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We are starting a brand new series this week called “Our Heart for the House”.
It will run 4 weeks starting this week until the end of July.
This is special series – we will be talking about the Church – God’s heart for the Church and then how our journey with God as a community has shaped the journey and the ministry of this expression or assembly of this church.
If you are new with us and feeling that you sometimes don’t understand why we do the things that we do or why things may be different from what you may be used to, then you are here at the right time. Being a part of a new community can be a very alienating experience; it is like starting to watch a TV drama series in the middle of season 13. This your marathon catch-up and you won’t want to miss any of the sessions!
If you are already a member of FCC, this series will be a great reminder about God’s heart for this church, the role that this church plays, and our heart for the church in the role we each play in this body.
The series will end with a very special service on Membership Sunday on 31 July where we will have an opportunity to welcome new members and for existing members to renew our commitments.
We have four sessions together and we want to begin by talking about 2 things today – God’s heart for the Church and a look back to our journey as a church so far.
THE KINGDOM OF GOD VS. THE CHURCH
Before we go further, have you considered what is God’s heart for the Church?
This in itself is a divisive issue.
Jesus didn’t talk much about the church, but he did talk about the Kingdom of God more than anything else. How this kingdom (or reign, or commonwealth) of God was so different from the kingdoms of this world.
He said that the kingdom is like a tiny mustard seed that grows into an enormous tree with branches wide and strong enough to make a home for all the birds. It is like a buried treasure, a delicious feast, or a net that catches an abundance of fish.
The kingdom is right here, Jesus said. It is present and yet hidden, immanent yet transcendent. The kingdom isn’t some far-off place you go when you die; the kingdom is at hand – among us and beyond us, now and not-yet. It is the wheat growing in the midst of weeds, the yeast working its magic in the dough, the pearl growing in a shell. Jesus tells us to pay attention; not to miss it – it can come and go in the twinkling of an eye.
In contrast to every other kingdom that has been and ever will be, Jesus said that this kingdom belongs to the poor, to the peacemakers, the merciful, those who hunger and thirst for God. In this kingdom, people from the margins and the bottom rungs will be lifted to places of honour, seated at the best spots at the table. This kingdom knows no geographical boundaries, no political parties, no single language. It advances not through power and might, but through acts of love and peace, mercy, kindness and humility. This kingdom has arrived, not with a trumpet’s sound but with a baby’s cry, not with the killing of enemies but with the forgiving of them, not on the back of a warhorse but a donkey, not with triumph and conquest but with a death and resurrection.
There is nothing Jesus talked more about than the good news of this kingdom.
Jesus speaks of it more than 100 times in the Gospels, but only mentions church twice. Once we get to the book of Acts and the rest of the New Testament, the opposite is true where we see the word “ekklesia” in Greek being translated into the church.
The German philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey said – “Jesus came announcing the Kingdom of God, but what appeared was the church.”
Many people are very wary of organized religion, and rightly so – churches have made messes throughout history and whenever we see it in the news today, it’s usually not a good report.
How is the kingdom of God connected to the church? Is the kingdom of God connected to the church?
Before we throw the baby out with the bathwater and head to lunch, there is good reasons for this shift – the word “ekklesia” literally means “calling out” of people, and in this case, the people of God, to be assembled together. So ekklesia, or the church, is the gathering of followers of Jesus being “called out” from their individuality, from their sins, from the world’s way of doing things – into participation in this new kingdom and community with one another.
We are commissioned by Christ, to go into the world to make disciples. Disciples are “followers of Jesus” breaking in the kingdom of God into every area of life. We participate in this new kingdom through community with one another.
So the church is not the same as the Kingdom of God. But the purpose of the church is to be a witness to this kingdom, an instrument of this kingdom, and to give the world a glimpse of the kingdom, to point in its direction.
MANY ASSEMBLIES, ONE BODY
But there are so many churches, every church is different. In Singapore I have 400+ to choose from. Which do I choose? Globally there are more 33000 denominations, each saying they are right. So who is right?
It is first important to make the distinction between “the Church” (big C) and the local church assemblies, of which FCC is one of them.
There is only one Church, and many passages in the New Testament speak to that relationship that the church has as the one embodiment of Christ.
Jesus first speaks of the church in Matthew 16:18 when Peter recognizes Him as the Messiah – the person of God sent into the world.
And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church [singular]; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it.
Eph 1:22-23 (Message)
At the center of all this, Christ rules the church. The church, you see, is not peripheral to the world; the world is peripheral to the church. The church is Christ’s body, in which he speaks and acts, by which he fills everything with his presence.
There is one Church that we belong to as Christians. We are all members of one body.
1 Corinthians 12:12-13
Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body – whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free – and we were all give the one Spirit to drink.
For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.
Theologically, the word “member” here has a different meaning than the member of a club or a gym membership. There is an interconnectedness as the body of Christ, a working together. So when a person is no longer a part of the body, it is like dis-“member”-ment, something is chopped off, and the body doesn’t work as well.
And while there is one body we are all connected to, there are no two “assemblies” or households are exactly alike.
Every church is a different gathering of people from different theological backgrounds, different experiences of God, different revelation of scripture, different social context, different geographical locations.
And we see different assemblies in the New Testament, with the different issues that they each face, because people aren’t perfect. We all come with our brokenness; we bring the reign of the world into the church, and every church has to work through different things at different times in their journey.
GOD’S HEART FOR THE CHURCH
You know God’s heart is for the church not just to survive, but to thrive and be a reflection of who God is. There is a very intimate relationship between God and the church that is described in scripture – that of the bride of Christ.
Eph 5:25, 28-30, 32
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her… 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.
The church is on the heart of God; Jesus Christ loved the church so much – the picture presented is that of a bride and bridegroom – that He would die for her.
We also see this similar beautiful relationship in Revelation chapters 19 and 21:
Rev 19:6-7, 9
Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready… Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!
Then I saw “a new haven and a new earth… I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”
When we witness a marriage today, we glimpse at the great love and hope that God has for the Church. For those of us in a relationship, we know that being together with our partners isn’t about sticking to a set of rules or a script; it is about making a life together. It is not a choreography; it is an intimate slow dance. It isn’t a formula, it is a mystery. There is improvisation, compromise and learning as you go.
I often read Ephesians 5 and get hung up on the hierarchical gender roles and first-century cultural norms, but the point of this passage is that when Christians imitate Jesus in our relationships, when partners in marriage serve one another rather than fight for dominance, we catch a glimpse of the mystery of Christ’s relentless, self-giving love for the church, and the consummation of that love that is to come.
God’s eyes are on the Church, and God’s heart is for the Church. God’s eyes are on this house, and God’s heart is in this house.
Choosing a local assembly and making a decision to be a part of its life one of the most important decisions that each of us will need to make. If you are new with us, a good way to help inform this decision is to look back on the journey that we have shared as this community. We have seen how God has provided for us, gone before us, taught us at different stages of the journey, and have learnt some things along the way which informs why and how somethings are being done the way they are.
Before going further, it is important to remember that this is but my lens of the journey we have shared as a church. Looking at history is an interpretative event – this is just one perspective – and you should speak with others who call this place “home” to learn about their experience and perspectives of the journey.
The way FCC began was similar to the early church movement when Jesus’ disciples first gathered in a home after His resurrection. The radical message of God’s unconditional love for all threatened the religious establishment and the early disciples met in hiding and in fear.
Similarly, we can trace back our history to a first meeting in 1997 when 10 gay Christians who met over IRC (Internet Relay Chat) decided to meet in secret together for prayer, fellowship and to study the Bible. They could not be out in the churches that they came from.
The group continued to meet weekly for the next few years and called themselves SafeHaven, creating a literal safe-haven for those who were struggling with their faith and sexuality.
The group feared being outed – there was no address – you needed to be introduced and had to go through an interview process before you were admitted.
This “safe haven” grew to almost 40 people who met for a time of combined worship on a weekly basis, before breaking into smaller cell groups for fellowship and Bible study.
Looking back to those times, the group was already no different from the home churches that we see in the early church movement in the New Testament.
They even had outreach projects to the gay community with two sold-out musical theatre concerts that raised money for the group.
The first Sunday Service was started on Easter Sunday 2003 when one of the members of this group was found out by a pastor in his church that he was gay and was expelled – forbidden to come back unless he changed.
Some of the members of the Safehaven group responded by organizing a Sunday worship service in a HDB flat in Zion Road to meet this need. It was a very small beginning – someone would volunteer to play the small keyboard and lead worship, someone read the Bible and shared a reflection. Most people would go back to their own churches and only come for the SafeHaven meeting during the week.
The church really formally came into existence when some of the leaders then decided to register the church as a non-profit company in Singapore later in the year and FCC officially came into existence. They became the first board members of the church and the church council.
Even back then, there was so much grace and providence at work for this fledgling community. FCC was the first LGBT affirming organization to be registered in Singapore, and others that tried to register during that time, were rejected.
The Sunday Services would be intentionally open to everyone, especially the LGBT community – reflecting the focus of Jesus throughout his ministry in welcoming and embracing those considered “unclean” or “unworthy” – the tax collector, the prostitute, the Samaritan women. The Safehaven groups would transition to become the first cell groups in the church where people would be able to do life together authentically as the church grew.
MEETING REV YAP
Another important milestone in the development of FCC was our meeting with Rev Yap Kim Hao. Rev Yap had retired as Bishop of the Methodist Church in Singapore and Malaysia and wrote an open letter in the Straits Times coming out in support of the stance that then PM Goh Chok Tong’s had made in his interview to Time Magazine in July 2003 where he said that gay and lesbian people are not discriminated in government positions, are hired even in sensitive positions and does not prosecute anyone under Section 377A. You can read more about this in his book “My Journey to Affirming the Gay Community”.
His support together with Mrs Yap, became essential to the leadership who had no formal theological training, counselling experience or know how in running a church. They joined the church together with his daughter Susan who served as our Chairperson for 6 years and her children who served on the worship team.
THE PULPIT WARS
As more people joined the Sunday service, we outgrew the HDB flat and rented space in a number of venues including an art gallery on South Bridge Road, a gay bar in Tanjong Pagar, a gaming arcade between two cinemas in Chinatown showing soft porn movies, before ending up for seven years in an industrial property in Geylang.
We transitioned from being a “gay-friendly” church to an inclusive church, welcoming everyone and making our Sunday services open to all. We learnt that being inclusive best reflects the heart of God – everyone has equal intrinsic value – equally created in image of God, equally accepted, embraced and loved exactly as we are by God.
Today, many of us think that it is obvious – that is the character of God.
But it was a difficult shift for 2 reasons –
We lost almost half of the original people and groups as the church life got more focus, and the intentionally of openness did not sit well with those just wanted to have a safe space to meet.
Being an inclusive church means that you welcome everyone into the church life. That is easy to say, easy to start, but tough to live out in church life when people you had such people from very different backgrounds coming to be a part of the life of the church.
There are more than 400 churches in Singapore, so what usually happens is that if you don’t agree with the church, you cannot connect with the people there, you go simply head the road and try the next one. Hence churches by nature are fairly homogenous.
Because FCC intentionally welcomes everyone as we believe Jesus would, regardless of your age, economic status, educational background, religious background, gender identity, sexual orientation, we went through years of dealing with our brokenness – either reacting to the rejection by church that we have come out of or trying to recreate the church that we had lost.
Our worship services became very interesting and honestly, very unsettling, for many. The worship every week would be different and the pulpit was used by the preachers to push people to their theology. It was always interesting, but not always edifying.
There was a very clear battle lines in the church. Liberals vs. conservatives. High-church vs. low-church. Charismatics vs. thinkers. Gay men vs. lesbian women. One camp was trying to recreate the church they had lost; the other was trying to reinvent how church was being done, rejecting everything institutional.
Out of this, we had to find a third way, and God provided the church in that season the gift of Su-Lin who joined the Council and became our first full-time pastor in 2009.
As a church, there were some external projects that were undertaken a few individuals that the church would rally around. The church was constantly stepping out in faith:
Annual Christmas services for community outreach at the Arts House;
Riding for Life in 2005 raising funds and awareness for HIV;
Special services commemorating International Women’s Day (IWD), Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR), World AIDS Day (WAD) to give voice to those who may not have one;
Open dialogue on Christian perspectives on homosexuality in 2007;
HOPE Concert in 2007 attended by 930 people working with Action for AIDS (AFA) and Health Promotion Board (HPB) to bring HIV awareness and education to the LGBT community and where Singapore had the first openly gay couple perform on a public stage – Jason & deMarco. This gave voice as well not just to same-sex relationships but powerfully witnessing that God could use them through music as worship leads in the church but also as professional musicians to the secular world;
Partnership with Toa Payoh Care Corner to care for the elderly;
The annual Amplify Conference that began in 2009 to encourage, equip and provide fellowship with other open and affirming churches in Asia – connecting us with other similar ministries in the region as well as to leaders in the global church who have gone before us like Bishop Gene Robinson, Bishop Yvette Flunder;
The worship team’s first album in 2011 with music that raised funds for HIV medication and gave voice to experiences of the gay community and the witness of God’s love
We learnt what it means to be the church, to be poured out for the world and those of us who have been a part of these projects have seen the seeds they have sown multiply and experienced God’s grace, favour, presence at work.
At the same time, we learnt what it means to have a healthy church life – the importance of the cell groups as the church was growing larger, retreats that gave us time away as a larger church to build relationships and learn from one another.
BUILDING OUR FUTURE
In 2013 we made a decision to leave Aljunied and purchase our own property. We had been renting up until then, moving from place to place, and had been praying to have our own space. There was also a new law passed by URA both preventing religious organizations (including churches) to legally be the owner of industrial property, or to be sole occupant as a renter of industrial properties, so could not legally stay on in Aljunied if we wanted to. We had raised up to that point $500,000 for the building fund and as a community, we worked with lawyers and our members stepped out in faith once again to set up a separate company (just like New Creation Church or City Harvest Church did) to raise the balance needed for the down-payment to legally purchase this property and to have our own home.
In the process, we also decided to transition the way the church would be managed from a small group of nominated leaders into congregational church with an elected board of directors that would volunteer and represent the interest of the church for the members. A team also came together to create the bye-laws to govern the way decisions would be made and the roles that members would play in that process so that would be clear accountability and transparency in the decision making process.
We had our first AGMs to elect our board members to represent us, review the learnings and discuss the priorities and budgets for our church life for the coming year. We also started regular engagements every two months called FCC CONNECT to update the progress we are making on the plans and changes we continue to make in church life to support the ministry. We have learnt that while the God that we worship is the same yesterday, today and forever, we need the how God is leading us in the now, that God continues to speak in each season of our church life, and what we had learnt to get us here is not what we need to learn to help us to grow today.
KNOWLEDGE VS UNDERSTANDING
When we think about our spiritual growth and the growth of the church, it is important to talk about what contributes to it. David Deutsch in “the fabric of reality” commented that it is important for us to distinguish knowledge from understanding. Greater knowledge of the Bible in itself does not result in growth. In fact, greater knowledge leads to greater specialization. And the problem with that approach is that if there’s an alternative worldview that threatens it, fear sets in, and faith in God falters or everything is done to resist the new worldview. That’s what happens to so many Christians. The diversity of opposing views have destroyed trust in the church.
Deutsch proposed, “to gain understanding, we need to move in the opposite direction.” We have to pursue the unification of knowledge. Throughout history, we constantly see older theories being replaced by deeper, broader theories that are tied together through more than one area of knowledge.
But even more importantly, the key to understanding anything is to understand the context in which it sits. You need to pull the camera back to see how the strands connect more broadly. It is only by looking at how the smaller pattern connects to the larger pattern that you can have actual understanding.” We have experienced that over the past 13 years, and know that God continues to lead us, teach us and help us to understand God’s heart for people and God’s heart for the world in a deeper way as we journey as a church together – a church that does believes that is important to not just tolerate differences, but to realize that those most different from us have the most to teach us.
My heart for this house has cost me something. It takes time to walk with people, it takes energy to have a full time job and get involved in ministry, it takes a sacrifice to invest money to see others in survive and grow. But that what’s having a heart for the house means, and being connected to the heart of God. And I have realized that there’s no better place to be than in the centre of God’s will.
I thought I had learnt a lot about the Bible and worship and God when I was in my previous church, but it is only when I committed myself to this house and to serve people through this house, did I realize how much I didn’t know with people so different from myself – but equally created in the image of God, equally loved and equally called that fundamentally transformed me from the one who thought he had all the answers, to one who is learning how to follow Christ and through that, connect with the heart for God.
I pray that you will make FCC your church and that you too will connect with God’s heart through this house.