August 2018 Feature
Churches in Singapore have to deal with a reality that is unique, compared to many of their counterparts in other countries. Many of the churches here have been built on land that has a leasehold tenure of 30 years (or are located in buildings that have a similar leasehold arrangement). Every 30 years, these churches need to renew their leases to use the space for another 30 years, at the prevailing market rates. The net effect is a financial burden that few churches in other countries have to bear. Based on some estimates, the additional financial commitment necessary to sustain these leases can take up as much as 20% of a church’s annual budget, considering the typical weekly combined worship attendance of between 1,000 and 1,500 worshippers.
Given such burdens, while churches that are sitting on freehold properties can channel much of their funds to useful ministries, other less fortunate churches are constantly on a fund-raising mode to sustain the use of their facilities. Many churches do so with the hope that, once the lease is renewed, their congregations would continue to grow. This would hopefully lessen the financial burden, per capita, for the next lease renewal. However, that hope is also limited by the fact that the church can only accommodate so many additional members on a Sunday, as far as the physical space is concerned. This is quite a sombre language to use in talking about the ministry of the gospel! But it is a stark reality that many churches in Singapore have to grapple with.
Coupled with this is another trend, which is the growing number of Christians. According to the latest population census report in Singapore (2010), the general population grew at the rate of approximately 2.34% p.a. in the past 10 years. The number of Christian worshippers, however, grew from 588,000 in 2000 to 930,000 in 2010 (as reported in the Straits Times on 23 Feb 2015), an annualised growth rate of 4.7% p.a. That is double the rate of the population increase. While the data on the physical space allocated for religious use in Singapore (especially for use by Christian churches) is not available to the public, it is nonetheless conceivable that the space crunch for churches in Singapore will be increasing in the years to come, based on the trends mentioned here. In other words, Christians in Singapore have a problem at hand.
So, what is the solution? Among other things, the Singapore government is encouraging the development of a new approach to the sharing of space for Christian worship — a hub for multiple churches to use. Quite recently, such a project was announced: a $25m hub was proposed at a location in Jurong. Despite some teething issues in that particular project, such an approach can alleviate the space constraints to some extent. However, one might ask, will that be an adequate measure in the long run, given the trends? How effectively would a project for 3 or 4 churches be a solution for the more than 500 Protestant congregations (according to the Straits Times report mentioned above) that exist in Singapore? A more profound solution, I think, have to come from Christians themselves.
For the past two thousand years, most Christian communities have their worship on Sundays. This goes back all the way to the book of Acts, where it is mentioned that the Christians gathered together on the first day of the week, Sunday (Acts 20:7). Apparently, it was chosen because our Lord Jesus resurrected on a Sunday, and it is also the first day of creation (Justin Martyr, I Apology, 67). In 1 Cor 16:2, the apostle Paul also indicates that the church gathered on “the first day of the week”. At about 100 A.D., the Apostolic Father Ignatius also mentioned that the church met on a “Lord’s Day” (Letter to the Magnesians, 9). So, with some minor exceptions, Christians have gathered together on Sundays for worship since the earliest days of the church, as far as we know. However, can some adjustment be made to accommodate the growing number of worshippers in our churches?
Perhaps, in this regard, churches in Singapore should consider holding their worship services on Saturday evenings, in addition to Sundays. This is what some churches are already doing, in order to accommodate the growth in the size of their congregations. If we were to follow the Jewish reckoning of the day, our Lord’s day would have started on a Saturday evening, just as the Jewish Sabbath would have begun from Friday evening. In that way, Christians can still remain faithful to the significance of worshipping the Lord on a Sunday as a church.
As a Presbyterian pastor, I can in fact go one step further to take into consideration what Scripture says with regard to the question of worshipping on a Saturday evening. Regarding the keeping of special days, the Bible says that whether a person considers one day to be sacred, or everyday to be sacred, it is fine as long as he does so to the Lord (Rom 14:6). No one is supposed to make the observance of certain days a legal requirement (Gal 4:9-10), nor should Christians allow anyone to judge them on such a basis (Col 2:16-17).
Admittedly, the original contexts of these biblical injunctions are not whether a church can worship on a day other than Sunday. Nonetheless, I think the overall principle that can be drawn from these passages is that the specific day in which the church gathers is itself not the most crucial issue. In other words, whether Christians come together for their weekly worship on a Saturday evening or a Sunday, there is some room for flexibility. Then again, given the deep significance of Christian worship on a Sunday mentioned earlier (with Saturday evening being an acceptable time-frame according to the Jewish reckoning), I would not venture further to suggest that any day of the week would be acceptable. It is still important, in my view, for the church service to gravitate towards the Lord’s Day (Sunday) itself, which is how Christians have regarded it since the earliest times.
Given the long-term implications of the severe cost of land use in Singapore, it is time for Christians to rethink their use of the available church space. It is not just about using the church premises for running other community services like kindergartens during the week. It is also about allowing the church to accommodate a much larger number of believers. This must first begin with a renewal of our understanding of worship, and a reconsideration of what it means to come together as a congregation to render praise to God as a body of Christ, when we listen to the proclamation of his word. It requires a rethinking of our theology, and a recalibration of our set practices. This is something that the theologians from the West do not need to address, since it is not the situation their churches are facing! If churches in Singapore are able to make adjustments and seriously consider having worship services on Saturday evenings in addition to Sunday, it would contribute significantly towards alleviating our space constraints in the long term.
May the Lord grant us wisdom as we make decisions that would serve the interests of the kingdom of God and remain faithful to his sacred word! Amen.
Rev Dr Leonard Wee is New Testament lecturer at Trinity Theological College (TTC), and an ordained minister with the Presbyterian Church in Singapore. He obtained his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Durham and holds degrees from the National University of Singapore (B.B.A.) and Dallas Theological Seminary (Th.M.).