The socio-economic changes that have taken place in Singapore over the last few decades have truly been remarkable. However, future changes over the next few decades will be more far-reaching in terms of their depth and impact upon family and society.
The prayerful Christian who spends time contemplating the future will soon realise that in the history of the church, rapid socio-economic changes have always required a fresh direction for the church to avoid its becoming fossilised. In some parts of the West, empty churches stand testament to those who could not find their relevance to a new socio-economic order. There is a need for us to seriously and prayerfully rethink the role of the Methodist Church in a future Singapore.
A church in a settled environment with little change will always focus on its expansion programme: how to evangelise and bring in more members, how to launch new and more spiritual growth programmes to keep the members active, and how to keep the young generation interested in the church. These are important programmes and they seem to consume the energy of the church leadership every year.
But in a rapidly-changing socio-economic environment like what we expect in the future, such activity-based programmes alone – targeted at growing the church numerically and raising its level of biblical literacy, or at least maintaining its membership roll – will eventually lead to an irrelevant church with empty pews, an outcome such activities were aimed at avoiding in the first place.
The current practice of doing more of what was done last year with larger budgets, so that reports can be submitted at annual meetings, cannot be the agenda for our leadership meetings any more.
In times of rapid change, the Methodist Church must reach back into its rich tradition and learn lessons from similar periods of rapid change in the past. It must draw from its unique origin or risk losing its bearings and receding into irrelevance.
Methodism began as a holiness movement founded by John Wesley during the Industrial Revolution in England, a time of unprecedented changes during that era. The changes for them would have been as far-reaching as today’s changes are for our era. This is food for thought and cause for much prayer.
The Methodist Church cannot be just another church denomination in a nation that already has many other Christian denominations. It has a special role to play in the midst of rapid changes, and that role is a unique emphasis on “scriptural holiness” that is both disciplined and accountable. It is disciplined in terms of its personal practice and accountable in terms of its social action.
Note that Methodism was a movement, not an institution. The Methodist Church as an institution grew out of a holiness movement. In times of rapid changes, institutional churches will struggle to adapt, or worse still, some will retreat behind closed doors to preserve the institution. I would call that the closing of the Christian mind.
On the other hand, movements are able to spread rapidly and adapt to new situations. Whereas it would be unwise to totally abandon our institutional organisation, there is a real need for us as the Methodist Church to re-calibrate the balance between an institution and a movement. Today, I would suggest, we are too much an institution and too little a movement. It has even become a challenge today for us to change as we are so institutionalised.
Man has a tendency to cling on to institutions that give him a sense of permanence in times of rapid change. We must overcome this. Whereas this tendency to cling to the established would be necessary in the area of basic Biblical doctrines, it would be fatal in the area of organisational approach.
I sense very much that today the Methodist Church in Singapore is at acrossroads. In terms of its mission, we cannot be just another denomination but we have a special mission for a rapidly-changing era. In terms of our organisational structure, we need to de-institutionalise more and become more of a movement. May the Lord grant us wisdom as we prayerfully ponder this critical matter.
Tan Gee Paw –is Chairman of the Public Utilities Board and Chairman of the International Advisory Panel, Institute of Water Policy, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. He is a member of Barker Road Methodist Church.