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Megachurches and their extravagance: How much is too much?

by | 7 December 2017, 6:07 PM

A few months ago, my friend told me he wanted to change Church. One of the reasons he gave was because he disagreed with how the Church was spending money.

“Why do we spend so much on building Church facilities and running extravagant programmes when we could use all that money to benefit the poor instead?”

Surprised by his question, I quickly replied, “I think it adds to the experience. A good atmosphere leaves a good impression on people, especially for those who are visiting the Church for the first time.”

But he was unconvinced, and so was I. My own reply sounded like a first world justification in contrast to his altruistic concerns.  Providing for the needy seemed like the “better”, and perhaps “correct” answer. 

Hillsong is one of the most well-known megachurches internationally. Hailed by the media as a “successful global brand”, it ushers in hundreds of thousands of service attendees worldwide every weekend, regularly produces chart-topping albums and conducts sellout conferences. A recent article also states that Hillsong has a $100 million annual revenue. Tax free to boot!

With a huge wealth of funds on hand, it is no wonder the public and media are highly interested in how Hillsong spends their money.

Just last month, I attended my very first Hillsong Conference – the Hillsong Worship and Creative Conference. As I entered the Baulkham Hills campus – where Hillsong originally started out – I noticed a beautiful outdoor market right outside the main conference hall and let out a soft “wow”. Later on, our hosts introduced it as “The Marketplace”, where people could hang out after the conference for late night fellowship – food, live band and a barber included.

The auditorium also had me floored. There was a translucent fabric draping over the stage, acting as both a curtain and a screen. A looped video of a rainforest was projected onto it. After a while, I noticed there were crew members walking on the steel-framed platform above the auditorium scattering leaves at random intervals for a full immersive experience.

A performance during the Hillsong Worship and Creative Conference. (Photo courtesy of Hillsong Church)

And if that wasn’t crazy enough, the stage lighting was incredibly stunning during praise and worship. The visual effects came together nicely and added to the whole experience.

There were theatrics involved in most of the sermons preached – be it bringing a dog up on stage, wearing an astronaut suit or displaying treasure boxes to drive home a point. The crowd was constantly entertained; it was nothing short of amazing.

One of their designers mentioned in a co-lab session: “Just because it’s Christian, doesn’t mean it should be second best.”

They definitely weren’t kidding about that.

In 2 Samuel 7:1-2, the Bible records King David’s decision to build a temple for God. To this point, following the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, God’s presence was resting in the ark of God – where the tablets holding the Ten Commandments were stored. The ark was kept in the Tabernacle, a huge tent that could be put up and taken down easily as the Israelites moved towards the Promised Land.

“Here I am, living in a house of cedar, while the ark of God remains in a tent.” (2 Samuel 7:1-2)

At this point of his declaration, King David had just reclaimed possession of the ark, as it had been stolen by enemies. He placed it back in a tent, but decided it wasn’t reflective of his love and reverence for God. This temple, he decided, “must be exceedingly magnificent, famous and glorious throughout all countries” (1 Chronicles 22:5).

And so King David set aside materials of gold, silver and precious stones, assigning his son, Solomon, to build the House of God. The Bible states that the Temple was so grand, its inner sanctuary was completely covered in gold.

Talk about extravagance.

In a response to the grand gesture, God reminded his people that He doesn’t need a temple – or extravagance – but He saw King David’s heart and accepted his offering as a form of worship. His only condition was that the nation be faithful to Him (2 Samuel 7:5-7, 1 Kings 9:3-9).

I understand my friend’s concern. It doesn’t seem right for Churches to look “expensive” and “extravagant”, because stewardship of money is important. But I think the more important question is: How does this align with God’s will?

In Luke 16:9, Jesus said, “I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”

The Bible is clear that good stewardship is not about the amount we spend or save, but how that amount will impact a person’s eternity. At the end of the day, you can’t bring any money to heaven – you bring souls. Money is simply a tool, a resource, to reach that goal.

Granted, giving to the needy is one of the most direct ways of reaching out to people, but this form of giving isn’t the only way of showing Christ to the world.

I remember feeling moved and inspired as I sat through the 3-day Hillsong conference, and experienced for myself the hearts behind the extravaganza. Every single “performance” – be it the songs, stories or sermons – was geared to one obvious direction: To reveal Christ through beauty and excellence.

If spending some money brings people one step closer to Christ, it’s all worth it.

In their own words, the team was “gathering all artisans to explore our calling, respond in worship and create with beauty, to fulfil Jesus’ Great Commission.” The Great Commission to make disciples of all nations.

In her sermon, Cass Langton, Creative Director of Hillsong Church, expressed it like this: “The Church needs artists to help the world see clearly what we feel vaguely”.

You see, the performances you see in Churches aren’t just a show – they’re worship. They’re outreach.

It’s understandable why people might look at the glitz and glamour of megachurches and be skeptical of the unconventional form of impacting someone’s life. But as Paul said “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:22).

If improving facilities can attract people to Church, if performing a play can communicate the Gospel more effectively, if spending some money brings people one step closer to Christ, it’s all worth it.

After all, people are always worth it.

/ siqi@thir.st

Siqi loves to eat. Except for peas, egg yolk, cucumbers, livers, intestines. Among others. She also happens to be a writer.

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What does wise financial spending look like?

by | 2 November 2017, 5:05 PM

I found myself first thinking about this issue when I was running late for work. I’d been trying in vain to book a GrabHitch – there had been a promo code which would have halved my ride fare.

Although I considered other options, including ride variations on both Grab and Uber, it wouldn’t have been financially prudent to take a ride at those prices – I couldn’t bear to spend the $15, with prices jacked up due to peak-hour traffic. I ended up trudging to the bus stop, knowing I would be late – nonetheless, in my mind, financial prudence took priority over punctuality that day.

Another time, I was having lunch with friends. While I knew my budget constraints, I agreed to the lunch gathering, telling myself that fellowship with community would take precedence. Yet, I was acutely aware of my financial circumstances – and my relative financial lack in contrast to my lunch buddies.

AN EYE ON OUR EXPENDITURE

Since I started my internship, I don’t earn as much as I used to, as per a full-time job. My allowance, while enough for daily living, does not provide much extra for extravagant spending – this allowance goes to my transport expenditure, phone bills, and other ad-hoc necessities like dental appointments.

While I get other paid freelance opportunities on occasion, internship allowance remains my main consistent source of finances for this season of life.

One could argue that I have the option of borrowing money or having my parents give me a small allowance in this time as a temporary measure. While I doubt my parents would object to this, I do. I believe I have the ability to manage my own finances, however much or little it might be. I treasure my financial independence!

Despite the benefits of financial security, wealth cannot provide ultimate security – those who trust in their riches will fall.

This season of my life has made me more concerned about my finances than I used to be, and I am sometimes discouraged when I find myself asking for subsidies – such as for the costs of a young adults’ Bible retreat. Part of me feels a certain shame, as though I shouldn’t be taking such “handouts”.

Yet, the Bible provides wisdom on the issue of money management, to my relief. King Solomon acknowledges in Proverbs 10:15, the harmful effects of poverty – hence, wealth provides protection against financial difficulty.

However, Proverbs also warns that despite the benefits of financial security, wealth cannot provide ultimate security – those who trust in their riches will fall (Proverbs 11:28).

MORE THAN FINANCIAL FREEDOM

Though financial provision holds practical importance for daily living, many other virtues are of higher value than the pursuit of financial wealth.

For instance, King Solomon observes that the pursuit of wisdom is more valuable than precious material riches (Proverbs 8:10, 11), because it brings enduring wealth and righteousness (Proverbs 8:18) – wisdom, and the fruit it brings, represents favour from the Lord (Proverbs 8:35).

This is perhaps why Agur, the son of Jakeh, prays in Proverbs 30 that God would feed him with “the food that is needful”, in order that he may be given “neither poverty nor riches”.

He makes these requests in acknowledgement that in poverty he might steal and thus profane the name of God. On the contrary, he recognises that wealth might lead him to be self-sufficient and deny his need for God (Proverbs 30:8, 9).

Hence, while wealth is more desirable in meeting practical needs, it is not a matter of paramount importance – fearing God and obeying Him, however, is.

WE GIVE BECAUSE HE FIRST GAVE

In response to our fear of Him, we obey God by stewarding our finances (1 Timothy 6:7) in a Gospel-centred manner, by using our finances for the extension of His kingdom (Matthew 6:19, 20).

Consequently, we give of our finances to support the needs of Gospel workers – this is mentioned in 1 Corinthians 9:14, where the Lord has ordered that Gospel workers should be supported by those who benefit from their ministry.

1 Timothy 5 affirms this, as it calls the church to provide financially (1 Timothy 5:18) for their elders as a form of showing honour.

Hence, we give generously (1 Timothy 6:18) as we are able – in 2 Corinthians, Paul appealed to the Corinthians to contribute financially to help the poor. However, this was not at the expense of being burdened – instead, it was an appeal to the church to do their fair share of giving in order to provide for those in need (2 Corinthians 8:13, 14).

The greatest generosity we can show is to share with others the gift of the salvation, knowing that any material wealth we acquire is futile for those who face spiritual death.

While the New Testament does not tell us the proportion of our finances to give to Gospel work, this is an amount that we have decided in our hearts to give, cheerfully and without compulsion (2 Corinthians 9:7).

In the midst of giving towards Gospel work, however, we also recognise the basis for which we are able to be cheerful and generous givers – God has already provided all we need in giving us His only Son (Romans 8:32).

Yet, in light of this, we ought to recognise that the greatest generosity we can show is to share with others the gift of the Good News of salvation, knowing that any material wealth we acquire is futile for those who face spiritual death and separation from God (Matthew 16:26).

Since God has held no good thing back from us by giving us His only Son, should we not then likewise be generous in sharing with others His gift to us?

/ eudora@thir.st

Eudora found herself writing on public platforms by chance. Apart from writing, she likes many random things, including spoken word poetry, adult colouring books, tea, stationery and fresh, clean laundry.

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When you work freelance, you either grow in fear or faith

by Melody Elizabeth Goh | 2 October 2017, 10:31 AM

Maybe the thought of working freelance appeals to some of you. No constraints, no fixed hours. Not me though – given a choice, I’d rather be tied down to full-time commitment. But my life hasn’t panned out that way.

I’ve been searching for a full-time job since I graduated from Bible school last April. I had been praying, sending out my resume and going for interviews. None worked out; I didn’t last more than 2 weeks in any position as I had to either quit because the job scopes were too overwhelming or because I had things that needed to be settled.

I was desperate, because I was 28. At this age, I thought I ought to already have a full-time job and a stable income, but here I was still depending on my parents for financial support. I felt like my world was crumbling on me, and I dove deeper into depression as self-condemnation sucked me into a bottomless pit of self-pity.

It was a tough season for me. I began to doubt the goodness of God.

In my desperation, I asked a friend who was always posting freelance jobs on Facebook if she had an opening. She got me a freelance position as an assistant media trainer in photography. This increased my exposure to photography and I learnt so much just from assisting the lead trainer.

I loved the job because I knew I wanted to work in the media industry. But the downside was that I was earning peanuts. My company was not doing very well and their projects were drying up as their last sales staff had left the company.

I was worried. For freelancers like me, who live from hand to mouth, regular projects are very important. Sure enough, my project ended and I had no more assignments.

It was another period of unemployment for me. I had no pending interviews and no openings at that time.

I went back to wrestling with God. Did He really want me to live with the vagaries and uncertainty of the freelance life?

One night I had a dream. In my dream, God spoke to me and told me to hang in there for another 2 weeks. I did not know what that meant but I trusted God.

Sure enough, 2 weeks later I was scheduled to have 4 interviews in a week, 3 of which were freelance jobs and 1 of which was a full-time job.

When I had reached the venue for the interview for the full-time position, the interviewer told me she’d forgotten about our interview and she had stepped out of the office. Very literally, a closed door.

I went back to wrestling with God. Did He really want me to live with the vagaries and uncertainty of the freelance life? But God gently reminded me that we are in this world not to be stable and comfortable, but to have faith and to learn to depend on Him.

This was driven home by a prayer someone prayed over me soon after. Part of the prayer went: “Thank you, God, for opening so many doors of opportunities for Melody, and thank you for the flexibility in timing that allows her to meet people and to reach out to the lost souls and play a role in revival.”

That prayer opened my eyes. That was the answer I was searching for. Working freelance gave me the flexibility I was looking for. God knew what was suitable for me even better than I thought I did.

I’ve seen and experienced how God assured me and how He’s made a way for me. I need to trust that He will keep doing so.

I’m still on the journey of trusting God to provide projects for me. I know it will be a constant journey of having the faith that God will provide every school term. For example, my work schedule is slowing down as it’s the examinations period, and it will be the school holidays soon, which could mean I may be out of work till the new academic year begins.

But even so, I have at least one class almost every weekday to help keep food on my table.

I’ve seen and experienced how God assured me and how He’s made a way for me. I need to trust that He will keep doing so.

Has it been easy? No. It’s been a season of trials and testing. But importantly, it’s been a season that has forced me to fix my eyes on God. He never fails and I know He has a perfect plan for me – even if my human mind cannot see how that might pan out.

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Weighing the cost of an iPhone X

by | 14 September 2017, 5:08 PM

I remember my first.

It didn’t resemble a brick. Instead, it was yellow and black, like a bumblebee; the first mobile phone I remember ever seeing was an Ericsson. This was in 1997.

My mum’s new gadget – it wasn’t smart, but by no means was it dumb – was all the rage in my family. Everyone wanted to try the flip cover and type on the number pad. So satisfyingly analogue.

I got my first mobile phone (I think it was a Nokia 6100) a few years later. It didn’t matter that I didn’t have anyone else other than my parents to send text messages to – I had my own phone and I could do this:

That was the era of dial-up internet access, GPRS and ASCII christmas trees (before emojis 🎄).

In 2007, Steve Jobs gave us the first iPhone – the original iPhone. I got my first iPhone the following year, but I didn’t have a 3G phone plan, so it was practically useless without a WiFi connection.

I brought my new gadget everywhere anyway – because that’s what you do when you had an iPhone.

It was as much a status symbol as it is today. And it has always been priced as a premium product – the 32GB version of the iPhone 4 saw the crossing of the thousand-dollar threshold in Singapore.

Fast forward a decade, and the most expensive iPhone ever was launched on Tuesday (September 13).

But consumers aren’t so sure about jumping straight in this time round, because the iPhone X – Apple’s top-of-the-line 10th-anniversary iPhone – sells upwards of S$1,648 (without a phone contract!) in Singapore.

William Jevons, an English economist, wrote in 1871 that the value of a product depends on how much a person desired it. Consumers create value, not the producer.

The iPhone is a premium product and its value was never intended to be a function of the cost of the product.

How much you pay is a measure of what you truly value.

MY PALACE VS HIS TEMPLE

Maybe you, like me, sometimes struggle when it comes to holding back on spending in this age of conspicuous consumption.

Think about our readiness to spend on good things for ourselves, and compare that to our desire to spend on God. Giving to build His church, sowing into His kingdom, tithing.

There’s an equivalent comparison in the Bible. King Solomon built a splendorous temple for God (1 Kings 6:2), according to the specifications that God had given Him. You’d think that would be a good thing, right?

But the very next chapter (1 Kings 7:1-2) details the palace he built for himself. It took 13 years to complete, almost double the 7 years it took to build the temple.

According to the dimensions stated, the temple was 36,000 cubic cubits large (a cubit was a measurement based on the length of a forearm). But Solomon’s own palace measured 150,000 cubic cubits – more than four times larger than the temple he had built for God.

What about you? Do you spend more time and money building your own palace than His temple? Would you be willing to build a temple unto God that is bigger than your own palace?

Or even if we don’t spend much money on ourselves, are we actually using our resources to do what God has called us to do? We could be avoiding doing all the “wrong” things like spending on big-ticket, luxury items, yet never actually invest in the things that matter to God – putting our money where our mouth is.

Do you spend more time and money building your own palace than His temple? Would you be willing to build a temple unto God that is bigger than your own palace?

King Solomon may have gotten carried away with the scale of his palace, but there was one thing he did right: He built God’s temple first. It’s the principle from Haggai 1:4, which asks of the people: “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your panelled houses, while this house (the Temple of God) remains a ruin?”

When we put God first in how we use our money, time and all our other resources, it reflects who the King of our heart is.

This isn’t a call to false, legalistic modesty. I’m not saying to hold off a purchase just so you can say you did. Depravation for depravation’s sake is meaningless. All I’m saying is, whether or not you’re getting one of the new iPhones – or any other big-ticket item – it’s good to use the occasion to check yourself: How willing and ready am I to spend that same amount of money for God’s purposes?

Our honest answer will show us the condition of our heart, and how much room it has for Him. When it comes to the things of God, just like with the iPhone X, you’re looking for more capacity –you want to be the 256GB heart, not the 64GB one.

 

/ fiona@thir.st

Fiona is secretly hilarious. One of her dogs thinks so too. She loves a good chat with strangers, store assistants, and fluffy dogs.

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Unemployed, in debt – and learning how to trust Him

by Melody Elizabeth Goh | 1 August 2017, 4:38 PM

I grew up in a loving and pampered environment. That’s great while you’re a kid – but bad when you’re an adult.

I had to grow up, become a more mature me. But to do that, I needed to experience hardship.

After I graduated, I felt the Lord calling me to step out of the boat and walk on the water. I didn’t know what that meant, but it didn’t take me long enough to realise what it truly meant: I was about to enter into a desert season. I was about to learn what it means to have full reliance and focus on the Father.

I officially started looking for a job, armed with my Advanced Diploma in Accounting and Finance. I applied for position after position, went for multiple interviews but to no avail.

I had to grow up, become a more mature me. But to do that, I needed to experience hardship.

A friend encouraged me to become an Uber driver. It was tedious and I could not cover the rental of the car – I couldn’t work the long hours required to do so. I then decided to get relief drivers to help cover my costs, including a couple who took the car on weekdays. But that only made things worse; the couple did not use the car to work, and were unable to cover the rental cost, so the amount they owed me kept piling up.

My reserves were depleting quickly. It was getting harder for me, financially, physically, emotionally and mentally. My dad agreed to help ease my burdens a little, but I was still deeply troubled and distressed. I found myself crying every day.

In my desperation, I made a decision I would truly regret, with a heavy price to pay. I fell victim to a scam that promised me a sum of money per telephone line that I signed up for. But I got played out, leaving me with to pay the monthly subscriptions and termination fees. It was a substantial cost, especially when I was still unemployed.

Soon enough, I caved in and fell into depression.

Throughout all this, I kept asking: Where was God?

Where was the God who called me out? Surely, He would not abandon me?

No, I learnt, He wouldn’t – and He didn’t. It was in this season that God was drawing me closer to Him.

God humbled my heart and gave me a revelation – that I really am nothing without Him. Everything I can boast of, I only have by the grace and empowerment of God, and therefore He alone deserves all the glory.

So rather than be crushed by the circumstances, my faith in Him was deeply strengthened. I learnt to trust and obey, for there is no other way – not if I wanted to get out of this desert season. It was hard for me but I had to. I had to crucify my flesh.

I learnt to praise God in all circumstances. It was more of Him and less of me.

This desert season was not what I wanted, but it was what I needed – to go through a process of refining through the fire of trial, and redefining my perspective of the Father. Where He used to be a God who seemed so distant, He became to me a Father who is so loving, and who desires to walk me through every storm. I learnt what it means when He said that He will never leave me nor forsake me.

I learnt to praise God in all circumstances. It was more of Him and less of me.

What I was going through – it wasn’t because God didn’t love me, but because God does love me – enough to work on me, to refine me, to purify my heart.

The process of being refined is painful, but it is needful. It draws us closer to God, and allows Him to show His everlasting love. Adversity pushes us to rely on God, rather than our own strength.

“So that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honour at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 1:7)

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Do worldly successes define you?

by Daniel Lee | 25 July 2017, 10:56 PM

How would you feel if you were one — or all — of the following: A medical student, Employee of the Year, and/or a millionaire? Would being any of these things change the way you feel about yourself?

Often we dream of having these successful titles to define us; successes give us something to feel good about. But if what we succeed in determines who we are, does it mean we are a failure when we fail to achieve something?

Think about it: If we base our lives on what can be changed, then the foundation of our lives is not stable. Once the foundation shifts, our lives would also be shaken.

If our identity is decided by our successes, then it is also determined by our failures.

If our identity is decided by our successes, then it is also determined by our failures. Hence, the solution is to not find our self-worth in either.

This isn’t about ignoring what we have or have not accomplished. Rather, it’s about placing our value as a person on what is eternal.

God is the one who created us, and the One in whom we find the deepest measure of fulfilment and pleasure. When we base our self-worth and self-esteem on the unchangeable Word of God — when we believe who God says we are — then the foundation of our lives would be securely grounded on the Rock that is higher (Psalm 61:2).

WHO WE ARE IN GOD

And what does God say about us? He says that as Christians, our truest identity is in His Son, Jesus. We are children of God (John 1:12Ephesians 1:5) who are complete in Christ (Colossians 2:10).

And because we are hidden with Christ (Colossians 3:3), we are free forever from condemnation (Romans 8:1-2) and can never be separated from the love of God (Romans 8:35).

Not only that, we are now called to be Spirit-filled witnesses of Jesus because each of us is a temple in which the Holy Spirit lives (1 Corinthians 3:16).

God calls us His co-workers in His kingdom (Mark 16:202 Corinthians 6:1) and we are seated with Jesus in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 2:6).

WE BECOME WHAT WE BEHOLD

In light of our new identity in Jesus, we can see our achievements in the proper perspective. Yes, achievements are part of us, but they are not us.

In God’s kingdom, success is being able to boast that we understand and know the Lord (Jeremiah 9:24) and becoming more and more conformed to the image of His Son. We do this by worshipping and beholding Him daily (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Yes, achievements are part of us, but they are not us.

However, if we choose to worship and behold something other than God, we will also be transformed in its image. The Bible tells us that those who worship idols will become like them (Psalm 115:4-8Psalm 135:15-18).

Therefore, what we worship decides our identity. Ask yourself what the most important thing in your life is, and you will know what you truly worship. If there is something that you cherish more than God, then that thing has become an idol to you.

FOCUS ON BEING, NOT DOING

Also, what we do will constantly change, but who we are never will. When we understand that it is who we are, and not what we do, that ultimately matters, we can learn how to rest in God’s presence.

We should lose ourselves not in doing, but in being in Him and becoming like Him.

GIVE YOURSELF UP

Ultimately, resting in Jesus means surrendering all we have to Him.

That can sound like a frightening thing because it means we have to release control over who we are. But Jesus is not really the Lord of our lives if He isn’t the Lord over every single part of our lives, including our identity.

And so we stand firm on our identity in Him, safely let go and let Him take over. Because He is a good and trustworthy God who will never fail us.


©2016 Whole Life. All rights reserved.
Did you find the read helpful? If you would like to receive regular news and encouragement for your faith + family, click here to subscribe. This article was first published on Wholelife.sg and republished with permission.

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Megachurches and their extravagance: How much is too much?

What does wise financial spending look like?

When you work freelance, you either grow in fear or faith

Weighing the cost of an iPhone X

Unemployed, in debt – and learning how to trust Him

Do worldly successes define you?