If you have been following the news and social media in Singapore for the past week, you would have know by now about the alleged misappropriation of over S$50 million dollars of church funds by five Executive Members of City Harvest Church.
You can imagine the aftermath.
The five were arrested and brought in for questioning by the Commercial Affairs Department (CAD) on Tuesday morning (1). The arrests are the result of a two-year investigation launched by both the CAD and the Commissioner of Charities (COC) into the church’s financial irregularities (2).
Senior Pastor and CHC founder Kong Hee, along with the other four, have been charged in court on Wednesday for alleged misuse of church funds and criminal breach of trust. The five were charged for misappropriating S$23 million dollars to fund pop singer Sun Ho’s secular music career in the United States (3). Sun Ho is the wife of Kong Hee and was formerly the music director at CHC before stepping down in 2002 to focus on her music career. She has not been arrested or charged (4).
To put this into perspective, Alvin, blogger of Alvinology, gives a few examples of what you can do with S$23 million dollars (5).
But that’s not all. When the charges were read out in court, it was claimed that a further S$26.6 million dollars was allegedly misappropriated to cover up the initial S$23 million dollars, bringing the total value of misappropriated church funds to over S$50 million dollars (6).
The Singapore media, along with the public, has been following the case with breathless anticipation. Each time a new development in the case surfaces, the media pounces and devour the scraps before regurgitating it to the enraged public.
It does not helps that the church has always been a polarizing figure within Singaporean society. With an attendance of 22,049 church members (7), the non-denominational and charismatic mega-church is the largest Christian congregation in Singapore (8). Furthermore, the church has constantly been under the glare of the media’s spotlight, and usually for less-than-fantastic reasons. The church made headlines when Sun was criticized for her skimpy outfits that were deemed inappropriate (9), and again when the COC received alleged complaints back in 2010 that the church was misusing its funds to launch Sun’s music career (10). This was also the proverbial pebble that started the avalanche.
Within the public, non-Christians and Christians from other churches were highly critical of the church’s culture where members are greatly encouraged (some say coerced) to donate and contribute financial resources to the church funds. It was also rumored that wealthy members had to tithe 10% of their income to the church.
City Harvest members, on the other hand, pointed out that no members were coerced into tithing and that the funds were necessary as the church runs and operates numerous community and social outreach programs, including evangelical programs to educate and train evangelists and to reach out to non-Christians.
Ironically, one such “evangelical program”, the Crossover Project, is at the centre of this case. I will explain later why I have doubts about the Crossover Project.
Following the intense media scrutiny and public outcry, the resulting fallout has split the Singapore public into two broad camps: for the church and against the church. When it comes to alleged misuse of funds by a charitable organization, and a religious one to boot, there is no fence sitting. Either you rally to the church and its leaders, or you stand aside and castigate them for their greed.
Judging from the tone and atmosphere of Singapore’s social media and mainstream media, to fence sit is equivalent to supporting the church.
The social media in Singapore has been awash with numerous tweets, blog posts and even Facebook notes commenting on the case and taking potshots at City Harvest members, who in turn stood their ground. The entire time when I was following the case, I thought: “No way are Kong Hee and Sun Ho going to escape this unscathed.” But then, as days passed, and the more I thought about it, the case raised more questions than answers. Why was the public backlash so severe? What was it that caused both the media and the public to react with such ferocity? Was it really necessary to arrest the five? Finally, there’s the question of the actions of Kong Hee and the other four. What drove them to do it?
My housemate asked why I found the City Harvest case so interesting when she saw my whiteboard scribbled with all the possible connections relating to the case. It is because beneath the cut-and-dry case of church leaders abusing their powers, there is a complex host of other factors. And these are the factors that I’m trying to explore here.
In Part 1, I will be exploring in detail City Harvest’s Cultural Mandate. According to City Harvest, it is their attempt to reach crossover to the secular world and to reach out to non-Christians through secular entertainment. In short, City Harvest is bringing the church to the “un-church”. The Crossover Project is the result of City Harvest’s Cultural Mandate.
The Crossover Project: CHC’s Cultural Mandate
To understand the current case, we will need to go back to the Crossover Project. What is the Crossover Project? For something so central to the case, it is surprisingly hard to get information on the Crossover Project. Most of the news website only devote a paragraph to the Crossover Project. Even the press release by the COC only devote three sentences to it.
I did some Googling and managed to get a detailed article on the Project from a website called City News (11). Although I cannot verify it, I suspect that it is either owned by or affiliated to City Harvest. Still, the web article provided a lot of interesting insights to why Kong Hee and Sun set up the Crossover Project. From here onwards, I will be focusing on the article by City News. According to the article:
The Crossover Project was an extension of CHC’s mandate to build a church without walls—to bring the Gospel to the unchurched across society, and this included the world of entertainment.
One thing I’m curious about is the sentence about building a church without walls. According to Christian theology, the church consist of the congregation and makes up the body of Christ. The church does not refer to a building. So technically, a church is already without walls. But it seems that City Harvest assumes that a church is a building. I might just be nitpicking here.
Anyway, this was corroborated by the COC’s press release (their mere three sentences tribute):
1. In 2002, the Charity’s founders, Kong Hee and Ho Yeow Sun (“Sun Ho”),
embarked on a “Crossover Project” [“the Project”], with the purported intention to use
Sun Ho’s secular music to connect with people and reach out to non-Christians.
Continuing from the article, the seeds of the Crossover Project were planted in 1999 when Kong Hee was ministering at the Bread of Life Church in Taiwan and Sun was there to lead the praise and worship. According to the article:
… to their surprise, many young people, most of them un-churched, came to the church night after night, not to listen to the preaching but to watch Sun leading praise and worship. They loved her colored hair, her pop culture look, and they loved the pop songs she sang in between the worship songs.
It was then that they realized that pop music could be a powerful bridge to communicate the love of God to the youth. What if they could repackage the message of faith, hope and love of Jesus Christ and bring it into the schools, the boardrooms and the bedrooms of the unchurched? At that time, it was unheard of for those in the Christian world to share the Gospel through the secular entertainment platform.
What I found surprising is the remark about Christians not attempting to share the Gospel through secular entertainment. I have to admit that I don’t know much about the history of Contemporary Christian Music and it is hard to search for credible sources on the Internet. But CCM was a thriving music industry in the United States by the late 1980s and early 1990s, Christian music acts such as Amy Grant and dc talk were crossing over to mainstream popularity. Perhaps Kong Hee and Sun were attempting to spread the Gospel through secular entertainment within Asia?
Reading through the article, that was exactly Kong Hee and Sun’s intentions:
In 2002, Sun recorded her first Chinese pop album, Sun With Love. She held her first pop concert in the biggest indoor arena in downtown Taipei, the National Taipei Sports Complex. The team worked with a small Taipei church, New Life Church, which had about 200 members then. “Nobody was sure if anybody was even going to turn up,” said Kong Hee. On the first night, the 4,200-seater stadium was jam-packed, with thousands more watching on big screen projectors outside. It was estimated that 80 percent of the audience had never been to church.
I’m suspicious of the figure 80%. How did they know that 80% of the audience had never been to church? Did they ask the audience to raise their hands? Perhaps they took a survey before and after the concert? One cannot know. But this is not the point. The article continues with Sun’s musical performances across Taiwan:
Sun performed in various other cities, including Taoyuan, Hualien and Tainan—it was here that one of CHC’s affiliate churches, Rhema Harvest Church was birthed. In Kaohsiung, on the eve of a concert, a typhoon was raging, but 700 people still came, and 560 responded to the altar call. In the small town of Jia Yi, Sun performed at a high school to about 1,100 students. One of the students, a teenage girl named Christina Yu, testified of the miraculous work of deliverance from depression God did in her heart as she listened to Sun sing.
Today, Yu pastors 400 members at New Life Church, among whom are three pop stars who flew in for a special performance during the service— Chen Weiquan, Wing Luo and Huang Mei Zhen. It was a pleasant surprise for the congregation, as they listened to the trio cover some of Sun’s songs in addition to their own hits.
As for that little church, New Life Church, which helped put together the very first concert, it experienced a great revival too. From 30 people, the congregation grew to 1,250 in three years, and today, counts Universal music producer Chen Ailing, Liu Geng Hong, and Faye Chan and Real Huang from F.I.R among its members. Each is a testament to the seeds of the Cultural Mandate Ho’s concerts had planted. To date, Taiwan’s Christian population has more than doubled, from a mere three percent to 10 percent in 10 years.
That last sentence seems to imply that City Harvest and its affiliates were solely responsible in the increase of Christian population in Taiwan due to the success of the Crossover Project. Also, notice the mention of Taiwanese music celebrities. I will be coming back to that later. Nevertheless, Sun’s popularity continues to soar:
From Taiwan, Sun flew to Hong Kong and performed at the Queen Elizabeth Stadium to 10,500 people over three nights, and yet again, thousands gave their hearts to Jesus. One of the most dramatic salvation stories belongs to Teddy, the notorious leader of a gang and owner one of the largest nightclubs in the city. He also had dealings in illegal gambling, drug trafficking and prostitution. Kong recalled that Teddy’s parang-wielding henchmen were all waiting outside, ready to pounce in to protect their boss. But at the end, Teddy came forward and gave his heart to Jesus Christ.
Sun also performed in Malaysia, including Sibu and Kuching. Out of her performances there, Kuching Harvest Church was born. In Kuala Lumpur, her concerts in 2003 sparked a revival in City Harvest Church Kuala Lumpur. Today, CHCKL is one of the fastest-growing and most vibrant churches in Malaysia.
In Indonesia, in the cities of Jakarta, Makasar, Medan, the response was equally tremendous—people actually broke down the doors and pushed their way into the concerts. Even the security guards who were sent to protect the team responded to the altar call themselves.
Back in Singapore, Sun performed 14 times over one weekend at the church’s premises at Jurong West. Over two days, 30,700 people came, and 10,140 salvation decisions were recorded. It was the second highest salvation decision in Singapore church history, the highest being a rally at the National Stadium in 1978 when evangelist Billy Graham gave an altar call.
Kong Hee and Sun have managed to expand the City Harvest’s ministry and its congregation through secular entertainment across Taiwan, Malaysia and Indonesia. So far, the Crossover Project is a huge success in Asia.
However, one thing that confuses me is the timeline. According to the COC’s press release, and other mainstream media reports, the Project officially started in 2002. Yet, from the article, it seems that the Project officially started in late 1999 or early 2000. Perhaps Sun decided to soft launch her music career before Kong Hee and she officially launched the Project in 2002. Why do I assume this? It’s because of these two paragraphs:
Over the next few years [emphasis my own], Sun released four more Chinese albums. Ironically, it was the most criticized song on the Sun*day album, “Miss Catastrophe”, that caught the attention of the former general manager of MTV in the US. This paved the way for Sun to enter the American market. In 2003, she became the first Asian pop icon to be invited to sing at the Hollywood Film Festival. Subsequently, she was also the first Chinese singer to be invited to the 46th Annual Grammy Awards in 2004 as well as the MTV Europe Awards in 2007.
Her debut American single, “Where Did Love Go”, produced by David Foster and Peter Rafelson, was the number one breakout hit on the Christmas week in 2003—“God’s Christmas gift for us,” said Kong. After her first Billboard dance chart number one hit “One With You”, Sun went on to score another four number ones on the Billboard dance chart, the last of which was 2009’s “Fancy Free”.
So did the Crossover Project officially started in 1999/2000 or in 2002? Another thing to note is that after all the detailed success of the Crossover Project in Asia, this article is surprisingly brief on Sun’s sojourn in the U.S. All you get about the results of the Crossover Project in the U.S. is from that two paragraphs above.
Michelle, blogger of Syntaxfree, did a fantastic rundown on Sun’s music in the U.S (12). To be honest, it is less than stellar. One music video that went viral is “China Wine”. You can read more of Michelle’s blog post in the appendix.
Personally, I think that Sun’s attempt to break into the American market was a very, very bad move. In 2002-4, bands such as P.O.D, Switchfoot, and Relient K were making very successful crossovers to mainstream popularity. Furthermore, the U.S. market is saturated with their own talents. And step into any music store in Singapore. You’ll find that the majority of Western popular culture music are from U.S. singers. All in all, Sun’s success in the U.S. was less spectacular than in Asia.
Near the end of the article, it stated that:
The three-hour-long service presented the full story of the Crossover Project to many in the congregation, many of whom had not previously understood its scale, scope and perhaps even its legitimacy as God’s assignment, but had chosen to trust in the leadership of the church.
This is the main contention I have with the Crossover Project. From the way the article described the Crossover Project, it seems to be mainly about Sun Ho’s music career. Yes, the Project helped to kick-start CHC’s 98 humanitarian projects, started a youth social enterprise and dance school named “O School” in Singapore, and increased CHC’s congregational size from 10,300 to more than 18,000. But all these were presented as side effects of the Crossover Project. The question is, what did the Crossover Project become after all these years? At what point did it devolved into a series of side projects that made the Project simply too unwieldy? Furthermore, does it means that City Harvest members were donating to the Crossover Project without really knowing what it actually was? Perhaps the church members knew the basic of the Crossover Project: using Sun’s secular music career to attract non-Christians, but then they did not know about the numerous side projects that it started.
However, I commend the church’s leaders for presenting all the information to their congregation. But for a project that was meant to attract the “un-church”, you would be hard-pressed to find any actual information on the Internet or City Harvest’s website. I mean, the Crossover Project enjoyed spectacular successes across Asia (we’ll leave America out), and yet they are not proclaiming their success to the “un-church”? For a church that is so involved in social media, I find that odd. Even their website has no official page for the Crossover Project. And the statement from City Harvest on 28th June is quite vague about the Project:
The church states that the Crossover Project is not about one person’s singing career; it is a mission that is fundamental to the congregation of CHC. The Crossover Project is an outreach that uses Sun Ho’s singing and music to engage people and places that would never otherwise hear the Gospel. As a result of the Crossover Project, many churches have grown worldwide and the faith of many has been strengthened. Impact has been made on the needy in Haiti, disaster victims in China, the depressed and suicidal in Taiwan, and the sick children in Honduras, among others.
With both media and public hounding them, you would think they would have provided more concrete details about the Project.
But now that’s all said and done, what do I really think about the Crossover Project? Before I continue, I have to say that the following conjectures are based on what I’ve read from the article above, and from information collected from news website. Like I said, there is not much information on the Crossover Project itself.
First, I think that Kong and Sun started off with good intentions. They wanted to attracted more people to Christ through music. I know Hillsong in Australia (another mega-church) have a separate music project to record and promote their music. Likewise, I think that was the original purpose of the Crossover Project. That’s why I don’t consider the Project as a true evangelical outreach. It was first and foremost, a music project for City Harvest. After all, Sun was formerly the music director at the church.
The problem was that I feel both Kong and Sun got sidetracked after all the side projects started popping up and instead of trying to separate the side projects from the Crossover Project, they combined it with the main project, thus making it too unwieldy.
Also, the early successes of the Crossover Project led to a hubris. As I stated earlier, the New Life Church in Taiwan started to include many Taiwanese celebrities in its congregation, and this probably led to overweening ambitions on Kong and Sun’s part. An ambition that led them to the current situation.
The second and the main problem was the music itself. When you watch Sun’s U.S. music videos later, ask yourself, at what point did you think Sun was actually trying to attract non-Christians? My verdict: at no point.
The issue of using secular entertainment to promote Christians values is not a new topic. You have Christian rap, Christian hip-hop, Christian death metal (seriously), Christian punk, Christian rock and many other Christian genres. But at a certain point, when a certain artist or band crossover to mainstream popularity, they are faced with a certain dilemma: should they stop promoting Christian values and be accused by Christians of being a sell-out or should they promote Christian values and in doing so, lose their mainstream popularity?
Most try to straddle the thin line by saying that they are open with their Christian faith, but that their music will only focus on their artistic talents. And I think that’s what Sun tried to do and failed.
I don’t think the Singaporean media and public are angry with her skimpy clothes or her music. I mean we had Singaporean actress running down Orchard Road in bikinis on national TV (13) and Singaporean youth are constantly listening to pop culture music. What they are angry about is the mixing of church funds with Sun’s career. While professional Christian bands and artists are funded by record labels, Sun’s music is ultimately funded by the Crossover Project which depends on church funds. There are also claims that church members have to buy Sun’s music CDs in order to support her career (14), and that is probably what drove the proverbial stake into the heart of the issue: the line between Sun’s professional career and City Harvest’s involvement was starting to blur.
As the aphorism goes: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
In Part 2, I will focus on the reactions of Singapore’s mainstream and social media.
Appendix (where I stole my sources from)
1. The Strait Times Breaking News: “City Harvest church founder Kong Hee and 4 others arrested”
3. Bloomberg News: “Singapore Pastor Arrested for Funds for Wife’s Pop Career”
4. Southeast Asia Real Time – Wall Street Journal: “Founder of Singapore’s Biggest Church in Hot Water”
5. Alvinology: “A Sense of Proportion: What S$23 Million Can Do…”
6. The Straits Times Big Story: “City Harvest case: Allegedly total of $50m misused”
7. City Harvest Church: “Church Stats Attendance”
8. Southeast Asia Real Time – Wall Street Journal: “Founder of Singapore’s Biggest Church in Hot Water”
9. Scene Asia – Wall Street Journal: “Pop-Star Wife of City Harvest Church Founder in the Spotlight — for the Wrong Reasons”
10. Commissioner of Charities’ Press Statement
11. City News: “City Harvest Church: 10 Years Of The Crossover Project”
13. Wikipedia: “The Champion (TV series)”
14. Southeast Asia Real Time: “Wife of City Harvest Founder in the Spotlight”