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My Journey From Megachurch to Modest Church

As the darkened stage gave way to flashing lights and rousing music, the worship band emerged, urging the congregation to stand up to worship Jesus.

People rose to their feet, clapping and dancing along with the band. I stood among the worshippers, my hands lifted in the air. Ensconced inside a state-of-the-art auditorium equipped with advanced surround sound to absorb any outside noises, and music pulsating from the stage, I was immersed. By the time the auditorium lights dimmed, I felt like I had entered a sacred space.

My family and I had been attending this church for 17 years, watching its metamorphosis from a medium-sized church to the megachurch it is now, with various campuses operating locally and internationally.

I love the church’s modern building, complete with a trendy cafe serving barista-made coffee before and after services, and immaculately dressed volunteers welcoming guests with big smiles as they file past the church doors.

For the longest time, I was convinced modern megachurches were the best way to do church. Even more than electrifying Sunday praise music, delicious coffee and warm greetings, a large church meant that there was a large pool of volunteers to rely on to carry out community work. It meant there were also financial resources to host Christian conferences headed by renowned speakers, drawing in large crowds to hear the gospel and inviting staggering numbers of people to salvation.

Furthermore, I thought the church’s modern amenities was a great way to dissolve the stereotype non-Christians held about church life—that it was about kneeling at cold, hard pews, clutching onto weather-beaten Bibles and hymnals, and people mostly over the age of 60 holding narrow, outdated views on life.

I did not know it then, but I had subconsciously formed a specific view of how a church should feel and operate, and it would become an unhealthy standard I would hold other churches to.

 

Why Was I Attending Church?

A number of years ago, I moved to a smaller town for a job opportunity. Faced with limited options, I had no choice but to attend a small church that was close to my flat. The church had a modest band, and the worship was not accompanied by the throbbing lights I had grown accustomed to.

I remember feeling rather disillusioned when I discovered I was one of the youngest among the churchgoers. Refreshments after the service were instant coffee served in brown Pyrex mugs, and supermarket-variety biscuits laid out on a large white plate. The stark contrast between the refreshments available at my previous church and the current one was enough to make me yearn for the sophisticated, polished ways of my home church.

Before long, my attendance took a plunge as I was not motivated to attend church. Aside from the small music team, sermons, and refreshments, the town I had moved to was a strong farming community. Coming from a megachurch in a big city, I felt unable to connect with the other church attendees who were used to the rural life.

I did attend church occasionally, but most of the time, I stayed home and streamed videos of my favorite pastors. I missed my old church but due to work commitments, it was another two years before I made it back.

When I finally did make it back to my home church, it had grown even more over the time I was away, and as I was no longer serving in church, I had lost touch with the majority of the people. Very soon, I blended in with the furnishings; I was unseen and unheard, and it didn’t take me long to realize I felt invisible within the church.

The warm, welcoming ushers I had once loved felt a little practiced—smiles were too bright, handshakes too formal. Hanging around the bustling cafe with barista-made coffee after service is fine—if you have people to hang out with.

This little episode made me ponder on my real reason for attending church. Was I just looking to my weekly fix of coffee, bright lights, and thumping music? I have found experiences to be fleeting, where I would feel great during worship, but once the lights fade and the band packs up, I didn’t have anything concrete to hold on to get me through life’s difficulties. I wanted something more than an electrifying Sunday worship.

What Church Is Really All About

I’ve come to believe that God does not favor a church with a shiny auditorium more than He does a smaller church with its humble facilities.

The main purpose of church is for worshippers to gather and learn more about God, and to encourage one another. Acts 2:42 records that the early church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42).

In light of that verse, I reconsidered the small church I had reluctantly been a part of for the previous two years, and I realized that I had been discontented because I was superficially comparing it to larger churches. God brought to mind the times He was present at the Sunday lunches in the pastor’s home, and the evening visits with the pastor’s wife. I even remembered my cell group in a new light. At one meeting in particular, I found myself in tears, stressed from the pressures I faced at work. During these hard times, I didn’t need a posh building to find God, or His people. Because God is not found in a grand structure—but wherever worshippers gather.

After yet another move for work, a friend recently invited me to his church, and it’s a medium-sized one, with its service held out of a school hall. In the past, I would have immediately compared it to my old church. But this time, I appreciated the service for what it was, with its down-to-earth pastors and attendees who hung around after church to enjoy fellowship over lunch.

The difference this time was that I had come with a desire to genuinely worship God, with or without the flashy stage and the posh environment. I wanted to foster a strong relationship with church members. And on top of it all, I wanted to grow spiritually as a Christian. In the past, I was feeding off feel-good sermons, and I was coasting on relationships built on a veneer of polite smiles and hugs. But I wanted more than just a grand auditorium, an impressive band, and a host of well-dressed ushers.

I have come to look at a church based on healthier standards such as: are the pastors living up to God’s Word? Are their teachings biblically-sound? Are the sermons in line with Scripture? Importantly, are the sermons more than just a feel-good Sunday message—do they encourage me to grow and develop to be a mature Christian? What are the church’s small groups like? How is the church serving their community?

I know it can very easy to judge a church based on its building. For example, a big beautiful church could be seen as a healthy, growing one, and a church worshipping out of a rented community hall could be mistaken as a church that isn’t flourishing. But for me, I have learned to take a step back and think, if a church is to be stripped of all its furnishings, will their core still shine for God?

Focusing on trivial matters such as the auditoriums and the refreshments robbed me of the joy of truly seeking God, and helped me realize that I was in many ways, idolizing the lifestyle the church offered, when I should be putting God at the center of it. But thankfully, God has taught me to see that no matter the size of a church, what matters most is that a church is focused on Him and His teachings.

And that’s what church is really all about.

Lest We Forget: Remembering the Sacrifices of the Anzac Nurses

The endless procession of stretchers bearing severely wounded men drove home the horrors of the First World War (1914-1918) for Australian nurse Florence Narelle Jessie Hobbes, yet her determination to save and comfort the wounded saw her press on in the face of exhaustion, the lack of food, and an unforgiving climate.

Hobbes wrote in a letter to her family that she felt the “real touch of war” when she saw this scene unfold before her. “Dear heavens, it’s awful, and every man or boy of them is ‘somebody’s boy’,” she wrote. As each stretcher passed by her, she wondered if the next wounded person she saw would be one of her own friends or family, compounding the fears she felt for her loved ones.

Hobbes, who was from New South Wales, was one of the 3,600 nurses (3,000 of whom were from Australia and the other 600 from New Zealand) who had answered the call of duty to serve in the First World War. The First World War was a four-year-long conflict, and was one of the deadliest of wars, costing both Australia and New Zealand dearly in terms of their men’s lives.

Today (25 April), also known as Anzac Day, we remember the sacrifices of these brave men, and the other Australian and New Zealand soldiers who were killed in wars, and to also honor returned servicemen and women. Dawn parades are held in both Australia and New Zealand to commemorate those who had (or currently are) serving in various conflicts.

The date, 25 April, marks the anniversary of the landing of New Zealand and Australian soldiers on the Gallipoli Peninsula in 1915, where thousands of soldiers lost their lives.

I have always been a little obsessed with stories that are set in either the First or Second World War, but most of these stories were centered around the brave men who had enlisted as soldiers. So, when I first learned of Australian author and journalist Peter Rees’ book, Anzac Girls: The Extraordinary Story of Our World War 1 Nurses, I was struck by how overlooked the roles of these nurses in war times were. I realized how little I knew of both the emotional and mental toll the war took on these nurses. I decided it was only fitting to dig deeper into their lives, and to draw attention to the sacrifices that these women made.

That was how I discovered the story of Florence Hobbes.

 

 

Pressing On In Spite of the Challenges

What really drew me to her story was reading about how the threat of death didn’t stop Hobbes from signing up to serve king and country at the outset of the First World War in 1914. Hobbes was initially stationed in Malta with the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve (QAIMNSR), and served in the Valleta Military Hospital. It was at this hospital that she nursed casualties of the Gallipoli campaign.

While Hobbes’ letters did not detail the injuries she saw, we can imagine the wounds inflicted on the soldiers fighting in the trenches would have been brutal. According to the Australian Nurses’ Journal, two nurses wrote that words alone cannot describe the “awfulness of the wounds”: “Bullets are nothing. It’s the shrapnel that tears through the flesh and cuts off the limbs.”

Not only did these nurses have to endure the emotional strain of cleaning, washing, and tending to the wounded soldiers, but they also had to contend with unsanitary conditions and fluctuating temperatures (hot, stifling summer months, and cold, freezing winters).

Nurses on active duty would often be moved around to different locations if they were needed. When Hobbes was stationed at Amara, Mesopotamia, she recalled how the taste of their first rain in Amara ended up transforming the grounds into a large muddy patch.

The hospital was built along the Tigris-Euphrates river, and the soil would soak up the water from the river, and wound its way into the nurses’ rooms, the hospital wards, and the walls.

Yet while these conditions were challenging, Hobbes was motivated by her love for her country and fellow countrymen, and felt a strong sense of pride in being able to save and comfort these soldiers who were fighting in the trenches.

 

Why We Should Remember Them

But as the years passed (and it has been over 100 years since the First World War broke out), it can be easy for us to forget thesacrifices these soldiers and nurses have made. We live in such comfortable times that while we do hear of wars fought afar, most of us would not have personally experienced war, and we can easily take peace time for granted. It’s hard for us to imagine what it was like for these nurses to bid their friends and family goodbye, setting off for long journeys abroad without knowing if they would ever see them again. This is why Anzac Days are so important—to remind future generations of the sacrifices of those who have gone before them.

As I reflected on the selflessness of these nurses, it got me thinking of the love Jesus has called us to show one another in Luke 10:27, where He calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves. These days, it can be easy to think of “loving one another” as sending text messages littered with “xoxo”, or catching up with a friend for a coffee and posting about it on social media.

But I believe Jesus is talking about love in action as demonstrated by the Samaritan in Luke 10:30, where he stopped to tend to the victim, who was robbed, beaten, and left on the sidewalk for dead. The Samaritan bandaged the victim before placing him on his donkey to be carried to the nearest inn. He even paid the innkeeper for the victim’s accommodation. How many of us would be willing to do such an act for a suffering stranger?

Therefore, I was even more inspired to read more about these nurses, who despite their exhaustion, they continued their tasks of tending to the wounded soldiers. Accounts from their diaries and letters reveal their hectic work schedules. Hobbes wrote of a frantic 48-hour shift, during which she was expecting yet another 100 badly wounded patients to pour through.

Unfortunately, Hobbes was claimed by ill health, and died on the ship that was bound for Australia, just four days before she would have been reunited with her family. A simple funeral service was held on board for Hobbes, and she was buried at sea. Her family was presented with a Memorial Scroll, which was given to soldiers, sailors, and nurses who died while serving the Australian Imperial Force or Royal Australian Navy during the First World War. The message on the scroll commemorated the fallen, who “left all that was dear to them, endured hardness, faced danger, and finally passed out of the sight of men . . . giving up their own lives that others might live in freedom.”

It is said that there is no greater love than to lay one’s life down for their friends (John 15:13), and Hobbes has demonstrated this through her dedication and devotion to the wounded soldiers. In turn, this reminds me of the greatest sacrifice Jesus showed when He laid His life down for us on the cross (Philippians 2:6-11). Jesus is God, yet He humbled Himself to the point of death in exchange for our freedom. And because of the freedom that Christ has purchased for us, we too can live our lives with “the same mindset as Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5) in service of those around us.

Reading and researching into the lives and sacrifices of these nurses have left me in awe. These nurses saw a need (to serve in wartime) and stepped up to the call. Even though we are not serving in a war, there are many practical ways for us to follow their lead by looking around in our community to see if there is a need we can meet. For example, it could be reaching out to a friend who may be hurting emotionally, a co-worker who might be battling loneliness in the workplace, or offering to help an elderly neighbor to run their weekly grocery shop. Let’s be willing to take a step away from our busy schedules and give up our comfort for the sake of demonstrating love in action and drawing others to the light of Christ.

As we commemorate the sacrifices of the war heroes this Anzac Day, let’s honor their sacrifices not just by remembering their stories, but also by praying that God will enable us to be as courageous and selfless as these nurses were when it comes to serving those around us.

Dumbo: A Trumpeting Call to Defend the Weak

Screenshot taken from Official Trailer

 

Rating: 4/5 stars

Tim Burton’s adaptation of Dumbo had me in a flood of tears, and it was not tears of joy that flowed freely down my cheeks.

Burton’s Dumbo was inspired by the 1941 Walt Disney feature cartoon of the same name, and tells the story of a baby elephant whose very large ears made him the subject of ridicule, but it was also those very ears that propelled him to stardom.

However, the little elephant did not #wakeuplikethis to his superstar status. In fact, circus owner Max Medici was horrified when he realized he had a baby elephant with oversized ears. Dumbo had a “face that only a mother could love”, Medici declared.

Dumbo made his debut appearance to a crowd of circus-goers popped inside a wooden pram, and his ears hidden under a baby bonnet. Unfortunately, his ears unraveled the moment Dumbo sneezed, and his big, floppy ears were soon in the spotlight. The crowd started to boo and jeer at Dumbo, and pelted peanuts at the poor elephant (cue more tears from me).

Mrs Jumbo, sensing her child’s distress, rushed in to the circus ring and chaos soon ensued as the terrified circus-goers tried to flee the herd of elephants gone amok. Unfortunately, Mrs Jumbo’s act of defending her child resulted in her being locked up, with only a little barred window for Dumbo to stick his trunk in when he came to visit her.

As soon as the theme music, “Baby Mine”, came on in the background during this scene, I erupted into a fountain of tears. I had also reacted the same way when I had first watched the original Dumbo movie. My tears welled up when I saw how upset Dumbo was (he sat in a corner with big drops of tears rolling down his face) after overhearing a group of older elephants gossiping about his large ears.

Seeing Dumbo’s distress immediately brought me back to my 12-year-old self, when I had discovered a classmate had created a “burn book” (a “burn book” was popularized by Regina George and The Plastics in the movie, Mean Girls, which they created to start gossip and stories about their schoolmates) about me and another friend.

I recalled turning the pages of the “burn book” to discover the mean words my schoolmates had written about me, from the different variations of the spelling of my name (hint: it rhymes with hell), to unwanted comments on my appearance (“four-eyes” was the most popular, in reference to my glasses).

So when I saw Dumbo being laughed at and ridiculed, the pain that I felt those years ago resurfaced, and it made me empathize with the wee elephant. I couldn’t understand what he had done wrong to be treated in such a way, and I had to restrain myself from climbing inside the silver screen to give his mockers a good telling off.

Watching these scenes unfold reminded me of Psalm 82:3-4, where we are called to, “Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

While I found it easy to empathize with Dumbo because he looks adorable with his big ears and blue eyes, I wondered if I would be brave enough to stand up for a fellow human being who was being bullied? Even though I knew what it was like to be at the center of negative attention, I realized that there were times when I had seen someone in the same situation, and did not have the courage to defend them or uphold their cause.

Years ago, when I was in high school, a group of schoolmates had locked a fellow classmate in one of the school’s toilets out of spite, ignoring the boy’s pleas to be released. I am ashamed to say that I, too, turned my back against him.

In my adolescent mind, social survival was vital, and my already failing social status in school prevented me from helping a distressed classmate. I did not want to be seen siding with the least cool kid in school. I weighed my options that day, and decided to walk away.

But the way the circus performers came together to comfort Dumbo when he was at his lowest made me rethink my actions. At this point, Mrs Jumbo was locked away as an exhibit in an amusement park called Nightmare Island. When the performers saw just how miserable Dumbo was without his mother, the group banded together to reunite mom and baby. Plans were immediately put into place to execute the grand reunion, starting with Miss Atlantis distracting the guards with her singing, to Rongo the Strongo using his strength to pull the iron bars apart, so the team could sneak in to rescue Mrs Jumbo.

Through their actions, I was reminded of Philippians 2:3-5, where we are called to “put on the mindset of Christ” (v. 5), look out for each other, and to value others above ourselves. Unlike the Medici performers, I took no action because I had put my own “selfish ambition” (not wanting to look like a loser) above my friend’s interests (being rescued from the school toilet).

But I am inspired by how Dumbo’s friends forged ahead with their mission to reunite Dumbo with his mom, and helped create a happy ending for them. The mother and son duo were eventually released back into the wild to spend the rest of their days with their own kind.

Dumbo is more than just a movie about a flying elephant. Even after I was done watching it, it kept me thinking about how we can all be a voice for the weak and defenseless—if only we will look around and notice the plight of those who are suffering. I hope that the next time a similar opportunity presents itself, I will be willing to step in and take action.

Christchurch Shootings: Hope Amidst Tragedy

Screenshot taken from Guardian News Video

 

I spent most of the weekend in a gloomy stupor as I recalled the horrific incident that had fallen on Christchurch.

On Friday afternoon, 28-year-old Brenton Tarrant had opened fire in two Christchurch mosques, resulting in the deaths of 50 people, and injuring another 40. The youngest victim, Mucad Ibrahim, was just three years old. Tarrant has since been charged with murder, and is held in custody until April.

While I was not personally affected by the shootings, as I live in Auckland, I was stunned that my beautiful country, New Zealand, would be the target of such a hate crime.

I had first learned of the shooting while scrolling my Facebook feed, and the opening line of a post by a New Zealand Christian radio station, Life FM, caught my eye.

“Absolutely devastated to hear about the mass shootings in Christchurch today,” the post read. My brain grinded to a halt at the words “mass shooting” and “Christchurch”. I refreshed my news feed twice to make sure I wasn’t seeing things. Part of me felt like I was living in a bad dream, yet another part of me knew that what I was reading was very real.

Prime Minister Jacinda Arden called the attacks “New Zealand’s darkest day”. And in the wake of this tragedy, the entire nation has come together to mourn. Radio stations were in a sombre mood, with DJs expressing their outrage at Friday afternoon’s event. Callers to the radio station texted their messages of sympathy to the victims and their families, with many saying they “did not know what to do” with themselves in the aftermath of such a tragedy.

Vigils were held across the country, while public performances and concerts were cancelled. A donation page on Give A Little has been set up for the victims, and $5.5 million has been collected to date. Auckland’s St Matthew’s church lit 50 candles and rung the bells 50 times for the victims of the mosque attacks.

Yet amid the darkness, stories of hope and courage have emerged over the last 48 hours. It warmed my heart to hear that messages of condolences and support for New Zealand were pouring in from around the globe, and that churches all over the world also took time to pray for the victims and their families.

One story that stood out to me was the one about Andrew Graystone from Manchester, who stood outside his local mosque during their Friday prayers in solidarity with the Christchurch victims. He held a plaque that read, “You are my friends, I will keep watch while you pray”.

Stories such as these remind us both of the horrifying reality of the world we live in—and the goodness that still abounds in the hearts of men. They remind us how much we all need that glimmer of hope to light up the darkness we see around us.

Even as news of the rising death tolls have been trickling in, I’ve also seen my friends find hope in the self-sacrificial acts of those who attempted to do all they could to save others. The New Zealand Herald tells of 48-year-old Abdul Aziz, who ran after the gunman with a credit card machine (it was the first thing he could find) while screaming “Come here!” at the offender.

Survivor of the attack, Ali Adeeba, told the BBC how his dad had taken a bullet for him: “A [bullet] went past my face and it burned my face. It didn’t even touch me, but it burned, so I could only feel for the people that got shot by them.” His dad is now in an induced coma.

Sadly, some of them died while trying to save others. According to the BBC, Daoud Nabi, 71, was the first of the victims to be identified, and he was believed to have thrown himself in front of other people in the mosque to protect them when the gunman burst in.

These stories inspire and give us hope because we feel defenseless and rattled in the face of such horrors—and there’s comfort in knowing that we’re not fighting this alone. As Christians, we also know of someone who sacrificed His life so that none of us will have to fear death—Jesus Christ. Because of His death and resurrection, we now bear the hope that regardless of what happens in the world around us, He is our “refuge and strength” (Psalm 46:1). And one day He will “wipe every tear”, and there will be “no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Revelation 21:4).

How then can we comfort others with the hope that we have during this time of grief, heartache, and uncertainty? A verse that is close to my heart is Psalm 34:18, which says that God is near to the brokenhearted, and saves those who are crushed in spirit.

As a fellow immigrant, I cannot imagine what it must be like to move to a new country in hopes of a better life, only to have it snatched away in one senseless act of cruelty. I can only imagine that it must be a terrifying time for these victims and their families.

It is incredibly hard to make sense of this cold-blooded act, and while not all of us may be in a position to help out physically or financially, we can mourn with those who mourn, and pray for God’s peace and strength to be upon the victims and their families.