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Confessions of a former church planter and pastor in the city of Kuala Lumpur (or Being and doing Church

in 21 st century Malaysia: A Pastoral Perspective) Sivin Kit On April 1, 2000 we small group of about 15 of us sat in the living room of 4A, Jalan Utara and begun the unforgettable journey of resurrecting Bangsar Lutheran Church (BLC), growing as a Christian community in Kuala Lumpur, and learning (or re-learning) previous lessons along the way. I write this article on April 1, 2011 after more than ten years since that memorable day. A decade is a good period for one to look back afresh on what has been helpful, and what needs further attention. 1 How often do we hear whether it s at the denominational level or congregational level the ABC s of church, in our conversations? A for attendance, B for buildings and C for cash. We are often impressed by churches which large attendances where thousands come every Sunday to impressive buildings and collect We may feel discouraged when our attendance is struggling, our buildings are old or modest, and it s hard to even collect enough to pay the pastors salary! Success for many churches often is unfortunately limited to looking at our attendance, building and cash. The pioneers of the renewed BLC mostly below thirty years old in the year 2000, we have a less than five children when we started. The Lutheran Church in Malaysia and Singapore (LCMS) provided the building at 23, Jalan Abdullah, Bangsar, gave initial funds for renovation and supported the p astors basic salary and housing for a little above 3 years. Like a newborn baby, this was the needed support before BLC could stand and walk on her own later. For me as the pastor, it freed my mind from focusing merely on attendance, the building and monetary concerns. Every year we still need to give statistical report, but for me that was for accountability and reporting through base measurements more than a pressure to perform. Then we as a small growing community could then turn our attention to people, facilities, and resources. It s more than changing words, it s a change of mindset and motivations, and frees us to imagine new possibilities in the methods we experiment and use. People are more than numbers. People have names, personal stories, problems and possibilities. Luther helpfully reminds us that we are saints and sinners at the same time, we are always in a position in need for God s grace. We are made in the image of God, beloved children of God, and seeking how to be faithful followers of Christ in this messy world we live in. We have the potential by the

1One of the things I found

helpful was to relook at pictures, and blog posts I had kept for a significant part of the BLC journey here http://sivinkit.net/category/bangsar-lutheran-church/ (accessed 1 April 2011).

transforming power of the Spirit to grow into instruments of change to make the prayer of God s kingdom and will to come here on earth as it is in heaven real in our personal and public lives. Different people have been and are still part of the BLC community. In the early days, you would see mostly Chinese looking faces. But, in God s own timing and wisdom, he added a healthy mix of Australians, Europeans and Americans (occasionally African) to diversify and beautify our common life together. Each brings a uniqueness of their original culture to enrich a new culture within the church where Christ has indeed broken down every wall. Unity in diversity is in danger of becoming an empty slogan these days, but every congregation who seeks to be faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ will need to wrestle with how we can be united even in the midst of our individual uniqueness. It starts with the church being a safe space for different people to come together. Differences for most congregations would be in our opinions on different subjects. And one-way forward is to know what is more essential, and what is less essential, and to discern the difference requires maturity and humility. There is a significant degree of depth for example of our opinions on styles of ministry compared to how we want to respond to issues of politics, economics and education in our setting. While as a congregation in the city, BLC was undeniably more middle class and above economically, we slowly grew more in touch with the concerns of the wider society. And if we believe in a safe space where walls are broken down , then we will need to be ready for ideas and issues we would no expect to show up. Often, it will take time and effort to fully understand people and what is the concern for each person. But, when each of us receives the bread and the wine, and participates in the Holy Communion together, Christ s real presence becomes the origin and resource for our unity. Even as a congregation younger in age on the average, other resources like the church year and the revised common lectionary, practices like stations of the cross and the Maundy Thursday meal, as well as re-appropriating insights from the Lutheran tradition especially during the Catechism classes, are ways in which this real presence is worked out in our thinking, worshipping and living. Learning to reflect theologically puts God at the ultimate reference point over our personal preferences, and thus as people who have our own blind spots unconsciously, a good dose of humility (as an antidote to unthinking dogmatism) will allow us to go far together. Living in Malaysia today, especially in a place like Kuala Lumpur, we are exposed to thinking educationally, economically, socially, and nowadays even politically, but one what is often neglected is learning to think theologically. And that is going to be hard work of first returning to the Bible, but also a fresh appreciation of church history and the various doctrines related to daily life. It involves a better understanding of our the strengths and weaknesses of our culture, a greater awareness of our own psychology and personalities. In short,

we cannot stop growing holistically and remain stagnant in our forms of thinking. As new creations in Christ, our minds are in constant renewal as we engage thinking alien and often uncomfortable to us. But thinking theologically means we trust in the leading of God s spirit, and the mutual affirmation and correction of the Christian community. Practically, this is experienced right from the small groups to the yearly congregation general meeting together with the council meetings and committee meetings in between. I like the word facilities more than building. The word facilities help us turn our attention on how our location and buildings facilitate ministry. And that is very important to redirecting the energy from unhealthy debates to creative use of the premises we have for church life and mission to our surroundings. The key question is, How can this room, this building, or this space facilitate a particul ar ministry of work we want to do better? As mentioned earlier, some of the most memorable events we have had at BLC were where the renovated bungalow we have was used to facilitate worship, community life and outreach. We used adapted versions of the stations of the cross during holy week a number of times. Different rooms in the building were transformed into creative stations by small groups to help people meditate on Christ s journey to the cross and anticipated resurrection. The church premises was transformed into a museum-like environment where through the arts, music and silence, we could encounter God out of the regular ways we are familiar with. Two unforgettable events for me personally, was a pancake party for Shrove Tuesday introduced by the British family who had been worshipping with us for many years and the full Maundy Thursday meal where we see the connection between the Old Testament Passover meal with the Lord s supper. Organizing and participating in these events facilitated in the church premises brought the theme of community life to the surface with Christian themes. In terms of outreach, BLC learnt precious lessons when we were able to cooperate even with non-governmental organizations like Protect and Save the children 2 on a common issue of concern, such as child abuse and faith inspired organizations like Friends in conversation 3 on a variety of social and theological topics. The buildings we are blessed with must never be just to privilege our members. We have been blessed to be a blessing to our community. When we use our buildings to facilitate that, then not only doors will be opened, but hearts and minds as well through the church to God. Money, money, money. It s so funny. It occupies our mind s so often. Congregations are not immune to this. Often the longest discussion in an annual general meeting is during the treasurer s report. But the mindset focused on cash, perhaps distracts us from seeing money as part of the wider resource that God has blessed us with.

2http://www.psthechildren.org.my/

3http://friendsinconversation.wordpress.com/ (accessed

(accessed 1 April 2011). 1 April 2011).

When we turn our focus to resources, then this can include time and energy people who are not that rich financially who contribute a lot to the life of the church. In the BLC journey, I have discovered again and again how resourceful we are when we are willing to be creative and think out of the box even just a little bit. One principle we found helpful was rather than starting many ministries from scratch since we are already small and limited especially the early years, we can join others who have already started the work. We do not have to reinvent the wheel for everything. This simple approach opened up our relationships with a variety of ministries within the LCMS for example the companionship program with the Orang Asli congregations as well as the work of United Voice a self-advocacy organization for people with learning disabilities 4. Of course, we may not be able to boast of so many ministries we have started, but the reality is that more of our resources especially in terms of time, energy and also money can be channeled to support existing work good work. The return has been most rewarding and fulfilling for us as well, because we are able to see how our collaboration with others truly extend the interests of the Kingdom of God more than our own local church. But then, by doing this we actually benefit as well. Increasingly as the seasons and times had changed, some of us in BLC realized that we as individuals and clusters of individuals are learning what does it mean to be a resource or catalyst for spiritual and social change in society. This would mean for me as the pastor and church leaders to reconsider how we organize our church programs and balance the internal needs of the congregation and the external mission of the church to the world. This is an ongoing process and there is no one formula that will fit into every situation. The key question is, What do we prayerfully discern what God wants us to do in this time and in this place? We must be ready for mistakes or failed experiments. The important thing is we are able to correct ourselves along the way, sharpen our strategies and have a healthy humility to learn along the way. It is when we are confident in God s grace that not only accepts us as we are, but also guides us in our growth we may press on without fear but in faith. Faith always involves risk. One of the common phrases that have been on the lips of BLC members is Jump first, fear later! The turn to use resource however is not to ignore finances but to open our attention to see beyond money while including it. It was important for BLC to be faithful in giving our benevolence to our mother church that gave birth to us. We needed to learn financial stewardship where money is not spend wastefully on less essentials so we can focus on the priority concerns. Learning to manage money as a corporate body is a reminder of our each of us individually can manage our own finance, which is humanly speaking earned, but theologically ultimately God s blessing to us.

4http://unitedvoice.com.my/

(accessed 1 April 2011). 4

In a world where we are defined as consumers and highlighted for our spending power to acquire symbols of wealth, the healthiest things to deal with that challenge is the simple act of giving. One of the things I have appreciated about BLC members through the last ten years has been their faithfulness and generosity in giving financially that for me as a pastor I had no need to worry about these matters and focus on the ministry and mission of the church. Of course, as a pastor I also had to learn how to work with church leaders who are more expert in matters of finance to make this work. Here is where we see each of us with our spiritual gifts contributing to the health of the congregation, and each of us being a gift to the church and the world by the role that we play. We are in this together, and like the African proverb says, Together we can go far! Before I wrap up the article, you would have noticed the ABC s of church is not thrown away, but rather the place of attendance, buildings and cash are understood in their proper place, namely what we see merely on the surface. . Today in 2011, BLC has a larger attendance than the year 2000, the building has just completed a major renovation, and the financial stewardship of the church is healthy. There is much to be grateful and to give thanks to God for. But I know very well, that is merely the surface, and does not tell the whole story. It must not be the end of the discussion and focus. When all is said and done, I found myself having a fresh appreciation of people, facilities, and resources especially in my own journey the past slightly more than ten years of being the pastor of Bangsar Lutheran Church. I believe different congregations of the LCMS throughout the country can retell the story of BLC in different ways. My hope is that by sharing our journey a little it may inspire others to take a fresh look at their own. Hopefully, whether one is doing well or struggling personally or corporately will find something to bring the focus back to what is more important in the wider scheme of God s plans and purposes for the church and the world. The focus on my last three sermons before I came to Norway to start my doctoral program was Jump first, Fear later , You are not Alone and Walk On . It has been very helpful for me personally at different seasons of my life and ministry to connect me to the various spiritual and theological themes of grace, faith, community, accountability, creativity and perseverance. I offer in closing the following prayer for any journey which is not only relevant for individuals and church institutions like LCMS but also for congregations as well 5.

Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger, Christ in hearts of all that love me,
5http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/St._Patrick's_Breastplate

(accessed 1 April 2011).

Christ in mouth of friend and stranger. I bind unto myself the name, The strong name of the Trinity; By invocation of the same. The Three in One, and One in Three, Of whom all nature hath creation, Eternal Father, Spirit, Word: Praise to the Lord of my salvation, salvation is of Christ the Lord.