Controversy over church's 'prosperity gospel'

Controversy over church's 'prosperity gospel'
City Harvest church founder, Kong Hee and his wife Ho Yeow Sun.

Former church members and some pastors have publicly questioned some practices at City Harvest Church (CHC), after several of its leaders were found guilty on Oct 21 of misusing church funds.

Senior Pastor of Cornerstone Community Church Yang Tuck Yoong wrote an online note to his congregation, saying CHC's founding pastor Kong Hee had not taken heed of the proverb which says "a good name is to be chosen rather than great riches".

He added that he was grieved many people had "left the faith, backslid, stumbled, or who had been so disillusioned by the whole fiasco".

Kong, 51, was among six church leaders who were convicted of misusing millions in church funds to bankroll his wife Ho Yeow Sun's music career. They are due back in court next Friday for sentencing submissions.

Mr Yang told The Straits Times he got to know Kong when they were both attending the Marine Parade Christian Centre in the 1980s. Kong had assisted him in running the youth ministry at the church, he said.

The duo had disagreed on "theological standpoints" in the past, Mr Yang said.

"We've a saying that 'theology breeds methodology', and their position on the Crossover Project might have led to some practices in the church that have now come into question by the courts," he said, referring to CHC's project to evangelise through the music of Ms Ho.

Pastor Aaron Ho from Saint Andrew's Secondary School had written in his blog that trying to evangelise through Ms Ho's controversial music career was "questionable at the very least".

"The principle is this - you cannot compromise the gospel in order to share the gospel," he wrote.

Formers members also told The Straits Times about practices in church, saying they felt compelled to give donations, had their whereabouts constantly monitored by church members, or were pressured into buying Ms Ho's music albums.

One former member, who wanted to be known only as Mr Khoo, said his cell group leaders had questioned him about his monthly allowance because they suspected he was "under-contributing" in his tithes and offerings.

"At that point of time, I was still a student, but I was driving my dad's car - I think they felt I was quite well-to-do," said Mr Khoo, 27, who left the church about three years ago.

Making a donation is a personal choice, he said, adding that contributions were noted on envelopes and tracked by cell group leaders. CHC preaches the "prosperity gospel", which teaches that one would be rewarded materially and spiritually if they gave financially to God.

Another former member, Ms Geraldine Sim, said she was expected to report daily via SMS to a "mentor" on her whereabouts, and was once told off when she was spotted watching a movie with a male friend.

The 27-year-old digital content editor related her time in CHC in a blog which was shared widely. She attended CHC for about two years, joining it at the age of 15.

Whenever Ms Ho released a music album, pastors would "encourage" members to buy it, said Ms Sim. She added: "There were extreme examples. At a meeting, we were told one of the cell group leaders had sold his car so he could buy more albums. It was like 'See, our brother, he sacrificed for God'."

Undergraduate Samuel Wee, 25, said giving to the church was regularly emphasised.

"It was an environment where financial contribution was constantly portrayed as a positive thing you do to be a good Christian, and for your own good, to enrich yourself spiritually and financially," said Mr Wee, who left the church in 2009.

When approached, CHC declined to comment. The National Council of Churches of Singapore (NCCS) said many churches encourage regular giving, but "coercion is not helpful if it were true".

NCCS president Reverend Wee Boon Hup said worshippers were free to join other churches if they did not agree with CHC's practices.

He said: "NCCS expects member churches to be responsible in the raising and management of their funds, following accepted principles of governance as required by the Commissioner of Charities." 

Church spent $2.5m on charity

Around $2.5 million was spent on charitable causes over the past three years by City Harvest Community Services Association (CHCSA), the social service arm of City Harvest Church (CHC).

Church members say this is proof of the continued good that the church has been doing in society.

An independent society started in 1996, CHCSA is part-funded by CHC. Its programmes target the elderly, youth and the terminally ill.

According to its financial statements, it spent about $1 million each year over the last two financial years on its charitable programmes and activities. The year before that, from November 2011 to October 2012, it spent $537,454.

However, it is not known what percentage of CHC's income is spent on social causes because its financial statements are still not available on the Government's Charity Portal.

When asked, a church spokesman said this was because audits were still ongoing after the trial of its six church leaders, which ended with them - including founder Kong Hee, 51 - being convicted of misusing church funds.

The spokesman said: "A significant portion of the issues brought up in the trial were accounting- and audit-related, therefore the ongoing audit of the church's financial statements will inevitably take much longer than normal."

While CHC has spent money on charity, it has also made some, in at least one of its investments.

It has an indirect stake of 39.2 per cent in Suntec Singapore Convention and Exhibition Centre, where it holds its weekly services. The property was valued at about $661 million in December last year by property consultant Colliers. CHC spent $97.75 million from 2010 to 2011 to acquire its share of the property, now worth close to $260 million.

At the same time, it continues to receive dividends from owning the property. Based on figures from Suntec Reit's third-quarter financial report, the church's share of the property should entitle it to $4.9 million in dividends from January to September this year.

The figure is two-thirds higher than the $2.9 million it should have received from the property in the same period last year.

Additional reporting by Priscilla Goy 

This article was first published on Nov 11, 2015.
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