straight in the face. Alas, if one’s innocence can be based purely and solely on one's belief and nothing else, notwithstanding how self-serving it can be, then I guess the only guilty people left in this world would be those who have the audacity to suspect another person’s self-proclaimed pure intention and to uncover it for what it really is. Cheerz