January 2015 Issue: The Strategic Role of the GCF

by Dr Tan Gee Paw

It is my privilege to be here at your 59th annual dinner. Next year’s 60th anniversary would be a milestone for the Graduates’ Christian Fellowship (GCF). It is timely for us at this stage in the development of Singapore to reflect on what I would call “the strategic role of the GCF”.
One of the things that guided me when I was invited to speak at your dinner tonight is the GCF Vision 2011 paper that you drew up four years ago. It is a very comprehensive paper if you would recall. This paper touched on many areas, in particular, engagement in the community, outreach, missions, discussions on current issues and supporting the needs of its members. These are very honourable goals that GCF has been doing. It is a mission statement that is very relevant to the current needs of the Christian community in Singapore.

But I would like say that things will not be the same as they have been over the last 10-15 years. This is because the pace of change, not just in Singapore or regionally but globally, is accelerating with events happening unpredictably. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) came into being within a few months with its global repercussions reaching as far away as to even
Australia. Changes are happening so fast in our generation, and will accelerate even more in the years to come. Unlike the past, it will be more unpredictable. In the midst of all these, the GCF must find its strategic role.

Need for strategic thinking for the Christian community

Amongst all the Christian communities that I have been associated with in Singapore, the GCF is unique and I tell you why. It is because you are the depository of intellectual capital amongst the Christian communities here in Singapore. Therefore, upon your shoulders, is placed this burden of strategic thinking –strategic thinking for the Christian community in Singapore and perhaps, regionally. From this strategic thinking comes leadership responsibility as GCF serves the local Christian communities and
churches in Singapore.

The GCF’s leadership task is more than just serving its members or the Christian community, and more than just making GCF relevant to the needs of society as we seek to give back to society. All these
tasks are necessary and given. But a key job of GCF’s leadership is to part the curtains, look a little into the future, research and try to find out that what could hold for us in the next 15, 20, even 30 years. It should see important changes that are to come, which will require strategic redirection of the local Christian community, meaning the local churches.

Today, this kind of work is not done at all for the Christian church in Singapore. Presently, every Christian church in Singapore is busy addressing the current needs of its members, and current issues impacting society today. But if we continue to follow this approach, we will be focusing the Christian mind only on the immediate and thus, closing the Christian mind to the future. What we see today occupies fully our minds and efforts so that we have no time to think of the future. As a consequence, we do not realise that the world is changing so fast! We are stuck dealing with immediate problems. I always say: “It is like a dog chasing its own tail.”

Strategic leadership that the GCF can provide

The strategic leadership that the GCF can provide is to part the curtains and look ahead, and tell the local Christian communities and local churches: “Look, things are changing. These are the areas and the concerns that we think are there in the future and will come upon us. We better be prepared.” Let me ask you a question. When you were in Sunday school 40-50 years ago, like me, did the Sunday school at that time prepare you for life in Singapore today? No! We had to struggle, and somehow by God’s grace, we managed to scramble, get things in order, and continue our Christian witness over these decades of changes. But it need not be so, and we may not survive in the future via that way, because the changes for the last 40 years will pale into insignificance compared to the changes that are yet to come.

Issues requiring the best Christian minds

Let me give you some examples. Geo-political balance of power is shifting; socio-economic, religious and political changes are taking place at an unprecedented scale; globalisation has come about; income gap has widened; and the info-comm revolution that changes our way of communication, which started a decade ago, is accelerating. In addition, we now see the rise of megacities in Asia led by Tokyo with 37 million people, with many of these mega-cities in countries where urban life is unsustainable.

Each of these changes I have listed above, and there are many more, would require our best Christian minds to prayerfully consider their impact upon the future Christian community, the church of our grandchildren. But churches here are not yet aware of these changes that are coming. We live from day to day, handling today’s problems, and have not parted the curtains to look into the future
Let me elaborate a little further. Take globalisation and mega-cities for example. With globalisation and mega-cities will come the migration of extreme forms of lifestyles. Today, the Singapore church leaders address the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issue with little engagement by their church members, and we think that we can be isolated from this issue. But such future issues may engage the unprepared future generation. What if, for example, your grandchild is in a primary school where a quarter of the kids come from same-sex parents? And they are good friends! Are we preparing our younger generation and our grandchildren how to live in those days?

Another example is the geo-political situation where events of recent past several months have changed the United States’ (US) foreign policies. The US has been coming out to Asia because of the rise of China. But now I think they have to perhaps, do a reverse, slow down here, and turn back, because of recent events in Ukraine, Crimea and ISIS. This would certainly have an impact upon our Western-oriented local churches. Our local churches have been so dominated by the church culture and theological framework of the West that we have failed to develop a church that is indigenous to Asia. The Asian churches are on the rise and perhaps, may be led one day by the church in China and India. We will become an isolated church, irrelevant to and ignored in our own Asian neighbourhood.

It is a sad fact that a century after the first Christian missionaries landed in Singapore, we do not have an indigenous church. We are viewed especially by the other religions, as an offshoot of the Western church because of the way we conduct ourselves. But things will change with the rise of China and India, and we need perhaps some strategic rethinking now.

Closing of the Christian mind

In Singapore, every Sunday, we go to church to worship, go home and feel good about it, and carry on life that way. It is the closing of the Christian mind in Singapore that troubles me tremendously. We end up in this state because we are too cozy! We are flooded with affluence and are stuck in the problems of affluence – work stress, pastoral care that is needed for people who worked from 9am in the morning till 11pm at night, and family and educational
problems– all these issues that are overwhelming us, and we forget the world is fast changing.

These are some signs of the closing of the Christian mind in Singapore and the inability of the local church to part the curtains, look into the future for problems that are coming and prepare the present church. This is where the GCF is best poised to come in and fill that vacuum, because you are the depository of intellectual capital in the Christian community here. Should GCF do the same things that other Christian organisations can do (and which they can do better) such as reaching out to the community and engaging in all kinds of activities? If GCF does not part the curtains, provide strategic thinking and directions to the local churches, who else can do this? The GCF’s distinctiveness is not in doing what other Christian organisations can do. There is no point in such replication. But the GCF’s distinctiveness is the intellectual capital that you have, with which you can part the curtains and look ahead. This is urgently necessary.

In the secular arena, we have the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. They are the think-tanks set up by the Government. But in the Christian church, especially in Singapore, there are no such think-tanks until recently. So we live day by day, grappling with the current issues and problems, and the future just descends – not upon us but upon our children, and they are not prepared because we do not anticipate these things coming upon them!

We often hear of Christian parents who say: “I don’t know why my kids behave this way” or “I can no longer communicate with them.” You just have to look at the info-comm industry, where I think that the greatest revolution in history is taking place. This revolution in info-comm technology affects the way we communicate fundamentally – Twitter, hand phones and do on. Changes in this field are going to accelerate with the integration of neural networks and artificial intelligence into hand phones. Addiction to the hand phone, a current day problem amongst the young, may one day evolve into emotional attachment to a virtual companion, that can hold a conversation with you and perhaps, with other hand phones! Such changes are almost beyond our capacity to embrace, and even beyond our horizon of current understanding.

When I peeked into a Sunday School class in my church recently, I saw the Sunday School teacher and the kids doing exactly the same as what I did some 40 years ago – the same method and mode of teaching – nothing has changed! Every student I saw looked down at the table. I know what is going on in their minds. They are waiting for the day that their parents cannot bring them to church anymore, and off they will go, leaving a fossilised church behind. We are not communicating with them because the means of communication have changed. The info-comm technology revolution that started 10-15 years ago is accelerating. So we come to church, enjoy cozy fellowships, go home, and let the world pass by. We think we can isolate ourselves from the changes that are going on, but these changes will affect our children and grandchildren in the future.

Who will take up the challenge?

So who will part the curtain? No one except those who are endowed with intellectual capital and GCF is one of them. I know your problems - the problem of membership, having difficulties in getting members to pay annual subscriptions, and having to go around and ask members how GCF can serve them and be relevant to their needs. But I tell you, and pardon me for saying so; this is a sorry state of affairs. This is because GCF does not have to serve the needs of graduates alone. It can also serve the Christian community by challenging graduates to think about the future and get them in to help prepare today’s younger generation for the changes to come. And we got to do it.

Many Christian graduates after passing through college and university, lack that kind of challenge in life, and so they gravitate into working hard for personal career goals and family, leading to the stresses in life, dissipation, and the anxieties of life noted in the Bible. Why? Because they have not been given a leadership challenge on what the future will hold, the changes and strategic redirections that are needed here in Singapore.

The world is changing. We need Christian think-tanks with thinking capacities to part the curtains and look into the future. I do not know what more to say, except to tell you that there is need for a strategic re-thinking for the church in Singapore and upon the shoulders of the GCF would rest such a burden. You will not be alone. I am speaking of the Trinity Theological College, which has recently formed the ETHOS Institute of Public Christianity with the National Council of Churches of Singapore and The Singapore Bible Society. I think they all have become more and more aware of the need to part the curtains and look into the future. So I appeal to the GCF, even as you ponder upon the vision for the future that you consider what I have spoken to you this evening.

The GCF Vision 2011 is excellent but times have changed. Times have changed in such an accelerated mode that this world has become less and less predictable. Because time has changed, that is why think-tanks have been formed. The S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies now has an institute that deals with interreligious studies and they thinking about the future. Even though this is a secular organisation, they are doing this because they could see religion being an integral part of the development in Asia. What more could we, Christian graduates in the GCF do?


Let me just end here, friends, and I pray that my little message will perhaps start you thinking. The time is urgent. If we miss this in our generation, the next generation and our grandchildren will be swimming in a sea of confusion. It is something that will happen. It is for us, friends, to wake up, because churches here are, in my opinion, fast asleep on these matters.

(This talk was given at the GCF Thanksgiving Dinner on 19 September 2014 at National University of Singapore Society Kent Ridge Guild House)