“Why are people so upset at the emerging church?”, Tim Wong asked me last night over a mango juice at a Balinese party.
We didn’t have time to plummet the jelloed depths of EC criticism, although I do enjoy the subject. But we did discuss cafe churches and how they have evolved from cheesy church-basement services in the 80’s [GUILTY AS CHARGED] to state-of-the-art, Über-Funky couch-clad temples of Java and Bible that they have now become. Even here in Asia. Particularly in Asia, where cafe churches are sometimes accompanied by coffee roasteries, coffee bean farming, and associated businesses.
The emerging church in Asia has been an inspiration to me for a long time. I have been greatly sharpened by the holistic Christian ashrams in India, the alternative Christian house-parties in Japan, the micro-business based youth churches in China, and the social-enterprise based churches coming out of Indonesia’s punk scene that I met a decade ago. And of course the cafe churches which are found all over Asia.
But Singapore has escaped my attention. I haven’t been to SIngapore for 2 decades and a lot has changed since the cell-church movement here was commanding attention in the 90’s.
“Our vision is to see as many missional cafes as there Starbucks outlets (17,000 and counting) across South East Asia and beyond, in the next 30 years.” Tim Wong
Tim is a banker in Singapore but his real heart is to impact his city’s poor and disciple them in the way of Jesus in environments where people without Christian backgrounds can feel comfortable. For Tim and his friends, this means missional cafes with churches that meet inside them. It’s strategic, yes, but its also economical and sustainable. And this is what I love about the Asian mentality. There is little wastage. Everything has to make sense financially.
“It costs $20 million to buy land and build a church in Singapore. For that much money, we could buy 100 coffee shops.” Tim Wong
Tim and his friends are already launching missional cafe communities in Japan and Bali as well as Singapore. Their latest cafe just opened in a Singapore’s Chinatown. Which is hilarious because a 1939 Boris Karloff movie is entitled “Mr. Wong in Chinatown.”
Tim’s father is excited about this new direction and these fresh expressions of church. Canon Dr James Wong has been a strategic thinker in church planting for decades. A speaker at the original Lausanne Congress in 1974, co-author of Growing Churches Singapore Style: Ministry in an Urban Context [mandatory reading for me as a Fuller SWM student], founding Vicar of the Chapel of the Resurrection which is described as “one of Singapore’s most productive churches, Canon James Wong is a pioneer in Singapore’s church planting scene, having planted home-fellowships in the early 70’s, long before John Travolta thrust his pelvis into his first hussle dance step.
Canon Dr James Wong has been there before. He is very proud of his son. And like most other Asians, he sees the economic benefits of organic churches:
Less capital cost and funding is required to get new churches started. It also allows for more flexibility and mobility of the centers of witness and worship. The house-churches can always be located where people are found to be most responsive.” James Wong [Evangelism in High-Rise Housing Apartment Buildings, Lasuanne papers, PDF]
It is this acute sense of economy and sustainability that I appreciate from young church planters in Asia. They are not starting cash-sucking charity cases but are launching financially sustainable models of church that are inviting, non-threatening, participatory, and, even though it may be crude to say it, church expressions that pay the rent. And, if you are a coffee-geek who knows your Sumatran from your Sulawesi, you also get a pretty decent drop.
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