When I Didn’t Encounter God During Worship

What comes to mind when you think about worship?

Or more specifically, what do you think of when it comes to singing in church?

For me, it used to involve emotional music, closed eyes, and of course, raised hands. Every Sunday, I’d look forward to the half an hour or so before the sermon where the lights in my church’s auditorium would be dimmed and the musicians would come on stage. The drummer would tap his sticks together three times and all together, the band would play.

Most of the time, the set involved two fast songs and two slow songs—except the times when the mood was “extra spiritual”—then maybe it would be one fast song, and three slow songs.

And while the fast praise songs were loads of fun, I have to say the highlight for me was always the slow worship songs. This was when things quietened down a bit, and the worship leader encouraged the congregation to shut everyone around us out as we focused on God.

I can remember many a Sunday spent singing my heart out, eyes tightly shut. At first, I’d feel very self-conscious about the people to my left and right. “Is it weird that I’m so into this?” was a question often at the back of my mind. But I’d trudge ahead, trying my best to forget that I was in a corporate setting and imagine the moment as one shared intimately between just God and myself.

Slowly but surely, as I repeated the lines of the song’s chorus, emotions would start to well up within me, bubbling up like a pot of water approaching boiling point. And before I knew it, they’d release in the form of tears streaming down my face.

This moment—when singing culminated in some sort of emotional release—always seemed to be my desired result of corporate worship. If I experienced those feelings, then I could call it a job well done. I’d done my part as a worshipper.

Over the years I’ve heard many explanations for this phenomenon: a touch from God, His presence falling on me, entering His presence, an encounter with God—these were just some of the phrases that pastors and worship leaders have used to describe the experience.

The problem was, for every time I can remember experiencing this, there were many more times when I didn’t. As much as I would try, I wouldn’t feel anything. No matter how tightly I clamped my eyelids shut, no matter how many times I passionately repeated the lines of a familiar chorus, the stirring of feelings within me just wasn’t sufficient to count as “a touch from God”.

In those times, my worship felt like a failure.

This was more or less my general attitude towards corporate singing until one day, I attended a meeting at my university’s Christian campus ministry. I had been joining in their small group Bible studies, but this was the first time that I’d gone for one of their weekly corporate meetings.

It had been a tough week of classes and I was feeling particularly worn out. An encounter with God and His presence was just what I needed.

But I found myself sorely disappointed.

First of all, the lights weren’t dimmed. In fact, all of the lights were turned on. This meant that it was easy to see that almost no one had their eyes closed while they were singing. On the contrary, their eyes were mostly trained on the lyrics projected onto the screen. I suppose this was a necessity because the set that night didn’t include the usual popular catchy songs that were played at my church. Instead of memorized lyrics, we were singing hymns with melodies that were as dated as their verbose verses. To make matters worse, not one hand was raised.

Needless to say, not a single tear ran down my cheek that night, and I didn’t experience any encounter.

My shock at the state of their corporate singing was only compounded by the fact that these people seemed to really love Jesus, and in all other aspects seemed very devoted to following Him. Why then, was it not reflected in the way they worshipped?

This question was at the top of my mind a few weeks later when I had the chance to sit down with the campus pastor.

When I brought it up, he duly pointed me to a passage in the Bible which has since changed the way that I approach corporate singing:

Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 5:18-20)

Here, we see that singing in church isn’t about ourselves—it’s about God.

That probably wasn’t news to you. But what was surprising to me is that singing in church is not just about God, it’s also about the other people in the church. Paul tells us to speak to one another with “psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:19). That means that we’re not just singing to God, but we’re also meant to sing to each other.

As I processed this, I thought about how by singing truth to each other, we’re encouraging each other. Depending on the song, we’re reminding the people next to us—who might have had a terrible week or could be facing incredible pressures—about the gospel, about how great God is, or about the amazing grace that He has shown us. I know I’ve personally had moments where witnessing others worshipping has encouraged me to continue living a gospel-centred life.

I remember feeling so rebuked by Paul’s words in Ephesians as I realized I had made worship and singing all about myself and what I had felt during the songs when instead I should have been thinking more about encouraging the fellow believers beside me as we sing about the goodness of God.

To top it off, verse 18 suggests that singing to one another is a sign of being filled with the Spirit. In other words, it’s what truly spiritual singing in church should look like. For me, that was a huge break from what I had traditionally seen as a spiritual experience during the worship music portion of a service—which had previously been all about feeling some sort of emotional release.

That’s why today, ticking off the box of a spiritual encounter is no longer my agenda when worshipping. When I sing in church, I still sing as passionately as I possibly can. But instead of chasing a feeling, or an experience, I approach singing with a sense that I’m actively participating with my God-given family, following the Holy Spirit-inspired instructions of Paul the Apostle!

Why I Was Ashamed to Tell People I’m Serving God

When I was completing my final year of university, my campus pastor sat me down and asked me to consider doing a one-year internship with my campus’ Christian fellowship. I jumped at the chance to spend a year getting paid to serve God.

After all, my time with the Christian fellowship had taught me the importance of the Gospel, and I’d received some encouragement that I should consider full-time ministry. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to nurture my own love for the Gospel and help others in their own faith while figuring out whether full-time ministry was for me.

However, it’s now been about six months since I’ve graduated from university, and this question still causes me to wince: “Oh, you’ve graduated? What are you doing with yourself?”

It’s the perfect concoction for awkward conversations at dinner parties or whenever I bump into former classmates.

How do I answer the question? I usually shuffle around clumsily and try to dumb down the Gospel aspect of what I’m doing. “Umm well, I work for my university’s Christian fellowship—basically I get paid to hang out with the students.”

I’ve conveniently left out the part where I work to help students further their understanding of the Bible, and challenge them to live by what it says. The feeling of guilt is almost instantaneous, and later that night I find myself wishing that I’d been bolder about my involvement in Gospel ministry. “If I can’t even tell people about my job, how can I hope to tell them about the Gospel?” I think to myself.

So, why do I find it so hard to tell people what my job is?

The truth is, I’m worried about what they might think. Many of my friends graduated and walked into well-paying jobs with great prospects of career advancement. They wear nice tailored shirts and pants to their office, right in the middle of the central business district; I’m sitting at a university bench reading the Bible with a student in the same t-shirt and shorts I was wearing a year ago. At the end of the year, they’ll all be jetting off on the well-earned holidays that their jobs allow them to afford; I’ll be working at an end-of-the-year Bible camp for university students.

To my friends, or whoever is asking, all this might seem a little foolish. In fact, I think the problem is that I think of it as a little foolish as well. After all, I’d just spent the last four years of my life working hard to graduate with respectable grades, only to earn less than half what most of my peers are earning. Sometimes when I’m being honest with myself, I do question if it’d be better for me to be working at a ‘normal’ job.

But we don’t have to be in full-time ministry to experience this. One of my best friends, still a student at university, spends the whole of his Saturdays serving at church, in the young adult’s ministry. I’m sure to many of his peers, that looks like a foolish way to spend his Saturdays, the day that most university students take to either relax or catch up on work.

I think, too, of the students who are members of the Christian Fellowship. They often spend their weeks preparing and facilitating bible studies, when they could be studying instead. In the face of impending deadlines and exams, I’m sure they look foolish to their fellow students.

Or, who hasn’t felt a bit foolish trying to tell their friends about the Gospel, or inviting them to church?

That’s why I’ve been so encouraged by the time I’ve recently spent reading the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians with a student. In 1:18, Paul declares, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” It seems that we should expect the Gospel—the very thing that our lives as Christians is meant to be built upon—to be seen as foolishness to the rest of the world. After all, the ultimate display of God’s power, was seen by many as his ultimate shame—the man who claimed to be the Son of God executed as a criminal.

Paul then goes on to explain, that what’s wise in God’s eyes is always going to seem foolish to the rest of the world. But as people who have been given the Spirit of God, we are more than able to see and understand things with God’s wisdom. He implores his readers to apply God’s wisdom in their lives rather than just do the things that the rest of the world counts as important and clever.

This means that my friend whose Saturdays are spent in church can be encouraged in the knowledge that the work he’s doing is seen as wise in God’s eyes. The university students I work with can continue striving for the Gospel, knowing that while their efforts might seem irrational to their peers, on that day when they stand before God, they will see that it was all worth it.

For me, I don’t have to feel ashamed about my job because it is through the Gospel that we are saved, and as we grow in our knowledge and conviction of it, we are being transformed.

So now instead of shirking away from telling people about my job, I’m trying to use it as an opportunity to tell them about the Gospel. And while the work I’m doing at the Christian fellowship seems foolish, in my short time there I’ve been greatly encouraged by how powerful it is when students become convicted of the Gospel and begin to make mature decisions to live in light of it. Of course people might still find it silly that I’m working as an intern at a campus Christian fellowship, but I can take heart knowing that the Gospel truly is the power of God.

How to Make the Most of Your Time in University

It was four years ago now, but I still remember vividly my excitement and anticipation in the weeks leading up to the start of university. Many of my friends and family always looked back on their time there fondly­—some even longed to relive their university days. And it wasn’t hard to imagine why.

University would be full of chances to explore new passions and meet new people. The pantheon of clubs and special interest groups offered the prospect of exploration and discovery. What lay in front of me was opportunity as I’d never experienced before, and I was eager to grasp it with both hands.

However, my excitement was also tempered by a tinge of anxiety—amidst the plethora of interesting opportunities, it was easy to forget that university, after all, was about higher education. There were important academic deadlines to meet and exams to be had, and I suspected that there would be many long nights slogging it out, trying my best to conjure up an essay that met the word count set by my professors.

Once school started, I realized that it could get competitive too. When everyone and everything around you seems to revolve around getting a good grade point average and building a great resume, it’s hard not to get sucked in.

All this made for a little bit of a headache. On the one hand, there was so much opportunity to explore and learn; on the other hand, I definitely felt the pressure to do well academically. And how about balancing this with “Christian stuff”—like going to church and growing in my faith?

As a Christian, I wanted to mature in my relationship with God, as well as continue to serve in ministry. But I quickly realized, as I began this exciting new phase of my life, the tendency for my heart to wander from the Gospel. I was easily sucked in by the lifestyle and mindset of my non-Christian peers at school. Like them, I spent all my time attending different club activities and studying for my classes, and I found myself going days without praying or reading the Bible. I also became practiced at hiding my spiritual malpractice from my friends at church, but I knew that I wasn’t fooling God.

When it came down to it, the opportunities to try new and exciting things just felt too good to pass up. On top of that, I wanted to achieve academic success, lest I lose out to my peers who seemed driven to invest their time and energy in university building a prosperous future career. It seemed that devoting time to Christian stuff would cause me to miss out on the university life that all my friends were living.

Juggling these three things—the opportunities, academics, and my walk with Christ—was something that I struggled with as university kicked into gear.

But things started to change after I heard a sermon on 1 Corinthians 15, where the Apostle Paul worked to convince his readers about the resurrection of the dead. For Paul, the resurrection wasn’t an abstract immaterial process. Rather, it was a certain event with real and physical results. As Christians, according to Paul, we will have a physical resurrected body as well as a physical new creation to live in.

In the sermon, the pastor challenged us to live in light of this physical resurrection and new creation; being convinced of what awaits us should transform the way we live today. For me, this meant that I didn’t need to capitalize on every opportunity presented to me in university, because I would have a chance to live my best life in the new and perfected world that God was creating for us.

It also meant that while investing in my future career was important, its significance waned when I considered what would have true eternal value. The truth was that the many of the things that I desired—career success, a nice house, and a flashy car—wouldn’t last to eternity. As Jesus says in Matthew 6:19-20 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.”

As my convictions on the resurrection and the new creation deepened, I found myself spending more and more time on things that carried eternal value—things that would last me into the new creation. I became more engaged in my university campus ministry, where I attended Bible studies and learned how to hear God speak through His Word. This helped me to become more certain about God’s will for my life as a Christian in university—that I should be living for the Gospel instead of for my selfish desires. As such I devoted more time to reading the Bible, praying, and serving in my campus ministry.

It was here that I made like-minded friends, who became a great source of encouragement to me through the four years that I spent in university. Whenever I was tempted to become consumed by things that were insignificant in light of eternity, these friends reminded me of what we’d been reading in God’s Word. They also prayed with me and for me, whenever the struggle against my flesh seemed too hard to bear.

Furthermore, I began to take evangelism on campus more seriously. After all, I was meeting new people all the time, people who needed to hear the Gospel. While it was fine to just have fun and pursue friendships, the truly loving thing to do for my new friends would be to tell them about Jesus Christ, so that they too would be able to enjoy a relationship with Him and be a part of the new creation.

Four years on, I’ve now graduated from university with my bachelor’s degree. Looking back, there were definitely opportunities that I failed to take advantage of. There were a handful of clubs that I would’ve liked to have participated in; I could’ve grown my interest in the areas of film, music, and photography. Perhaps, I also could have achieved more academically. My grades were alright, but I know that had I put in more hours hitting the books, I definitely would have graduated with the distinction that some of my close friends did.

But today I also look forward to the new creation, and the hope of eternal life that Jesus has accomplished for us. In light of what awaits us, I don’t have to feel like I’m losing out or that I wasted my time in university.

If you’re starting university and you’re fighting the temptation to get sucked into the lifestyle of your non-Christian friends, be assured that your struggle is not in vain. In fact, I’m convinced that on that glorious day, standing on the cusp of the new heavens and the new earth (Revelation 21:1-4), we will have no doubt that the choices we made in university were worth it.

Ken and Addy: Sharing Home with Complete Strangers

Photography By Ian Tan

The four-storied terrace house (left) that is currently the home of The Last Resort.


Standing outside the four-storied terrace house, it’s easy to get lost in awe. In land-scarce Singapore, it’s huge. It towers over you, its modern concrete exterior—a combination of clean, sleek lines with glass railings and a high varnished wood gate—showing you what luxury looks like.

Stepping inside, you’re greeted by a huge living area with marbled floors and an overly enthusiastic black toy poodle practicing sprints around an imaginary circuit under and between the furniture. On the dining table is an impressive array of local foods: curries, pratas (flat bread), pancakes, and curry puffs.


Berrie, the black toy poodle, sprinting around the house.


Upstairs, the bedrooms are cozily furnished—each with a bed or two, desks, toys, books, and the odd musical instrument. They evoke a feeling that’s best described as homely, as the cat taking a nap on one of the desks can attest to.

Back downstairs, 47-year-old Kenneth Thong is hard at work preparing more food in the kitchen and laying it out on the table. Ken, as everyone calls him, is soft-spoken and self-deprecating in a charming way. His sentences tend to trail off as his voice gets softer, before breaking out in laughter over a joke he’s made—often at his own expense. His wife, Adeline (just call her Addy), 39, is giving a tour of the house—all four stories plus basement, both balconies, and six rooms. Like her husband, she sports a permanent warm smile and a cheerful, gentle demeanor.

Today, most of the occupants of the house are out except for a young man who’s helping Ken out in the kitchen.

Perhaps the only giveaway that this isn’t just another upper-middle class dream is a large sign made from Lego bricks, hanging amid the packed bookshelves in the living room. It reads: “The Last Resort, welcome”.


The large sign that greets all visitors in the living room.


What Is The Last Resort

Ask Ken and Addy what this sign means, and they have a ready answer. “The Last Resort is a place for young people, with young people, by older people,” says Addy. Ken chips in: “We want young people to know that if there is really nowhere else to go, there is a place for you.”

This is what The Last Resort is all about: Since they got married in 2007, the Thongs have opened their home to a wide range of young people seeking a refuge, especially from abusive families or unlivable conditions. In general, their guests are welcome to stay for free, though they can choose to help out with the living expenses if they can. For the past 10 years or so, Ken and Addy have been living with “strangers”.

“They’re invited as part of family,” says Ken. “We want them to have the experience of what a normal, safe, functional family looks like. And that means they’re free to have whatever we have here.”

Indeed, from doing the chores to going grocery shopping to cooking and eating together, the couple tries to create a sense of belonging and community for their guests. “That’s something that many of them have never experienced,” says Addy.

Some would call this radical hospitality—going beyond what most people would be willing to do—but Ken and Addy see it far more modestly. “Being radical doesn’t mean doing things that nobody has done before,” says Ken. “Being radical is simply to do what needs to be done.”

The couple also invites other Christians to come and share in their ministry, mobilizing them to serve at The Last Resort.


One of the cozily furnished bedrooms at The Last Resort.


How the Idea Began

The idea for The Last Resort had come even before Ken and Addy were married. After spending four years as missionaries overseas—Ken in South Africa and Addy in South India—they connected in 2004 over a shared desire to make a difference in the lives of those from troubled backgrounds. On their first mission trip together in Hoedspruit, South Africa, Addy was struck by how close-knit Christian communities there were. They not only lived together, but shared everything with each other. It was a great example of loving both God and people, something they wanted to bring home.

Ken and Addy on a mission trip in Myanmar in 2007.

Back in Singapore, they saw another need: to help young people whom existing social services couldn’t fully support. It reminded Ken of Matthew 9:36, which describes Jesus’ compassion for the helpless crowds. “That’s the challenge to us,” says Ken, “would we have the same compassion?”

The couple found their own answer to this challenge: offering themselves and their home as an example of what Christian community should look like—loving, compassionate, and nurturing. “Building communities was something that God had laid on our hearts, and when we got married, we knew we would want to open and share everything we had,” explains Addy.

The opportunity to do this came shortly after their wedding, when they came to know of a young lady who needed a place to stay. She had just become a Christian, a decision that her family opposed. She had nowhere else to go, so Ken and Addy opened their home to her. At the time, all they had was a two-bedroom apartment.

Before long, word got out about this couple who was willing to house anyone who needed a safe place to stay. Some came through social workers, while others found their way through friends. “We didn’t set out to look for people,” says Addy. “We just made space for those who had nowhere else to go, when we came to know of them.”

Since then, Ken and Addy have hosted missionaries from overseas, Christians needing a retreat, and young people needing a safe place. Some stay for a few weeks, while others have stayed for more than a year. Right now, The Last Resort is a refuge for a 25-year-old mother, her newborn child, as well as a 19-year-old girl needing an alternative place to stay. Also staying with them are two Christian young adults wanting to live out radical hospitality in a Christ-centered community.


The young occupants are free to make their rooms look as homely as possible.


One of the adopted cats lounging lazily on a table.


Overcoming the Challenges

This ministry, however, has not come without its own set of challenges. For one, the couple has found that providing refuge for people often means having to deal with some aspects of people’s troubles. Once, loan sharks came looking for one of their guests. It eventually led to someone breaking in to steal some of their family heirlooms.

There’s also the not-insignificant detail of paying the rent and providing for the people staying with them. This is made all the more challenging by the fact that neither Ken nor Addy currently have a paid job—Ken left his director role at a non-profit organization some months ago, and Addy stopped having an income since 2014. Both saw the need to be fully devoted to this ministry, in availing their time to be present with people.

When asked about such challenges, Ken and Addy say it’s all about responding to what God has laid on their hearts and believing Him, even when their ministry may not seem pragmatic.

Their housing has been a testament to this truth. Not wanting to be weighed down by a housing loan, the couple decided, early on in their marriage, to rent a three-room flat. They moved to a larger flat later. Throughout this time, God was sending them people in need—while expanding their capacity to serve others. “We were being taught along the way how to avail ourselves, no matter how much we had,” says Ken.

God honored their obedience, providing support in the form of fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who chipped in for the ministry needs and provided practical help.

In early 2018, the couple felt directed by God to look into moving to a bigger place. The search led them to a four-storied house that seemed perfect.

There was just one problem—the rent. “At that point, it felt like we had no business to be here,” Addy recalls her thoughts when they first viewed the house. “But we felt that if God was showing us that this was the place, then we would go ahead with it.”

Despite not knowing how the provision was going to come, the Thongs took the step of obedience and moved in. True enough, God provided them with enough to pay the first month’s rent. It was just one of the many examples of God’s provision that they had seen in their ministry.

“It’s been a journey of walking with God and seeing how He provides, and how He takes care of every single detail,” says Addy. Whether it’s much-needed food items, money, furniture or even appliances—mostly shared by friends and acquaintances—the Thongs readily attest to how God has come through for them on a daily basis.


It’s About Christ

It’s hard not to be inspired by the Thongs’ spirit of sacrifice and generosity. In a world where godly, philanthropic dreams are often derailed by cold, hard pragmatism, Ken and Addy seem to have succeeded in escaping the things that many of us chase.

“All of us pursue what we deem as important to us. It is in discovering what matters much more that we shift our priorities. We’re not telling people to not pursue their dreams, we’re simply inviting people to experience for themselves this great joy of pursuing what truly brings delight,” explains Ken.

But the couple is quick to dispel any notion that they are in any way special. “We’re not saying to people, ‘Oh, come and look to us’,” says Addy. “No, not at all—come and look to Christ!”

“If there’s anything that our experiences have taught us, it’s that we’re all broken because of the effects of sin in our lives, even in a so-called stable family,” she continues. “We are not a perfect family. And we are not trying to create a perfect family. But we are forming a community who looks to Him.”

Ken adds: “We want to build communities. We want to be near people, to be involved in the daily lives of people by caring for them, as well as to be very clear in our proclamation of where our hope really lies.”

In many ways, that’s the simplicity of their ministry: modeling godly living while walking alongside young people and encouraging them to ask bigger questions about God.

And this, he hopes, will have a knock-on effect on other Christian couples. “Our crazy idea is for two or three newly married couples to dedicate their first year of marriage to living together in community, while creating room in the shared space for someone else in need of refuge,” he says.

Call it a utopian dream. But Ken believes that if every church has a community home like that, it would put the church in a good position to foster the next generation.