Ministry Today magazine cover

West, Meet East





From a Bible study to a megachurch in 15 years, this Asian pastor shares his church-growth secret: make disciples.
Most American ministers would give anything to trade places with Kong Hee, pastor of City Harvest Church (CHC) in Singapore.

First, there's CHC's facilities. Modeled after the titanium-clad Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, the eight-story building stands out in the surrounding urban jungle, but consumes a mere acre of the city's high-priced real estate.

Best of all, the $28 million structure was built debt-free.

Then, there's his congregation. Some 15,000 people of more than 40 nationalities attend CHC's 12 weekend services--in English, Mandarin, Indonesian and several local dialects. Pastor Kong doesn't have to pull teeth to get his people involved, either.

Seventy percent of his congregation participates in cell-group ministry.

Finally, consider the church's giving records: 91 percent of CHC members tithe. This is even more astounding when you consider that, according to the Barna Group, only 8 percent of born-again Americans tithe.

The largest church in Singapore and the third-largest in Asia, CHC is one of the many megachurches that have sprouted there in the last three decades. Some in the Western world have argued that the characteristics that have contributed to the success of Asian churches are just that--Asian--and, therefore, inapplicable in the American context. Kong disagrees.

"I don't think what we have at CHC is an Asian church or an American church," Kong contends. "I believe what we have is a biblical church. It will work anywhere."

DISTRIBUTED CHURCH

It's Sunday morning in Singapore. As pastor Kong winds down his sermon, describing the plight of the three fire-bound Hebrew boys in Daniel, he asks his listeners, "Is your faith a preference or a conviction?"

Many come forward to pray and worship, as the band leads the congregation in a song of commitment: "Jesus, You are the Savior of my soul/ And forever and ever I'll give my praises to You ..."

Others slowly file out and climb into the 280-plus chartered buses waiting to transport them to their homes across the small island nation. For most, it will be another week until they show up again for church. But the majority will be involved in some form of ministry, nonetheless.

Kong lingers on the platform, worshiping. Exhausted, but seemingly oblivious to the stage lights, the congregation, the cameras beaming his image to televisions around the globe. "King of majesty, I have one desire: just to be with You, my Lord, just to be with You, my Lord."

It's a prayer God has answered in Kong's life again and again.

Saved in 1975, Kong attended an Anglican church for 13 years, planning to become a priest. However, he became embroiled in a church conflict and decided to become a missionary instead.

God had other plans, though. On May 7, 1989, he was asked to lead a group of 20 teenagers in a Bible study under the covering of a local Assemblies of God church. That day, CHC was born.

Almost 15 years later, the church has grown explosively, meeting in a state-of-the art facility in the heart of Singapore. Kong oversees a 37-member pastoral staff, 600 cell-group leaders and countless ushers, Bible-study teachers and children's-ministry workers.

"When I first started out, I knew everybody by name and fellowshipped with them at least every two weeks," Kong says. "As the church grew in size, this became almost impossible." He muses that, if he were to visit a different family in the church every night of the week, it would take him 50 years.

Instead, Kong says he has shifted from being a micromanager to functioning more as a macromanager, allowing his "lean, mean, ministry machine" (as he calls his staff) to carry many of the responsibilities he once bore. As a result, CHC has become a launchpad from which apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers have been thrust into ministry--within the congregation and throughout Asia.

Some would consider Kong an apostle, but he avoids the title. "The titles of the apostle and prophet have been abused in Asia," he explains. "I guess people recognize an apostolic anointing on my life, but I don't go around calling myself an apostle."

With a relatively small pastoral staff, the nuts and bolts of ministry at CHC must be carried out primarily by volunteer laypeople. "We have a motto in our church," Kong says. "Every member is a minister."

This philosophy has allowed the church to keep its staff budget at 28 percent, including wages, insurance, benefits and bonuses. "That means that I cannot have a large staff," Kong says. "Instead, I have to mobilize a lot of volunteers--that's the strength of the fivefold ministries."

"I train the key leaders and they in turn train the rest," he explains. "The whole purpose of the fivefold ministry is to disciple the members of the church--the body of Christ. I'm not a success if I don't make other people successful. My job is to disciple them, help them grow in God--and they do the rest."

This leadership model has allowed Kong to pursue his passion for international church planting--and apparently this passion is contagious. One hundred volunteer leaders from CHC regularly join him in launching new churches, starting Bible schools, raising up pastors and making disciples in Indonesia, Malaysia and India.

"We are identifying areas where they do not even have a Bible-believing church--not even a Roman Catholic church," Kong says. "Additionally, a number of my staff are involved independently in missions and church planting as well."

FIVEFOLD MINISTRIES

While he acknowledges the activity of the fivefold ministries at CHC, Kong draws a distinction between the gifts described in Ephesians 4 and the nine charismata in 1 Corinthians 12.

"The fivefold ministries are the trainers, the specialists," he says. "They provide spiritual oversight, correction, admonishing, rebuke and training. They train the people to move in the charismata."

Additionally, Kong is careful to ensure that those who are active in the fivefold ministries are not doing so to bring glory to themselves.

"In the Far East, the promotion of the fivefold ministries has been abused as you can't imagine," Kong explains. "Lives have been badly manipulated and destroyed because people go around with titles lording it over others."

"People get consumed with titles and may not have the fruits to match up with the titles," he adds. "I have known many ministers who have churches of 50 or 100 who call themselves apostles, but have never been to the mission field."

Rather than focusing on identifying gifts or bestowing titles, Kong occupies himself with training leaders and watching for the fruit that he believes serves as an indication of supernatural gifting. "We do not appoint or ordain people to the fivefold ministries," Kong explains. "Our leaders are recognized for the gifting that God has placed on their lives."

"We let it come naturally. Some are stronger in pastoring, others in teaching or evangelism," Kong says. "It is very sublime. It flows in the fabric of our church."

Kong argues that the fivefold ministries are crucial in the building of disciples--the primary responsibility of the church and the true indicator of its health. He points to the New Testament church's concern for discipleship as a model for the modern-day church.

"To fulfill the Great Commission, we need to go back to first principles," Kong says. "Discipleship comes before going to the nations; discipleship comes before the church can grow. If you do a good job as a discipler, you will have people you can trust, people who are loyal to you, people who are trained."

Kong's definition of disciple: A trained worker with a great attitude.

He explains: "The training of disciples is our overarching, overwhelming obsession, if I can say that. We are not there yet, but we're always trying to do a better job. If we're able to really disciple, I think we have fulfilled the Great Commission. That's what Jesus did. He preached to the large multitudes, but He spent the greater amount of His time with the 12."

For Kong, cell groups provide the optimum context for effective discipleship.

While he is aware of the various cell-group models being used around the world, Kong doesn't cling to any one pattern. "Whatever model you have for cell groups doesn't matter," he says. "If you're discipling your flock, you're fulfilling the Great Commission."

Kong says that he faces some of the same challenges in Singapore that pastors must address in the Western world--long work hours, increasing divorce rates, family strife, economic recession and unemployment--all of which affect how one schedules and structures ministry.

"Not all cell-group models work for us, so we have had to adopt and adapt," he says. "Ultimately, the models can change, but if the biblical principles are being applied, I think we'll have success in our ministries."

AMERICA'S PART

Having built the largest church in Singapore and the third-largest in Asia outside of South Korea, Kong concedes that some aspects of Asian culture lend themselves to church growth.

"Community-minded cell groups work easier for us than in America where everyone is independent-minded," he says. He notes that Asians tend to be so community-minded that they are reticent to try new things because they are afraid of losing face.

In the West, Kong says, people are encouraged to try new things. Champions and heroes are glorified, and everyone loves a good "rags to riches" story. In Asia, he notes, conformity is the ideal value, resulting in statements such as: "We've always done things this way. Let's not try to be too different."

Reflecting CHC's priority of training disciples, a large part of the building is devoted to an educational center, and the church's mission statement is inscribed in large 3-D letters on the wall of the auditorium: "To build a church with a strong spiritual atmosphere of faith and purity, where every member is released into ministry, discipled in the great commandment, to obey the Great Commission."

When this mandate is carried out, it would seem that even a high-tech building couldn't contain the souls God brings. "The day we paid the last dollar--that same week we bought another piece of land to build another building," Kong says. "We had outgrown our land here."

In spite of the dramatic numeric growth at CHC and in Asia as a whole, Kong believes that the church in the United States still has an important role to play in reaching the Far East.

He notes that American presence is felt throughout the world militarily, culturally and in entertainment. But he believes that the spiritual influence that America used to exert has declined in recent years and has been replaced with a commercialized version of Christianity.

Kong believes that the American church has strayed from the missionary passion of the Student Volunteer Movement of the 19th century that launched the missions boom of the 20th century.

Instead, he suggests that the American church has become more interested with feeding itself than with meeting the needs of the rest of the world. "Ninety percent of Christian literature is found in America alone, and the rest of the world is so unreached," he says. "They need the crumbs under the American table."

"America can do so much more for missions," he says. "God wants America--with all the revelations, teachings, training, seminars and conferences."

"We still need your help," Kong says. "But when you come, please don't bring the American culture of wanting to stay in five-star hotels, have big honorariums, be driven around in a limousine."

Instead, he believes that Western ministers who come to the Far East will be more effective if they come with servants' hearts. "We need the revelation," Kong says. "But we don't need the excesses."


Matthew Green is associate editor for Ministries Today.

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