Mystery Worshipper: Shepherd of the Hills
Church: International Baptist
Date of visit: Sunday, 30 August 2009, 9:30am
Singapore's scarcity of land is evident in the planning of the structure built in the late 1990s. What appears from the street as a two-storey structure is actually a seven-level church with two levels of basement parking, a couple of levels of classrooms, function halls and office, and a worship hall with balcony. From the narrow King's Road, one pulls over a C-shaped driveway that leads to a pair of glass doors opening to a small lobby-cum-hallway. On the right side of the hallway are doors that lead to the worship centre, while a reception desk is smacked in between a set of doors that lead to several rooms on the left. The worship hall is a rectangular auditorium with fan-shaped pew arrangement. Each pew is padded and the room is fully air conditioned. Prominently displayed on the left wall is a huge world map with pins stuck on every country from which the congregation's members hail. The chancel section is almost bare except for a wooden pulpit and green-padded choir chairs. To the extreme left side of the stage is the band section, on the other is a three-manual Allen digital organ that sounded like the real thing! At the very front wall of the sanctuary behind the choir is a huge triangular opening that shows the baptistery. Close to the triangle's top corner is a simple wood cross.
The International Baptist Church of Singapore is true to its name, with almost 50 countries represented in its membership and attendees. Locals comprise about 40 per cent of the total membership. The leadership of the church is a great reflection of the congregation's diversity. While being true to being a church of all peoples, IBCS also have ethnic-focused ministries. While three of its main pastors are Americans, two Filipinos serve the Filipino congregation, an Indonesian pastor serves his flock, and a Chinese pastor leads locals in a Mandarin service. It is also evident that many in its community come from the upper middle class to elite strata of society, with a small sprinkle of common blue collar folks. Diplomats and international company executives mingle with domestic helpers and grocery storekeepers; laundry ladies from Jakarta share seats with information technology specialists from Manila. The church seeks to unite all people regardless of status and race under the lordship of Christ.
The church is the Queenstown area of Singapore between Holland District and Bukit Timah, which is a long stretch where expensive housing, malls and schools are located. Queenstown was named after Queen Elizabeth II to mark her coronation in 1953. The area used to be called by the Chinese name Wu Wei Gang. King's Road, where the church is located, is a minor narrow street lined with some of the most expensive bungalows in the island. Since Singapore has limited land space, to own a bungalow is a big deal and the church is smacked in the middle of that classy community. There is also a Lutheran church nearby.
Worship leader was the Revd Alan Moore, pastor for music and worship. Preacher was the Revd Dr Tom Chandler. Prayer leader was the Revd Dr Matthew Lim, pastor for member care.
What was the name of the service?The Church in Worship.
How full was the building?
The attendance recorded in the bulletin for the previous Sunday was 1,859 in all five services, including the ethnic group worship services. I counted roughly around 400 to 450 people at my service. For an auditorium that could seat 600, there was still a lot of room.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No one! I arrived about an hour early to an empty lobby. I walked down the hall and saw a lady carrying a box full of choir folders. I asked her what time the service was, but she must have thought I asked her what I could do to help, as she replied, "Could you please open that door for me?" I did. After a few minutes she emerged through the door and saw me still standing there. "Please go to the visitor's center (pointing to a room with an open door) and help yourself for a cup of coffee," she said. So that's exactly what I did. A young lady came into the room and helped herself to some coffee, but walked out without apparently having seen me. Fifteen minutes later I saw a woman arranging worship folders, and I summoned up the courage to introduce myself to her. She was the first person who obliged me in any way, although I wondered if she would have ignored me had I not made the first move as an obvious newcomer.
Was your pew comfortable?
Wood pews with thick green padding – comfortable but with little leg room. My knees almost touched the pew in front of me. Since I sat at the very end of pew, I extended my left leg out into the aisle; otherwise I would have felt like a veal!
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The musicians were going through the morning's worship set. First the vocalists, and then after about 10 minutes the guitarist arrived and started rehearsing his part. After another 10 minutes, the bassist came and set himself up. Twenty minutes into the rehearsal, the drummer and the pianist came in! Finally, the team was ready to do a sound check all together, but by then it was almost time for the service to begin. All the while, people were streaming in, each one seeming to have his or her own agenda. There was lots of loud talking and boisterous laughter. Three minutes before the service, the choir came in and lined up at the back of the sanctuary. None of the choir members deemed it necessary to shut up – every one was talking to someone – until someone cued them to climb the stage from the side steps. When the choir were all set, the service began.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Who among you here came in before it rained? Well, obviously, those who are dripping just got here!" How utterly lame, I thought.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Baptist Hymnal and a pew Bibles were in the racks, but we didn't use them. Songs and scripture were projected onto screens, and a majority of the people brought their own Bibles.
What musical instruments were played?
A grand piano, a synthesizer, electric guitar, bass and drums. The three-manual Allen digital organ was played only to accompany the last song, which was only one stanza long: "O How I Love Jesus." What a waste of a perfectly good instrument and a talented organist with a doctorate in music and organ performance.
Did anything distract you?
After the lame opening line by the worship leader, everything seemed to have become either distracting and disappointing. I was about ready to walk out, but I felt that I should at least hear the preaching. One major distraction was the announcement time. A total of eight people stood to announce something or some things about the ministry they lead or support. It ate so much of the service time that the preacher appeared obliged to cut his sermon short!
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was a sad attempt to be a "blended" service. We sang three contemporary songs accompanied by a band and led by a team and a 40-member choir, but the people in the congregation didn't seem to respond. I started clapping my hands at the beginning of Brian Doerksen's "Hallelujah, Your love is Amazing," but realised on the second line that I was clapping alone and it felt awkward. The lame opening line by the worship leader was another attempt to make the service sound and feel contemporary. The worship team sounded great and so did the choir or would have done had the service been a traditional one! The worship leader having the pitch and timbre of a classical singer singing rock was just a bit off.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
15 minutes, which isn't very typical of a Baptist service!
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – The American preacher was preaching to an international church, but he used stories and anecdotes that were largely of topical interest to Americans.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
His sermon was entitled "The Essence of Love: Honesty and Humility." As Christians, we are taught by Christ to follow his example of love and humility. Honesty is something we must center on in our relationships, coupled with humility, not thinking more highly of ourselves than of others.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The choir anthem "I Can Only Imagine" was great! The message of the song is heaven, so, yeah, it felt like heaven.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The numerous announcements. It felt like attending a Kiwanis or a Rotary meeting with everyone having something to say about something.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Nothing! I came out of the sanctuary to a narrow lobby full of people waiting for the next service. I felt the need simply to get out of people's way.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The coffee was hot. Guests could help themselves to it.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
4 – The church service just seemed too unplanned to me, and the guests found it difficult to break through cliques among regulars.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
I'm always glad I'm a Christian!
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
All the announcements and the lame opening line.