“Lord, what happened to all these churches? How in the world did they end up losing their passion for you?”
It was 2001, and Rev Stanley Chua was on a study trip with a team of Methodist pastors led by Rev Dr Isaac Lim, then President of the Trinity Annual Conference (TRAC), to observe and understand first-hand the work of the Methodist churches in the UK.
Rev Stanley Chua, who is now TRAC President, recounted how he felt in his President’s Address during TRAC’s 46th session held at Ang Mo Kio Methodist Church (AMKMC) and online from 22 to 25 Nov 2021. He recalled how deeply shocked and saddened he was during his church visits in the London, Guildford and Manchester areas to see that the majority of the Methodist churches were struggling to survive. After all, the UK is the home country of John Wesley, who founded the Methodist movement and set the nation on fire for God.
Doctrines, spirit and discipline
One reason, Rev Chua believes, the Methodist churches in the UK, and also in the US, are experiencing declining membership is that they have largely forgotten the prophetic words of John Wesley to hold fast to their doctrines, spirit and discipline:
“I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”1
“But what about our Singapore Methodists?” Rev Chua continued. “It appears to me that many are ignorant about the background and reasons as to why Methodist are known to be methodical. Neither can they articulate the significance of John Wesley’s “strangely warmed” experience at Aldersgate, as they have no idea of what this means in our Methodist doctrine or what significance it might hold for their own experience.”
The membership of churches under TRAC have only grown at an average of 1.68 per cent annually over the last 10 years. In 2019, 12 churches registered a decrease in baptism numbers for youths and adults; many youths and young adults have gone over to younger churches. Furthermore, there are many “missing members”, i.e. those who are registered church members but do not attend church. This will result in an extrapolated shortage of pastors in 10 years’ time, because the pastors joining the ministry are fewer than ones who are retiring.
Our Singaporean society is becoming more polarised along age lines, as the younger people in Singapore—including those in the Church—are developing more liberal views on sex and gender issues. These issues could potentially divide the church, like what has happened to the American and British Churches.
“If we remain complacent and do nothing about these challenges and looming threats, I’m afraid our Methodist Church in Singapore may not exist 100 years from now,” said Rev Chua. “I don’t claim to have a grand solution to all these challenges […] but I feel a good step forward is by going back to our basics. We do this by going back to recover our Methodist heritage and our founder’s teachings. Perhaps, by relearning our past, it can tell us what to do in the present.”
Back to basics
Rev Chua proposed that the theme for TRAC for the next three years should be: “Remember Who We Are: Rediscovering our Methodist Heritage of Spirit, Doctrine and Discipline”. To that end, he invited all delegates to recover our understanding of our Methodist history, doctrine, spirit and discipline with him, starting with a weekly two-hour study of The Burning Heart by Arthur Skevington Wood. This will run from May to June 2022, and later to reflect and draw practical lessons to implement in our churches in their respective districts with their District Superintendents from July to Aug 2022.
The three-year strategy will cover the following topics:
- 2022—Recovering our Spirit (Heritage)
Study of our historical roots
- 2023—Recovering our Doctrines
Studies in the essential doctrines of Methodism
- 2024 – Recovering our Disciplines
Studies in the disciplines of the early Methodists (prayer, searching Scriptures, the Lord’s Supper, fasting, Christian conferencing [classes and bands])
Church growth and sustainability
Over the four days of the TRAC 46th session, pastors and lay leaders discussed the issues their churches were facing, and prayed for one another’s needs. The General Conference Councils and the TRAC Boards also presented their yearly reports to the Conference members.
Notably, the Church Growth and Sustainability Task Force, which was formed to guide local churches who wished to apply for support from the TRAC Lease Renewal Fund, emphasised the need for the accountability of churches as well as good stewardship. Of the 21 TRAC churches, a third have fewer than 500 attending their weekly services. The task force recommended that the minimum optimal weekly attendance for Churches that are affected by the land lease renewals should be 500 for best sustainability.
The TRAC Building Projects Committee has been approved to administer the application of the TRAC Lease Renewal Fund. The Conference was assured that churches that apply for the TRAC Lease Renewal Fund will be judiciously and prayerfully processed by the TRAC Building Projects Committee.
Also, as we have learnt over the last two years, the digital space offers a valuable place to grow the Christian ministry, and churches should continue to explore how we can grow and more fully utilise online platforms.
A heart after God’s heart
The opening and closing services were live-streamed, with on-site participants at AMKMC limited due to COVID-19 safe management measures. During the opening service, new local preachers received their preaching licences while the retirements of Rev Dr Lorna Khoo, Rev Paul Nga and Rev Dr Peter Wong were recognised.
At the closing service, Bishop Dr Gordon Wong presided over the ordination of the following Deacons: Pastor Emanuel Goh, Pastor Jeremy Yap and Pastor Tay Li Ping. Rev Anthony Phua, Rev Collin See, Rev Jacob Lim and Rev Timothy Yong were ordained as Elders. The appointments of Pastors and District Superintendents were read out and will take effect from 1 Jan 2022.
In his sermon at the closing service, Rev Stanley Chua preached a sermon based on 1 Samuel 16:1–13 entitled “A Heart after God’s Heart”. He reminded the Annual Conference about God’s tremendous love for us, as shown in the way God displayed his love for the shepherd (and later king) David from the Bible.
“I believe with all my heart that God is still looking for a David and a people like John Wesley and the early Methodists—men and women after His own heart in our generation.
“I believe when God finds such people after His own heart, He can do it again like what he had done through John Wesley and the early Methodists,” Rev Chua said, encouraging TRAC to continue the legacy of spreading scriptural holiness, like John Wesley did during his lifetime.
“The hope of Methodism,” said Rev Chua, “lies with our generation.”
1 John Wesley, “Thoughts Upon Methodism”.
Sheri Goh is the Editor of Methodist Message. / Photos courtesy of Daniel Lie