City Harvest Church (CHC) started off as a modest Bible study group of 20 more than two decades ago.
Organised by a fresh-faced National University of Singapore graduate named Kong Hee in 1989, the church grew rapidly, converting many young and passionate individuals to the Christian faith.
At its peak in 2009, the religious group, which by then had been registered as a charity, could count 33,000 followers.
Many of them would rock the halls of the Singapore Expo where services were held, repeating the shouts of “Hallelujah!” by Kong, a proponent of the charismatic movement in Singapore.
In interviews with Yahoo! Singapore, current and former church members recounted their experiences with CHC, which has now come under the spotlight after Kong and four other key members of the ministry were charged Wednesday over the alleged misuse of church funds to finance Kong’s pop-star wife’s career.
“I think one of the factors that draw people to our church is how the services are conducted,” shared 22-year-old CHC member Michelle Weers. “The praise and worship is vibrant, the gospel is preached creatively.”
Besides holding weekly services in English, Mandarin and dialects, the CHC also caters to Indonesians, Filipinos, children and the intellectually-disabled.
About 46 per cent of the congregation was below the age of 25 years, based on statistics provided by the church in 2010. With an average age of 24, majority of the churchgoers are believed to be young professionals aged 25 to 35.
Most, if not all, of CHC’s followers are also very much attracted to the church’s charismatic founder, a man they said is “talented” and “inspiring” and who always “lives out what he preaches”.
“He's like our spiritual father,” said James Yeo, an active CHC member for the past eight years. “And as our senior pastor, he really practises what he preaches, and acted like a role model to all of us.”
Echoed a 28-year-old executive who’d be known only as Ms Ong, “I believe it is the doctrines and preaching from Pastor KH that continues to draw the crowd and retain its members despite the upheavals it has been through over the years.”
The ‘prosperity Gospel’ of CHC
Church funds grew with the rise in membership. Net assets in 2009 amounted to an estimated S$103 million.
Members who listened to Kong, 47, would open their pockets wide to contribute to the church.
The pastor would often preach what became known as the "prosperity Gospel" – one reaps what one sows, and up to a hundred-fold returns could be harvested.
In a video of one of his sermons uploaded onto YouTube in 2008, Kong stressed that one’s faith proclamation “must be backed up by our giving” and, if not, was essentially empty.
"What we give every week is the measure of the value that you place on your Lord and your saviour Jesus Christ,” he told the crowd. “We can lift up our hands to worship god, but if the tithes are still in our pockets, then due tribute has not been given. Then our praises are empty. Our words are empty. There is no value to back it up.”
CHC’s online donation page, which allows churchgoers and the public alike to give their offerings via eNets and credit cards, also states that the church believes one’s giving is “a form of worship unto the Lord”.
Not everyone, however, bought into this belief, which gradually turned into a focus of many critics. Some CHC members left as a result.
“I joined the church initially because he (Kong) preached very well and knows how to create a program that appealed to youths,” said 26-year-old Terence Lee, who was a member of the church for seven years until 2010.
Citing “a lack of transparency” in the running of the church as his reason for leaving, the assistant editor shared that he no longer agreed with the doctrine, which he now feels is based on a “shaky Bible interpretation concocted by self-styled Bible gurus”.
A former cell group leader, who declined to be named, also let on that “there was definitely pressure to donate”, especially among younger church members.
"Those who consistently gave more would be applauded; those who didn't give so much would be 'strongly encouraged' every week to 'give as much as you can',” he told Yahoo! Singapore. “We were always told that God would make rich those who donated more.”
Marketing executive Mary Lim too, felt the pressure. The 29-year-old eventually chose to leave the religious organisation three years ago when she became depressed that she couldn’t give enough.
"When we signed up, they would give us forms, GIRO forms, encouraging us to donate to CHC via GIRO to make sure our tithes were regular," she recalled.
Her friends who continue to attend CHC still donate via GIRO, she added. Three other CHC members confirmed this.
Over the years, CHC has been hounded by controversy over how it may be using members’ funds.
Nine years after its main church building – a 2,300 seater – was built in Jurong West, CHC announced in early 2010 its big plans to build a double-floor 12,000-seat auditorium in Suntec Singapore for worship services at a whopping S$310 million.
Questions over the church’s ambitious plans began to surface among the public and the press. For one, should religious organisations, registered as charities, be allowed to make investments using what are essentially donor funds?
In March 2010, the Commissioner of Charities (COC) and Commercial Affairs Department came knocking on CHC’s door after receiving complaints alleging the misuse of the church’s funds.
Even then, the megachurch managed to secure S$22.9 million last November in pledges towards a building fund that will pay for the church’s S$310 million investment in Suntec Singapore, said a 2011 Straits Times report.
This, despite a falling membership amid police investigation for possible abuse of funds.
Numbers dwindled to an estimated 23,000 in 2010, down from 33,000 a year before.
A two-year investigation ended last Wednesday with Kong and four other senior CHC members charged for allegedly misappropriating about S$24 million from CHC's building funds for unauthorised use, among other charges.
Despite the put-downs, many CHC members whom Yahoo! Singapore spoke to continued to show unwavering support for the church and their pastor.
“The church does preach about prosperity, but that is only one aspect of the gospel,” shared Weers, who’s been a member for six years. “Teachings are done on the full gospel.”
The 22-year-old SIM undergraduate also added that “testimonies shared are not always on financial blessings”, contrary to what many have alleged.
Mdm Lim, a 50-year-old homemaker, was another who shared the same sentiment and believed wholeheartedly in “God’s principle of Sowing and Reaping”.
“Whatever seed we sow, we will reap the harvest of its kind – when we sow love, we reap love; when we sow money, we will be blessed financially,” she said.
“But it’s more than that,” Lim was quick to add. “Pastor Kong has preached on love, sacrifice and many areas, it’s not just about money.”
But the churchgoer of two years, who contributes about S$500 to the CHC every month, shared that she understood where detractors were coming from, especially since “money’s a sensitive issue”.
“But my stand is that people give because they want to give to the Lord. And we know that the church will do good works from whatever we’ve contributed.”
While some churchgoers such as Lim acknowledged “the wrong Pastor Kong has done”, many maintained that their leaders are innocent and voiced confidence in their integrity.
Said one from the latter group, James Yeo, “I believe that no individual personally benefited from this, no one pocketed any money, and there was no embezzlement whatsoever.”
Referring to the controversial project at the heart of the probe, the 21-year-old added, “Crossover is not a project of five individuals, it is a project of the whole church. Members gave willingly and with great support as to what Sun (Kong's wife) is doing.”