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March 2016 Feature Article

There is one thing common between the prophet and the strategist. They both think about the future. There are deep differences though. A prophet, inspired by the Holy Spirit, is able to look down the centuries like Isaiah did when he prophesied about the coming of the Messiah, as well as being able to see round the immediate corner, like so many of the Old Testament prophets who prophesied about the then coming Babylonian  captivity.

The inspiration of the Holy Spirit is key. A secular strategist living in Jeremiah’s days when Israel was confronted by two rising powers, the Babylonians and the Egyptians, would only see the aggressiveness of the Babylonian empire and conclude the logical way is to seek allegiance with Egypt. A true prophet like Jeremiah, on the other hand, inspired by the Holy Spirit, saw not only the aggressiveness of the Babylonian empire but also the spiritual condition of Israel, and concluded that it would be futile to seek refuge in Egypt. Rather, Israel should repent or yield to the judgement to come at the hands of the Babylonians.

The point to note is this: whereas the secular strategist looks only at the geo-political situation around him, the prayerful Christian today must look at both the geo-political situation as well as the condition of the present day Church. I have used the imperative “must” because we live in a fast changing Asia with a relatively young Church, and all God-fearing Christian leaders must ponder carefully over this issue: how is Asia evolving, what is the present condition of the Church, and what are the warnings and re-direction needed for the present day Church to meet the future. At stake would be the ability of the Church to take on the vast opportunities that may open up for the Gospel in Asia, or suffer the fate of a sleeping Church fossilized by changes it did not bother to foresee, or worst a wayward Church on its way to becoming an episode of history.

The seemingly pious may object that Christ is in charge of the church and any attempts to prepare for the future is an act of denial of His Lordship, but misplaced piety has strewn the  western world with artefacts of abandoned churches that are a marvel for the modern tourist. The misplaced piety of the Jews in Jeremiah’s days hid their spiritual bankruptcy behind their thrice repeated pious statement “The Temple of the Lord” in answer to Jeremiah’s inspired prophecy.

The changes facing Asia today are unprecedented, not only in its scale but also in its scope, affecting every aspect of life. On the geo-political stage, the rapid rise of China would inevitably cause a displacement of American dominance of such a scale that the potential of conflict will ever be present. On the economic stage, globalization will change the fabric of Asian society, challenging traditional norms of conduct and lifestyles. On the religious stage, the rise of ISIS, not as a terrorist organization, but a religious-political ideology rooted in the history of Islam will challenge the multi-religious bedrock of security in Asian countries. On the technology stage, the advent of artificial intelligence in the current infocomm revolution will transform the primordial basis of human relationships: the way we communicate. Each of these change factors would be the subject of a lengthy discourse for which we are not at liberty in this short article to attempt.

Faced with these changes, the concerned prayerful Christian must make an assessment of the current condition of the Church. He must consider whether the present Church in Singapore, which is rooted in western culture, tradition and thought-life, is positioned to face the changes that will come about with a China-dominated Asia, a rise in religious extremism, a society that is prone to embracing alternative lifestyles brought about by globalization, and a fundamental communication revolution, to name a few.

Is the Church strong enough to encounter these future challenges without tearing away at its biblical roots? To be more precise, are the present roots already in decay due to the pressures of modernisation in Singapore? Would these challenges put us at risk that our Revelational candle stick may be removed unless we take remedial action now?

Much prayer and thought need to be given to these questions, and the thoughtful Christian need to pray for wisdom like never before!

Apart from the above, two other issues have become of immediate concern for the current Church.

The first is its organisational structure. Rigid institutions which are good in times of stability are often unable to adapt to rapid global changes. On the other hand, a completely fluid movement would lack the historic ballast needed to face the turbulence these changes will bring. We need to seriously and urgently recalibrate the balance between the Church as an institution and the Church as a movement to meet a future of rapid changes. Today many established Churches are too rigidly institutionalized, and most independent churches are mere movements with too much fluidity. Both are at risk, the one of becoming fossilized and the other of total disintegration. Of special note is the Methodist Church. It began as a movement, and transformed itself into a highly institutionalized Church.

The second issue of immediate concern is the lack of theological leadership in the Asian church. I am not referring to theological education for which we now have a proliferation of such seminaries in Singapore, with every shade of emphasis and character. But there is an absence of theological leadership that would present an Asian-oriented gospel to Asia. In such an absence, we imbibe and propagate a Western-oriented gospel which was the product of the Age of Enlightenment in Europe but does not sit well with our Asian culture. We need to support our Trinity Theological College and enable her to add theological leadership to her current emphasis on theological education.

The road ahead for the Church in Singapore is long and exciting, and may the Lord grant us wisdom and the guidance of the Holy Spirit as we face a challenging future.

Mr Tan Gee Paw was appointed Chairman of the PUB, Singapore’s national water agency on 1 April 2001.  Mr Tan is a member of a number of government committees.  He is the Chairman of International Advisory Panel, Institute of Water Policy, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.  He is also Chairman of Nominating Committee, Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize, Singapore International Water Week.  He is the Adjunct Professor, Dean’s Office, Faculty of Engineering, National University of Singapore. 
He is currently a member of Changi Airport Group’s ECAD and a Director of Surbana Jurong Private Limited, as well as Singapore Millennium Foundation.