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Now self-sustaining ‘conference,’ church in Singapore focuses on recruiting

Only a handful of next generation candidates; ‘oh great, now everyone knows’

Now self-sustaining ‘conference,’ church in Singapore focuses on recruiting

Singapore Conference President Johnny Kan, right, goes over last-minute details with participants of the upcoming worship service, Saturday, June 2, at the Jurong Adventist Church. [photos by Ansel Oliver]

Chuen Rong is thinking of becoming a pastor, so last month, in order to gain perspective, the 19-year-old met with a majority of the full-time Seventh-day Adventist ministers in the country.

Here in Singapore that means five.

This tiny Southeast Asian nation has nine full-time Adventist ministers shepherding some 2,800 members. Chuen is one of less than a handful of candidates whom church officials here plan to mentor in hopes that they continue seeking a career in ministry.

Historically, it’s been a challenge for the church in Singapore to employ a sufficient number of staff. Last year, the denomination here became a self-supporting entity, and leaders say the transition could have happened even earlier if more staff had been in place.

For a denominational unit to transition from “mission” status to self-sustaining “conference” status, it must demonstrate stability in two areas: leadership and finances. The latter is less of a problem in this modern city-state off the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, where the average per-capita income is $59,711, the 3rd highest in the world, according to the International Monetary Fund.

But the issue of enough employees held up the process, delaying leaders until just two years ago to receive the nod from the denomination to apply to the Singaporean government for self-supporting status. Leaders hope recruiting and mentoring future pastoral candidates will keep the issue one of ancient history.

“We need to work hard on recruiting our young people,” said Singapore Conference President Johnny Kan.

The challenge is finding candidates who are fluent in both English and Mandarin Chinese, the language spoken by many older members. Of the country’s 5.3 million people, about three-fourths are of Chinese decent.

Chuen said he’s fairly certain he’ll pursue a career in ministry. Soon he’ll enter two years of required national service – known as conscription – before likely heading to Asia-Pacific International University in Thailand to study theology.

“I feel God is leading me,” Chuen said. “But you must be committed. It’s a calling for life, so I want to make a good decision and with, of course, much prayer.”

Another candidate is James Tham, a management consultant in Australia now studying at the Adventist Theological Seminary in the United States. The 31-year-old plans to return to his native Singapore to work as a minister with a focus on lay involvement.

Kan said recruiting works best when current pastors each personally disciple and train a few young people. “There must be a very personal relationship,” he said.

It’s not a standard he only dishes out to local church pastors, but one he holds himself to, as well as the rest of the Singapore Conference staff. In Singapore, conference officers and departmental directors also help minister at local congregations, something Kan wishes happened in more parts of the world.

“They don’t lose touch with what it’s like to still be a local pastor,” Kan said.

The history of the Adventist Church’s launch in Singapore is hazy. The Adventist message arrived here circa 1890, likely with Asia’s first Adventist Missionary Abram La Rue, according to the Adventist encyclopedia.

Today it’s the only self-sustaining unit in the denomination’s Southeast Asia Union Mission, comprised of seven countries. Singapore, a mere 270 square-miles, has one of the world’s most prosperous economies and is a powerhouse in global trade. Adventist churches draw many foreign visitors and sometimes an employee from a docked container ship.

Kan said evangelism here can be tough amidst a wealthy society that is about 40 percent Buddhist, 15 percent Muslim and 15 percent Christian. To serve in the community, the church operates a nursing home, a stroke rehabilitation center, two schools, as well as a radio station that broadcasts in four languages.

Though Singapore has one of the world’s most business-friendly environments, it has strict regulations on other aspects of society, such as littering, transportation and speech. Chewing gum is banned and possession carries a fine of hundreds of dollars. To contain traffic, the government imposes a nearly US$71,000 fee for the privilege of owning a car. And defaming other religions isn’t tolerated, something Kan said he doesn’t mind.

“That’s actually a good thing for our pastors – it requires them to preach about why one should be a Seventh-day Adventist,” Kan said.

And leaders continue to find reasons for why young Adventists should become ministers. Periodically, leaders will find an opportunity to motivate candidates. Former mission president Danson Ng once told an executive committee meeting that Christian Choo was considering becoming a pastor, putting a bit of pressure on him publicly.

Choo, a 28-year-old school counselor, said he didn’t mind. Not much, anyway. He earned his degree in psychology with the expectation in the back of his mind that he might one day become a pastor.

On Saturday, at the Jurong Adventist Church, it occurred to Choo that talking to Adventist News Network might build the expectation even more.

“Oh, great," he quipped. "Now is the whole world going to know I’m thinking of becoming a pastor?”