I left City Harvest Church 7 years ago. I returned yesterday (Kong Hee too). Nothing has changed.
While I needed no reminder that I was there, I was at multiple points, regrettably, reminded why I had left.
Whether or not I needed a reminder of where I was going, I was about to get one.
“Welcome!” declares an enthusiastic lady at the top of the escalator, holding a signboard that served simply as a visual medium for her message.
“This is City Harvest Church!”
Yep, here I am on a nice Saturday evening strolling through the doors of Singapore’s most prominent megachurch.
And while tonight was very much out of the ordinary in terms of my weekly schedule, seven years ago, it would have been ingrained in my weekend routine.
19 & naive
Back then, I was a 19-year-old boy, still in national service, lapping up whatever spiritual wisdom was being dispensed from the pulpit.
Today I return as a man, ready to critically analyse whatever I, and these few thousand others with me, am told.
And what a weekend for my grand return as well: as we’re told repeatedly throughout the service, it’s a very special occasion — in case you haven’t heard, founder and senior pastor Kong Hee had been freed from his stint in jail just a couple days prior.
I arrive quite early, which is ironic because 19-year-old me always struggled to make it there on time. Being late used to get me all sweaty and nervous, knowing that I was likely to get a lecture from my cell group leader after the service.
All the good seats were already taken, though, so I find myself a cozy spot high up in the tiered seating nearer the back of the hall.
Here’s a pro-tip by the way, if you’re ever intending on visiting City Harvest Church (CHC): many people queue up early to chope the good seats for their cell groups — these best seats in the house are the ones closer to the stage, and these chopers usually take up the whole row.
So even if you get there and it looks like there’s a bunch of empty seats up front, don’t be fooled. If you choose to sit there, you’ll likely be approached nervously by a church member who will tell you that they actually booked that row for their friends. You can then decide if you want to apologise and look for unbooked seats, or apologise and point out that you’re already sitting down and you don’t want to move.
I always used to find it funny when the latter occurred.
The eagle has landed
But anyway, it was a good thing I was there before things got underway because a few minutes before the service was scheduled to start, the auditorium comes alive with thunderous applause and a chorus of ”whoos”.
Kong Hee has entered the building.
At first, he is hard to spot from where I am sitting, but in an instant, a huge crowd forms around him, official CHC photographers running from all corners of the hall to capture the moment.
His new white-haired look stands out in the crowd, as he embraces churchgoers with handshakes and hugs.
I wonder how it must feel, to receive this kind of what really looks to me like undying devotion from his supporters.
All that I am witnessing certainly reminds me of what triggered my departure all those years back: I had grown frustrated at the lack of thinking my friends and fellow church-goers seemed to be applying to their faith and in church.
From what I experienced at CHC, I wasn’t taught to think about the messages; instead, I felt encouraged to take everything superiors say as gospel truth because my leader is “God’s anointed”.
And who is God’s anointed? It seems this term doesn’t apply solely to Kong (and should it even?), but also to the other CHC pastors and church staff, and at least in my experience, cell group leaders as well.
And as a youth, I felt expected to consult my leaders on every decision I would make in life and they always had an opinion about it as well.
Praise and worship
Whatever musings going through my mind are soon interrupted by the instruction to stand to our feet and give our praises to God.
Church basically always starts with a few songs: first a fast one, then maybe a medium-paced one, then a few slow ones.
It’s quite a moving experience, even for someone who wasn’t there with the intent of worshipping.
If there’s one thing CHC is really good at, it’s eliciting donations from attendees. But if there was one other thing, it would be the production quality of their services.
Musically, they really know how to bring worshippers into a frenzy; controlling the dynamics of the song perfectly and building towards an emotional release that I would have previously described as a spiritual encounter.
I’m sure too that the selection of the songs they use is made with the occasion in mind.
One of the songs, “Raise a Hallelujah” — where worshippers sing lyrics such as “I raise a hallelujah, in the presence of my enemies, I raise a hallelujah, louder than the unbelief” — feels to me like a big “screw you” to everyone who’d laughed or made fun of the church in the past few years.
Once the final song reaches its emotional peak, a pastor usually comes on stage to hype up the crowd, usually by shouting some lines about being “hungry” and “wanting more of God”.
Today he does just that but also goes a step further — he asks everyone to put their arms around each other’s shoulders while taking part in an intense prayer session.
So here I am, my arms around two strangers, fighting the urge to burst out laughing — not so much at what we were all doing, but more at the overall absurdity of how I had gotten myself into that situation.
Once the congregation seems sufficiently hyped, the pastor usually gives the signal for an expertly-timed transition into one final chorus of the last song on the setlist.
God loves a cheerful giver. Also a grateful giver. And a thankful giver.
When that’s complete, the church is now sufficiently prepped for the next big segment of the service — the time of financial offering.
Holding the CHC offering envelope in my hands definitely brings back memories.
Memories of when I’d naïvely drop money into it, thinking that God would surely reward my generosity with some kind of success in the future.
And yes, in case there is any doubt, they do track how much you give. I’ve personally seen the portal that cell group leaders have access to, showing how much their cell group members tithe to the church on a weekly basis.
I knew I could always rest assured that a lack of giving would earn me a sit-down and a talk about the importance of financially supporting the activities of the church.
One thing I also remember being told is it’s not about how much the church needs you to give, but it’s about how much you need it — how giving is good for your soul.
I don’t entirely disagree with that principle, to be fair, but it always seemed a little manipulative to me.
Back in church, the actual moment of putting your money into an offering bucket is preceded by a short sermon on the importance of giving.
Today the pastor is trying to explain the difference between being “grateful” and being “thankful” and how we need to be both. It doesn’t really make sense to me personally, but it must have to some people because they seem compelled to part with their money.
It’s always a bit awkward when you let the church’s offering bucket pass in front of you without putting anything in it; today was no different.
An uncomfortable silence
Yet my discomfort is interrupted by an announcement from one of the pastors — Pastor Kong is about to come on stage to address his followers, but is requesting that the crowd does not cheer or clap for him.
This immediately put a bit of a dampener on the atmosphere.
The room is packed with people ready to celebrate the triumphant return of their pastor but at this point, the tone of the service takes a solemn turn.
In the silence that engulfs the minute or so Kong takes to walk up on stage, I sense a rare moment of self-doubt in the congregation.
For a production that is usually so polished and well thought out, I imagine it might have been kind of unusual for regular churchgoers to be told not to applaud someone who (during my time there at least) was held up as a hero.
You know when you’re close enough with someone that you guys have no problems sharing a comfortable silence? Yeah, this wasn’t one of those.
Thankfully, the quiet is mercifully over as soon as Kong starts to speak.
“This is the only time you’ll hear from me for quite a while,” he says.
“I’m so grateful for the opportunity to stand before you and to say today from the bottom of my heart that I am very sorry for everything that has happened.”
No mention if he is thankful though.
His speech then gives way to an introduction for the speaker of the day, a charismatic fellow and pastor at another megachurch in Australia, Phil Pringle.
A hero & a martyr
Can’t say I got anything out of his sermon, especially because I was a bit too distracted thinking about what I’d just witnessed.
To Kong’s credit, he does seem contrite and humbled by his time in jail. Whether that will result in any change, who knows.
He really doesn’t have any incentive to do so.
Yeah, he served his two years and four months, and that must have been a sucky experience.
But he’s walking back into a church that as far as I can see continues to see him as a hero and a martyr; supporters who appear to me to be quite happy to fund a lavish lifestyle for him topped with designer dad-caps and premium branded white polos.
Relationships & blessings
To a certain extent, I can understand why everyone who is here (who isn’t from the media, anyway) is here. Here is a place where you are constantly told that good things will happen — if only you keep the faith — what’s not to like? Everyone wants to have something to look forward to. It was what drew me in too.
I remember that around the time of Kong’s initial arrest in 2012, the message from the pulpit was often regarding the blessings that would come to those who weathered the storm.
The biblical story of Job was often cited — we were told that Job was a man who lost everything (his wife, his children, his riches) but because he continued to trust in God, he received everything back and more.
If only we would stick with the church in this time of crisis, we could experience what Job experienced.
And why would you want to leave? With the friendships that you’ve forged within your cell group, walking away from church likely meant walking away from them too.
In those days, my best friends were from my cell group. Friday nights and weekends were devoted almost entirely to hanging out with them. Leaving, I knew, would create a huge hole in my social life.
The friendships and the hope of blessings, all this was tied intrinsically to Kong and his message. As the foundations on which these things are built, if Kong’s character were to be called into question by his adherents, it’s hard to see the relationships or hope surviving. That’s why I left CHC, although I’m still a practising Christian albeit at another church.
“There’s nothing wrong that he did”
I later read on CNA that a churchgoer interviewed had said the following:
“We are very happy for him to come back, we miss him a lot. We are all for his mission … there’s nothing wrong that he did.”
Except he did do wrong. In fact, he was convicted of a criminal breach of trust, misappropriating S$50.6 million in church funds in the process.
So maybe the problem is no longer with the man at the top; as Kong pointed out, he’s served his time.
Maybe the problem (at least that I have) with CHC is the people who, to me at least, seem unable to accept that Kong Hee is anything but God’s anointed.
Top image by Andrew Koay