Service in Churches
I became a Christian as a young boy, baptized at the age of 16, and since then I have served more or less continuously in all the churches that I have been in, often in multiple capacities. It’s obviously difficult to do this while juggling family life, a busy career, and volunteerism, but I don’t believe in passive membership, and have always responded when invited to help out. I don’t go looking for extra work to do, and have often wished that the rule “80 percent of the work in churches is done by 20 percent of the people” didn’t hold true. But when approached to help, I have found it very difficult in good conscience to say “no,” which has led to a very interesting range of work and responsibilities, in a variety of churches in various countries. It’s been a very interesting journey, with insights and lessons not only into Christian service, but also the organizational life of and leadership in churches around the world, and the transnational nature of Christian networks—some of which have become areas of research for me.
As a boy until young adulthood, I was in a Seventh-Day Adventist church, brought there by my mother. At the Balestier Seventh-Day Adventist church, I served in the choir, as a worship leader, and from about 1983-1985 as chair of the youth group.
In Chicago working on my Ph.D., I attended Cornell Baptist Church (as it was then called), where I taught Sunday School to a small group of youths, and sang in the choir with my wife. I later became chair of property, where among other things I swept snow off the pavement outside the church in winter and sprinkled salt on it, drove the old beat-up church van to pick up church members who didn’t drive, helped set up and dismantle our simple PA system each Sunday, and monitored church security. (This was in a neighborhood in the south side of Chicago, with numerous break-ins and car thefts. I became the contact person that the security company would call whenever the church alarm went off, whereupon I had to go to the church, usually late at night, and see if it had been a false alarm or whether there was in fact an intruder. Fortunately they all turned out to be false alarms except on one occasion, when food kitchen volunteers had come in without knowing the new alarm code, thus triggering the alarm).
After returning to Singapore, I became a member of Foochow Methodist Church, the church my wife had attended since birth, and which her family also attended. There she served as choir director, and I sang in the choir, and later led and played in a worship band. I was also the advisor to the youth group (Methodist Youth Fellowship, as it was called), and served on the sub-church board (the English Working Committee or EWC of the Local Church Executive Committee or LCEC which governs each Methodist church—the LCEC is effectively the church board). We did this from 1993 to 2002. Obviously the church had a very complicated leadership structure, which I frankly never fully understood, and my wife and I played only a very small part in it, although the experience gave lots of (ahem!) interesting insights into human nature and leadership in some churches.
For a short while in that period, we also participated in an ecumenical group (Catholic-Protestant) called “Servants of the Lord,” which met on Saturdays, which small-group meetings on a week night. This was an organization with an international network of some sorts, with campus ministries in several universities in the U.S., and quite a strong presence in the Philippines. There we helped in leading worship, and taking turns to help look after the young children during meetings. It was a very family-oriented group, so there were a lot of children.
From 2002 to the present, we have been at Cairnhill Methodist Church, where I initially helped out in worship and youth ministries, continuing a familiar pattern. When we joined it was still quite a small church, although it has since grown to several hundred strong, and there was a lot of work to be done. I was soon asked to take charge of youth ministry, which by 2007 became a separate youth service. I was also leading worship and playing the guitar. Later I joined the LCEC (same body, in nature, that governed my former church—part of the common Methodist organizational structure), firstly in my capacity as youth director, then subsequently as Associate Lay Leader, Lay Leader, Deputy Chairman and then Chairman of the LCEC. (Each Methodist church has a Lay Leader, and may also have several Associate Lay Leaders). In theory, the Lay Leader has a specifically-defined role as spelt out in the Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline; in practice, the work of the Lay Leader will and should vary according to the leadership composition and style of the church and its Pastor-in-Charge. I continue to serve as a worship leader, and as Director of the Youth Ministry.
One of the main lessons I learnt from more than 3 decades of continuous service in youth ministries (from the time I was 19), is that an incontestable way of connecting with youth is through games. Since I’ve always loved games, that became a very easy way of connecting, whether playing basketball and rugby in Chicago, or soccer, rugby, badminton and other games in churches in Singapore. Another valuable lesson I learnt is that youth hate bullshit, and have a very developed radar for bullshit. It’s not possible to tell them “do as I say, but don’t do as I do” - they’ll soon sense whether you speak with absolute conviction on something, or whether you’re essentially mouthing the standard doctrine. It’s far better to speak only on those things about which you are fully convinced, than to talk about other things where you have no strong convictions but feel obliged to mouth platitudes and truisms—kids almost always sense it, and it turns them off no end.
Over the course of all these years serving in different churches, I have had the opportunity to speak at different kinds of occasions and venues. I have been invited to preach, whether to youth or to adult congregations, at various churches in Singapore, including at the Korean church on Barker Road, Bethesda Pasir Ris Mission Church, South Asian International Fellowship (that met at St. Andrew’s Cathedral and then at Bible House), Bukit Panjang Methodist Church, the “Go Forth” conference 2011, and of course in the different churches I was in. I have also been given the opportunity to preach at churches and smaller fellowships (and at mission school chapels and assemblies—including, once, in Trinidad!) in Canada, the U.K., India, China, parts of the Middle East, and Hong Kong. Many of these latter opportunities arose out of introductions from people in other parts of the world that I had met or who had heard me speak, which attests to the strong transnational ties constituted by Christian organisations and networks.