Words by: Lemuel Teo (Photos by: Joseph Koh)
Interview with Lawrence Ko and Ng Zhiwen
The globe has morphed at a rapid pace with the rise of mega cities. In Asia, more and more people are pouring into urban centres from villages in search of a better life. In light of such change, how should the Church adapt in continuing to fulfil the Great Commission?
“Go urban” is the theme for the upcoming 2018 GoForth National Missions Conference, organised by various churches and Christian agencies in Singapore. I sat down with Lawrence Ko, the National Director of the Singapore Centre for Global Missions (SCGM), and Ng Zhiwen, who is a project coordinator for SCGM and who also serves in GoForth, to talk about urban missions. Over coffee, Lawrence affably reflects on his experience serving in Christian agencies in Singapore and other Asian cities, and Zhiwen passionately shares his observations about the local church.
Driving along the East Coast Parkway after the interview, I wistfully thought, “Wow, we really are a city in a garden! Lord, I wonder how Singapore would flourish if we had Your shalom [peace, wholeness] in greater measures.”
What does urban missions mean to you?
Lawrence Ko (LK): Urban missions is about revealing the presence of God and gospel of Christ in cities. The phrase “the gospel at street level” continues to inspire me.
Zhiwen (ZW): Yes, it is about proclamation and declaration — that God’s people will proclaim who He is and demonstrate His goodness. God’s heart is that, through His people, all of creation will come to the Father.
Could you share why we should focus on urban city centres within the context of missions?
LK: Our paradigm of missions is generally still about going to the villages and mountains to reach the unreached people groups. While this is important, the cities are also places to do missions! In Singapore’s case, we have more than 120 nationalities living and working in Singapore. So the people from these “unreached people groups” are coming to our city from the regions and countries beyond. So if we reach out to them and train them, when they go back to their villages, they can be the leaders in their villages.
In the last 200 years, and especially in the last 30 years, urbanisation has been accelerating. Europe and America not only became industrialised but also urbanised. Asia is following suit. In China, for example, over the last 30 years, over 300 cities have sprouted, with populations ranging from half a million to 10 million.
ZW: Quoting Andy Crouch, “cities are characterised by density and diversity” — this makes them very different from rural places. City churches should take the lead in demonstrating to the world what human flourishing in the city looks like. The cities of the world have a shrunken and dehumanising view of prosperity and flourishing. The church, using the gospel, can demonstrate what real flourishing is.
It seems that cities should be places of human flourishing. Why do you think it is God’s intention for mankind to build and develop cities?
LK: The Bible is moving from a garden to a city — from the garden of Eden to the heavenly city of the new Jerusalem. The fathers of our faith were all journeying towards a city built by God, not by human hands. [See Hebrews 11–12.] Ultimately, a heavenly city is going to descend on earth (Revelations 21). This will be like an Eden, but restored as a city.
So God is going to restore the earth back to the peace and wholeness — or shalom — found in the original garden of Eden. What then does it mean for a city to have God’s shalom?
ZW: I’ll start with the opposite. A good case can be made that the worse signs of human depravity and rebellion against God are concentrated in cities. Think of the tower of Babel, Babylon, Jerusalem, and Rome.
The business of God is not: this place is so jialat, I forsake you. God takes the dirtiest and darkest parts of the world, and His mission is to transform and redeem it to cause it to flourish. And I believe that He wants His people to be agents of this work.
Flourishing, in a broader sense, speaks to a reconciliation, restoration, and an enriching of all the kinds of relationships that we will see. First between people and God, then between people and one another, and finally between people and the space we live in.
So urban missions is about having restored, perfect, and God-imaging relationships in all parts of society.
God’s image has to be imprinted on cities for the shalom of God to be there. What do you think is the church’s role in cities?
LK: The local church must be involved in missions. In many churches, “missions” is just a department or a budget amongst many other competing demands in the ministry of the church. We have to ask ourselves: “What is the church supposed to be like?” We all have our ideals about what church can and should be.
One verse that comes to mind is Jeremiah 29:11. What does it mean to seek the shalom of the city? To bless the city, because when the city flourishes, you will also flourish.
Moreover, the church is sometimes too busy saving souls for the heavenly city that we have no concern for the earthly cities. Do we even paint the houses or plant gardens in our city? We must care for our cities in practical and holistic ways.
ZW: There was a church in Singapore where the pastor noticed that “city life” tears families apart: children go to school, parents go to work, and grandparents stay in a different home. If we are not careful, the Singapore church can mimic this. When the church meets together, we get pulled apart to the different ministries in church. Instead of fostering a sense of community and family, the church can be making its congregants go through separate age-specific programmes.
The pastor felt that the church should be counter cultural. Instead of having a fragmented community, the church endeavoured to restore a sense of community. Today, this church has gone one step further. They want their space to be a place of blessing the community in the neighbourhood they are in. They worked at building good relationships with all the neighbours around them, sharing resources, and being the place where people would come to as a social space.
Zhiwen, could you share with us how you’ve tried to play an active role in being shalom in Singapore? Any personal examples that would resonate with others?
ZW: The church pursuing shalom needs to express it in local terms.
In my local church, I’m one of the leaders in our Home Missions [or Community Outreach] arm. Some of the initiatives that we have been involved in include partnering with the nearby Family Service Centre to provide tuition for children from “multi-stressor” families in the neighbourhood, helping to give these children a better chance in life. We also have a ministry that teaches English as a second language to expatriate ladies.
Since my local church is located within a public housing estate, we have opened a cafe that aims to provide a place of hospitality for our neighbourhood. It took a while for the public to realise that the cafe was open to all, and now they form the bulk of our customers!
We’ve also been building a bridge of friendship with a nearby mosque (about 3 bus stops away). We believe this contributes to the public good, and it also helps our church congregation to better understand how to interact with their Muslim friends.
These initiatives cover the urban missional issues of mercy and justice, care for the foreigner, community development, and inter-faith engagement.
Singapore is a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural urban city. How would you evaluate the Singaporean Church’s efforts and impact on our city?
LK: Every city has an identity — a name and a place. It’s a given that cities are multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious spaces. The problem is that the church does not understand this as it should. It’s important for us to understand the worldviews around us: Buddhism, Taoism, Chinese folk religion, Islam… Understanding religions help us to understand culture. Then we can live with them in the right understanding and actually be part of the community.
ZW: We should do a study on the human demographics of the city we live in. And ask ourselves, “Do you want the church’s demographic to reflect that?” If our churches are not reflecting the society’s demographic, then we find ourselves excluding others inadvertently.
I came from a church which used to attract people from all kinds of socio-economic backgrounds and ethnicities. But we found that, as time goes by, we were becoming more and more homogenous. We were excluding those who were not like us. This doesn’t bear faithful witness to God’s vision of the heavenly city.
LK: Most urban churches attract the Singaporean middle class. They may appear diverse in terms of nationality or ethnicities, but they actually belong only to a certain economic or cultural class. As such, we have created a more homogenous demography within our own churches.
The Chinese-speaking or people from the lower income groups will hence find it difficult to be part of the church community. It’s with a very sad and heavy heart that I say this because some of the people that I have led and discipled have left the church.
Urban mismanagement and squalor dehumanises people and degrades the urban environment. What is our responsibility to our physical environment?
ZW: There’s always a place for the church to do relief work at the street level: individuals who need rescue out of trafficking, poverty, or squalor.
Yet, we are discovering that you can also engage at the systemic level — with the “principalities and powers” which exploit, dehumanise, and oppress.
I’ve learnt of a country in our region which previously had no concept of land zoning. If you can’t parcel out the land properly, then there is no such thing as land ownership. This leads to the development of slums, which quickly results in urban squalor. There will be people living in places that they don’t own. They can get evicted very easily. With some help, the government then started with zoning the land and parcelling it out to citizens. This helped to set the foundations to enable a city’s flourishing.
How would you address the dreams and fears millennials have about stepping into the mission field?
LK: Dream big, start small. We should prepare well.
ZW: If given a chance, I would want to speak to the generation that has gone before the millennials. This was the generation that did crazy things for God, like organising the Billy Graham gospel rallies, when they were in their 30s, early 40s at most.
But the concept of renewal — of nurturing and empowering the next generation to step up — and to pursue the dreams that God has given to the millennials is missing. I would say to them, “What are you doing to release these young people?” Many of the young ones are asking questions like: “How do I honour my parents? How will my church support me?”
Have you personally felt any fears in stepping into the mission field?
ZW: I’m very thankful for having been brought up in a church that has a history of being involved in missions. So I grew up listening to the stories of missionaries, and have been on mission trips myself since I was a teenager. I’ve also got an elder sister who is a “long-term” missionary, and who now serves in an international missions organisation. So the challenges of stepping into the mission field are not alien to me.
However, I have not personally been given the call to go and serve abroad (yet). Perhaps that day will come. If it does, I suppose that it will be a call that applies to my family too, since I’m married with two children. God will surely have to speak to my wife about this. The last thing I’d want to do is to charge ahead presuming to be pursuing God’s will, but leaving my family lagging behind, causing unintended but adverse consequences to my loved ones. That’d be my greatest fear. While we ought to be prepared to go should God call, we’d also need to be prepared for the going.
What is your heart for the Singaporean Church with respect to urban missions? What do you hope to see and how can we achieve it?
LK: I would like to see the Singaporean Church catch a vision of the gospel that is holistic, that will go beyond the narrow theology of saving souls per se. Christianity is not just about evangelism.
ZW: There is a lot we can learn from Antioch — to model to the churches of Asia what missions looks like in an urban context, while holding in tension the works of proclaiming and demonstrating the gospel.
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With a line-up of specially invited prominent international and local speakers, the 2018 GoForth National Missions Conference will look at an array of diverse strategies to empower individuals and churches to reach and transform cities with the love of Christ. Find out more and sign up for the 2018 GoForth National Missions Conference here.