TNN Forum by Lionel Neo
The Presbyterian Synod conducted a “New Normal” Forum on the 5th August. This “New Normal” refers to the state of the church during this time of pandemic, with all its challenges and opportunities.
The meeting was well attended by over 60 pastors and ministry workers from various Presbyterian churches. Four salient topics were covered by the speakers: “Transitioning between online and onsite services”, “How do we rethink Church?”, “How to fulfil the Mission of the Church?”, and “What does it mean to be a Presbyterian Church in the way we celebrate Sacrament?”
Reverend Vincent Lee was the moderator of Forum, and began with the exhortation that we should take heart, even in the midst of challenges, for Jesus has ‘overcome the world’, and we should likewise ‘be strong and courageous’ and posture our hearts to tackle this new normal.
The first topic of ‘Transitioning between online and onsite service’ was covered by the Revd Chris Chia from Adam Road Presbyterian Church, Revd Dr Clive Chin from Orchard Road Presbyterian Church, and Revd Dr Steven Gan from Amazing Grace Presbyterian Church.
Rev Dr Chia noted that while it is easy to view our current predicament as one of ‘disruption, dislocation and distress, we should adopt a God-centred view of the circumstances, which leads to ‘fidelity, clarity and durability’. We should not yearn for the restoration of the ‘old normal’, but embark on the paradigm shift of spiritual formation from church to home-based, of professionized ministry/ministers to the priesthood of all believers.
Likewise, Revd Dr Chin talked about the shift that his church had to undergo, from being based on an attractional, come-and-see paradigm, towards a missional one. He noted that communication is the key factor as structures getting decentralized in response to the new normal.
Finally, Revd Dr Steven Gan shared his church’s experience of resuming onsite service in line with government regulations. Despite the various restrictions in place, he mentioned that his church decided to ‘be bold in doing the right thing’, pointing to the scriptural warrant for gathering physically as a church, which was also expressed desire of many in his congregation. While there are challenges involved, such as ensuring a fair allotment of slots, and getting volunteers in terms AV crew or safety ambassadors, he also saw his church members rising up to the occasion.
The next topic was covered by Revd Peter Chan, on ‘How do we rethink Church?’. Revd Chan noted the influence of the church growth movement in America, which has led to the corporatisation of the church and a glamorization of the worship music experience. The ‘new normal’ is time for church to return to “simple and straightforward spirituality” – discipleship and doing good works. He noted that the role of the small group leader, as under-shepherds, have become more crucial than ever, and reminded the attendees that Jesus too had dismissed the crowds to focus on teaching the disciples.
The next topic covered was on ‘How to fulfil the mission of the church?’ during this time of pandemic. Revd Chris Chia launched off this topic, noting that COVID-19 has posed questions on our regular modes of evangelism, which tends to be only the passion and focus of a few, and based around one-off events. Revd Dr Chia noted that evangelism should be one of the expressions of a lifestyle of discipleship – it should be spontaneous and person to person.
Next, Revd Keith Lai introduced two ministries in his church (Covenant Presbyterian Church) that have been involved in during this season of COVID-19.
The first was the Sri Lankan, or migrant workers ministry, which was covered by Preacher Susantha. COVID-19 gave this ministry new opportunities in reaching out to Sri Lankan students who were stranded in hostels and unable to return. These individuals were reached out to with pastoral visitations and financial support. As physical church service has stopped, his ministry also had to transition to online services/prayer meetings, and pastoral support via phone calls.
The second ministry was the shelter ministry, which Covenant Presbyterian launched during the circuit breaker period, to provide a place for rough sleepers. Preacher Lionel Neo, the shelter’s operational IC, noted that this was entirely new ministry for his church, and there were certainly various challenges as it involved several strangers from different backgrounds sharing the same space. At the same time, this was a unique opportunity to expose the rough sleepers to the culture of the church as a family and a home. He was thankful that out of the 13 who has passed through Covenant, 2 rededicated their lives to Christ, and a few others became close friends with one another.
Following that, the final topic “What does it mean to be a Presbyterian Church in the way we celebrate Sacrament?” Revd Keith Lai talked about recovering the context of Holy Communion. He mentioned that Covenant Presbyterian continues to conduct weekly Holy Communion virtually, and noted that for the early Christians, the Lord’s Supper was held at homes, by ordinary members.
Following the series of informative and highly relevant talks, the participants broke in 4 smaller groups, each group to discuss one of the four topics in greater detail. After that, they reconvened to listen to the presentation of the summarized ideas by the group leaders.
The first group discussed the reopening of on-site services. The details and execution of various measures were covered – the needed logistics, ticketing system and so on.
The second group discussed the topic of ‘Rethinking church’. Key points include the observation that decentralization of the church structure puts a lot more responsibility on lay members, whether at the individual, family and small group level. This includes access to resources, being able to process/discern available content ably, and teaching it well. The need for LRT (Leaders Resources and Training) was emphasized.
The third group covered the topic of fulfilling the mission of the church. Various encouraging testimonies and helpful practices were shared during the discussion, touching both the evangelist, and person evangelised to. The evangelist had to be anchored in God’s truth (being passionate for the gospel and convinced of its power), equipped and ever-prepared to share it. A the same time, they had to account for their hearers (‘what is good news for the person in this situation’), and build a relationship with them through practical means, such as by offering prayer support.
The fourth and final presentation was on the ‘Celebration of the Lord’s Supper’. It was noted that there were diverse opinions between the participants in the dialogue. The underlying premises had to be agreed upon first: ‘What is the importance of a physical congregation gathering?’, ‘What is the importance having an ordained minister?’, and ‘What is role and doctrine of Holy Spirit in communion?’. The group had no recommendations to offer, but recommended that the role of our reformed heritage vis-à-vis our modern context needed further looking into
Following that, Revd Teo Yew Tiong gave a short review of the ‘new normal’ survey, which focused on the church members and how they were coping with the online church format. From the data, Revd Teo emphasized on the need for consistent pastoral care for the congregation.
Finally, Revd Christopher Chia wrapped up with a brief overview of the roadmap for the English Presbytery. He encouraged pastors to ask questions of various aspect of church. He also emphasized on the need for a united leadership, and that together, we may be a Presbytery where we are ‘Proclaiming Christ, maturing his church and glorifying God’.
Indeed, this Forum was a picture of unity – the body of Christ coming together to share ideas, practices, and testimonies, so as to serve God and His people even better during these extraordinary times.
Pr Lionel Neo