Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Bigger = Better? Always?

The words 'big' and 'mega' have been in the news all around the world.

The big banks and other massive financial institutions have fallen, or are falling.

I could not understand how Fannie May and Freddie Mac could become so big that they are not allowed to fall. (They were 'born big', being instruments created by the American government.) And the likes of Morgan Stanley and Lehman Brothers.... Big does not mean invincible.

In Singapore recently the spotlight has also fallen on the 'mega-churches', non-denominational churches led by very charismatic personalities that now boast of thousands of 'attendees' (apparently not all are 'members') in sparkling new buildings with massive carparks, state-of-the-art audio-visual equipment, huge auditoriums, etc. with millions of dollars in the pot. This scrutiny is partly due to the fallout from a few major charities where the accounting has been found to be somewhat less than transparent. (My ex-boss first blew the whistle.)

I have been thinking also about 'whether size matters' in the area of education. While the Labour government is pushing for 'city academies' where thousands of students can be educated in more sparkling new buildings, I wonder if in the area of education and other 'affective endeavours', small is actually more beautiful.

Economy of scale makes sense in certain aspects of life. So if I needed to fit out a 100-room hotel I buy furniture and fittings in bulk. The supplier saves on cost of transport, profits from a higher-volume sale and the customer gets a discount. It's a win-win situation.

My son goes to a school of under 200 children. What impressed me most when I went to the Open Day (son was four months old, I had to ask for a space to nurse him in private), was the fact that the teachers knew all the boys (it was boys only then) by name.

From the time the child joins the junior school at age 4+, there is a practice of the most senior men teachers visiting regularly, to read stories with them, or to teach a lesson or two.

The school does not benefit from large playing fields and all kinds of mod-cons. In fact I chaired the parent committee which took years to raise enough funds to give them a new playground that does not flood every time it rained, quickly followed by a second interactive whiteboard, etc. Facilities like interactive whiteboards that other schools take for granted, we work very hard to provide.

But the school knows each child well and nurtures each according to his/her gifts. Some children excel in sport, drama, music, art, languages, science, etc. The school recognizes all of these and each child is rewarded accordingly. So small is beautiful in this instance.

Churches. I am always wary of big churches. I am not saying that they are all bad. But the experiences of many such churches and the scandals involving their leaders in other parts of the world is history we must not neglect. (Why do Christians have such short memories?)

My first question is why does a church wish to grow so big? Churches with under 200 members struggle often for critical mass. Once they break that 200-member threshold it seems, they could grow exponentially.

(The advantage of being in a big church is that one could become pretty much anonymous, practise 'spectator Christianity': I go to church, I tithe, someone else can do the work. Talk to my boss about Jesus? You must be kidding! He only uses that as a swear word. )

Then what? Bigger churches? More pastors? Bigger carparks?

Do we read the Apostles in Acts saying, 'OK, mates, we'll stop with Antioch. Those who wish to learn more about what this Christianity is all about are now welcome to trek to Antioch where we would have a state-of-the-art 5000-seat amphi-theatre, spa baths for dusty feet and food and drink to satisfy the hungry and thirsty'?

The Apostles travelled -- from Jerusalem, to Judea, Samaria, to the ends of the earth -- to where the people are to share God's Word with them.

If my church were to grow to 2000 I would suggest to the leadership that we planted new churches in places that need the Word of God. That is why there are so many churches in the red light district in Amsterdam. Christians have seen the needs there.

Instead of putting up new expensive buildings where tens of thousands need to drive to every Sunday, to queue up to get into an air-conditioned auditiorium, etc -- just imagine the carbon footprint -- would it not be easier to have smaller churches where members could simply walk to?

In Singapore there is a particular problem in that it is difficult to get planning permission to raise a church. I understand that. But what about setting up community-focused services like free clinics where the space could also be used for other purposes?

There are three things I would warn against as far as mega-churches are concerned:

1) I cringe when members of such mega-churches refer to their church as 'So-and-So's church'. Or more commonly it is the name of the church, followed quickly by the name of the pastor. It is no more God's church, but 'that very charismatic leader's church'.

2) I get wary when these charismatic leaders set up businesses (often called 'ministries') named after themselves. Where is the separation between the church they minister to as God's calling and the personal (financial) benefits they reap as a result of God blessing this church?

They are welcome to write books to share the success of their ministries, but when their own name becomes the selling point, much more important than God's name in this whole venture, I become suspicious.

3) Most importantly when such churches teach a lop-sided gospel, be it prosperity, grace, or whatever the buzzword might be, I would stand back to take stock. I have been a Christian for nearly 40 years and sometimes the going IS tough. Churches must preach the whole Bible, the whole gospel, minister to the whole person.

So coming back to the big banks. At the last fellowship group we mulled over this and decided that it all came down to 'the LOVE OF MONEY'. The love of money was -- as it has been shown again -- the root of all evil.

Many people have benefitted from this financial crisis, let us be clear about this. They have gambled with the money of ordinary folks (not their own) and made a bundle (obscene bonuses) and a quick exit. We, the taxpayers all over the world, have now to pick up the pieces, mend the broken-hearted.

A commentator noted (with clear disdain in his tone) that the failure of AIG is due to this 'insurance company pretending to be a bank'. Another analyst said that with the boom and bust cycles in business, someone always has to pay. This time it was the turn of the banks.

Christians are to be 'in the world, but not of the world'. There are clear teachings about not serving God and Mammon, not turning the House of God into a den of thieves. There is ample warning that 'the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour' (I Peter 5:8)

If churches forget their God-ordained purpose to be 'the body of Christ' and prefer instead to run themselves like big banks or big corporations because it 'makes business sense' then let them be aware that when the chickens come home to roost (when boom goes bust, as boom WILL go bust), there will be -- as Eric Clapton sings -- 'tears in heaven'.

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Monday, September 22, 2008

NIMBYs in Singapore

Recently the 'not in my backyard' syndrome reared its ugly head in Singapore. Somehow news got round that a disused school in Serangoon Gardens -- a rather nice, quiet, very middle-class part of Singapore -- were to be converted into a dormitory to house a thousand foreign workers.

There are more that 500,000 such foreign workers in Singapore working in construction sites, apart from many more thousands working as domestic servants in households while both parents are at work.

I know Serangoon Garden well because I had relatives living there, and I used to have to change buses at what is called the 'circus' (roundabout) when I went to Nanyang Junior College.

I wrote the following letter to Straits Times and it was, of course, rejected. Basically I believe that there has been a dereliction of duty on the part of the policy-makers to make life in Singapore more human/bearable for the foreign workers in our midst:

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Social scientists have long debated the meaning of ‘community’ and the residents of Serangoon Gardens are to be congratulated for showing an example of what ‘community’ could be.

The issue of housing 1000 foreign workers is not simply a question of this community against the rest of the world, or where to site such dormitories.

My perspective of the issue begins and ends with the fact that my late father was a migrant. He came here to escape poverty. Did he intend to stay? I think not.

But it was pointless to consider returning to a communist China. He stayed, got married, and raised six children with no additional help from the government.

I remember my father’s intense pride in his chairmanship of a huiguan. He was a man who taught us to ‘ying shui si yuan’, and so gave back to his village/clan associations what they gave to him when he was a new, young and single migrant.

Our current problem stems from years of neglect both in terms of policy and funding to ‘integrate’ these workers, even if temporarily, into Singapore culture.

Shall we let them organize themselves as clan associations did and therefore take care of their basic needs, provide facilities where they could congregate, enjoy some entertainment, receive counselling, celebrate festivals, etc?

Where there are efforts to help our foreign workers, it is often by voluntary groups like the churches (and temples?) who organize services in Tagalog, Tamil, Telegu, etc for our foreign workers. Would running English lessons and giving opportunities to learn about Singapore make a difference to the way these workers behave?

Our government seems to have done a ‘Pilate’, washing their hands of looking after the welfare of these workers. So in the last decade or two we have followed their lead to see these workers as mere digits, worker ants, nearly sub-human even, as having a different morality and therefore prone to criminality. We tolerate their presence as a necessary inconvenience.

We forget that they have the same needs and feelings, hopes and aspirations as those of my late father and those of his generation. Note the words of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, reminding us that he is only human:

“If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”

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Monday, September 08, 2008

Power-limp-picks

Having found the Olympics a bit too political and commercial, I found myself sitting down in front of the Paralympics by default (the TV was on, we'd just come back from a walk, I was tired).

It was interesting how some commentators say 'paralympics' in such a way that it sounds like 'power-lympics'. And for me, I think the 'power-limp-picks' was a lot more meaningful. Part of the opening ceremony brought tears to my eyes.

Can't see the point of an Olympics with tennis, basketball, etc, being played by top-notch, overpaid professionals. And beach volleyball? It's just an excuse for TV to sell spots to beer companies so that men could ogle at those bodies.

I might never understand the different categories in the paralympics, but it tugs at more than one heart string when I see these athletes strive against mental and physical disabilities to excel in the various fields of sport. This is the real Olympics for me.

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