It looked like a short stroll using the map on their website, maybe it was the near 100% humidity and 40°C heat, but it was soon seeming like an unguided tour hiking through back streets of Kowloon in search of City Church International’s meeting place at the YWCA.
Searching for a church in York once I stopped a guy carrying a guitar to ask for directions (I know, a man asking for directions – but I was desperate). He looked like he would know since who else but a Christian carries a guitar around, and wears slightly dull semi-formal casual clothes at 9.30 on a Sunday morning? Turned out he was a Christian and although he was not going to the church we were searching for he ably guided us there. Well, we did ask a couple of people where the YWCA was but they did not know, nor had they heard of City Church International, not surprisingly. I even tried asking “You no weh fine Wa Dub You See Eh?” or “Lob Loofah?” but I just got strange looks. That Church in York and Rob Rufus’s in Hong Kong shared a similar learning need: if you meet in an unpresupposing building, in a fairly hidden part of town and you want newcomers to visit and attend your services you need to provide a) good information about transport links – the church website map was poor on detail and did not even mention the fact that the Number 8 bus which links perfectly with the Star Ferry terminal, stops just 50 yards away! – and b) proper signage outside. Otherwise only the really determined will come. And we were really determined.)
Eventually, overheated (it was very very hot this Sunday morning and the humidity was near 100% again) and somewhat flustered – definitely in need of grace – we found a building which looked like it was a YWCA centre. “I think this is it” I announced. I was at the head of the trail of course (which included Judith, Grace, Emily and Luise) with my trusty iPhone GPS google maps sat-nav – although between tall buildings it was not that useful for detail! We felt like we’d just walked 1000 miles, and soaked with perspiration I declared that even if this was not the right place we were going to go in and hold church there ourselves as it was at least likely to have air-conditioning and refreshment.
Thankfully it was CCI’s meeting place and once we had cooled down and glugged some water we entered the hall. In reality the building is not hard to find when you know where it is!
We were about 10 minutes early and although there were no signs outside the building, as you entered the hall there was a table with posters and some of Rob’s audio CDs. A pre-service prayer meeting had started a few minutes before at the front of the chairs around the worship band. About 30 people including the worship band, gathered around Rob and Glenda and were evidently praying for the service. There were no welcome stewards evident in the hall so we quietly found some seats in middle and sat down.
The hall has a high ceiling conference room with potential seating for perhaps a few hundred, it looked like there was a sectioned off balcony area too. Chairs for about 150 were arranged theatre-style facing the stage, and at the back behind the middle block we were sitting in there were toddlers’ toys on a mat and a 18 inch high children’s paddling pool filled with water, which at first I thought was an innovative touch – the kids could splash around during worship! (Actually it was there to be used for baptisms which occurred at the end of the service, but during our time of worship one toddler ventured towards the sides of the pool – it was not the inflatable but the ‘floppy’ type – and promptly fell in! I had moved to the back during worship to take a couple of photos and saw this happening in my camera lens. Water began to flow out in the direction of the PA and videoing equipment! I ventured towards the toddler to pick him up, but the toddler’s mum, who had been gloriously ‘lost in wonder’ somewhere while her child baptised himself, quickly came to his rescue and helped in the clean up operation which ensued as we appropriately sang a song with a line about “washing me clean”!)
We used to run a prayer time at the front of our meeting hall just before the service started. I was thinking about this as I observed theirs now from a visitor’s point of view. We moved it into a side room when someone suggested that it was not very visitor friendly as newcomers could feel awkward not knowing whether they should join in or not, whether they could talk or should sit quietly. At the time I remember responding with something dismissive like “Of course visitors are welcome to join in – it’s not exclusive!” But you get a new perspective when you’re on the receiving end, and there is a marked difference between visitors being welcome and visitors being made welcome. Actually we did feel a tad awkward and excluded as the group at the front got louder and louder in their excitement in the Spirit; and we were Christians – not sure how an unbeliever or an newcomer would feel (cf. Paul’s concern for ‘outsiders’ and the ‘uninitiated’ in 1 Cor 14:16, 23ff). There were a few other folk milling around, setting up tables for refreshments and children’s ministry stuff, but strangely no-one spoke to us until just before the band struck up when Glenda came over to say hello and introduce herself to Judith, Luise and the girls. She was warm and friendly and made us feel immediately at home.
The meeting was scheduled to start at 10am, but there were plenty of empty chairs! Hmm… this reminds me of somewhere I thought. About 5 minutes later the band struck up a song and people stood to join in. The music was lively, Jesus-focused, and heart-felt. The mainly familiar songs ranged from Hillsong to Chris Tomlin. We even sang Jason Upton’s In Your Presence. As with the home-group meeting the participation in this section was all sung; prophetic songs, singing in the Spirit, sung prayers, participants were singers and those leading at the front using the mics – the music continued in the background throughout. After 20 minutes Glenda Rufus invited us to take our seats, then she welcomed newcomers and guests (including us) and shared the notices for the week. She invited a guy who had been with them for the majority of the 5 or 6 years the church has existed there to give his testimony and be prayed for because he was returning home, which I think was somewhere in South Africa. He had been initially drawn to the church because he’d heard there were South Africans there.
By now there were around 70-80 people present and Glenda announced that the children would be leaving with their leaders. There were around a dozen who left for the children’s group which was held in another room.
Rob got up to preach. I will try and give a synopsis of the notes I took because it was a timely preach for the church and also reassured me in some matters we have had to face as leaders. He based his sermon on Romans 5. He started out by saying that this had been a tough year for them as a church. They had lost a young man through suicide, but he reminded us that many have been saved from suicide by the grace of God. Nevertheless Rob had just completed a teaching series on “Dealing with Hardships” in response to the troubled times they had been through. He now wanted to return to the topic of the Grace of God, mainly he said, because it also fundamental to handling issues like this because grace is the only way God relates to us all the time. He emphasised that grace is not about living selfishly but living for the benefit of others. The Bible does not speak of cheap grace – i.e. sinning as much as we want; nor any sort of distorted grace – e.g. seeking our own pleasure at the expense of others. The issue is: the free gift of righteousness. This is not earned, it cannot be earned; it is a gift. But there are still Christians who sadly believe the opposite and this affects the way they relate to God. E.g. They think “When I sin God punishes me; when I’m good he’s gracious.” No! In fact that is the world’s way of relating to us, not God’s.
Rob read again as he had done Thursday night (see earlier post) the prophetic word he’d written out about a new season of revelation on grace and the gift of righteousness. He emphasised a section about being unchangeably, perfectly qualified to rightstanding with God… That some folk are waiting for a greater thing. But that God says “There is no greater thing I have to give you… If there is a greater thing I have to give you it is a greater REVELATION of that righteousness… So I’m inviting you to a further lifting of the veil. A supernatural grace avalanche will sweep the earth as an international tsunami of glory.” In his letters to Timothy Paul makes it clear that prior to his conversion, when he was a Jew under the Law, he was a violent man [I Tim 1:13]. Under the law you are angry, grumpy, self-righteous. Religion is satanic, it’s the same power that deceived Adam & Eve. Violence caused by religion is satanic. Jesus brought a revolution: He was not a wimp. Jesus lost his temper. He was a real man with testosterone. He got angry when it was appropriate: he got angry with religion and religious people. A revolutionary challenges the ruling legalistic Pharoahs who are controlling things for the benefit of a small elite.
Genesis chapters 1-3: In Eden (which in Hebrew means “place of pleasure”) the fruit of the Tree was the Knowledge of good & evil. The deception was about being righteous apart from God – knowing good and evil without God. i.e. being self-righteous. They were actually already like God (imago dei – made in His image) and with God, in His presence; the Devil’s temptation was to be like God without God. He said they could know righteousness apart from God. To know how I stand with the Father I don’t look at myself I look at Jesus. I no longer have an old nature but now a new nature that wants not to sin. But even if we do sin the Holy Spirit is there to help us out of it.
He pointed out that Rom 5:12.ff makes clear that your sin did not bring sin into the world. Neither did your sin kill you or condemn you. It was through Adam that sin came into the world and condemns us. He argued from v13 that despite the fact that God does not count sin where there is no law, however death still reigned even though they didn’t sin in the same way as Adam by breaking a commandment. They sinned because in Adam all have sinned. This is so because Paul argues in vv14-19 “How much more will those who received the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.”
Rob stated that he did not hate the law of God he loved the law! But not because it makes him more holy (Col 2 – law is cancelled to those who are in Christ) but rather the law was given to increase sin! (No one is going to stop sinning altogether until Jesus comes again.) The law actually incites us to sin. So he asked the question which sin did Jesus die for? Our sin in breaking the law, or Adam’s sin? It was Adam’s sin [N.B. actually I think it was both – i.e. all our sins, viz. those which separate us from God – our ‘conditional’ and ‘positional’ sin we are born with, as well as the sins we commit ‘in the flesh’ because of this condition – which we do need to continue to confess and repent of as the Spirit reveals. Cf. Isa 53:6, Heb 10:17, 1 Jn 1:9, but his point is valid in this context because it is in Adam that we inherit our enmity with God – Jon]. Because in Adam all sinned and inherited death. But no-onene was aware because we thought we were OK through self-righteousness. v21. The cure is infinitely greater than the problem. Once that problem is cured people need to be made aware of this fact. But with our new nature we learn new joys and pleasures and we don’t desire to sin. Rob said while he knew a Christian was free to sin without condemnation, he said because of the new nature he had no desire to sin – “It’s like a third shoe” he quipped, “I don’t need it, don’t know what to do with it.”
The service finished with a song and then we celebrated the baptisms of three people who had recently joined the church. This is where the paddling pool came in handy although it was so shallow those getting baptised had to sit in it and were dunked backwards, just about getting totally immersed with a little effort! After the service tea, coffee, biscuits and buns were served. We stayed and chatted for a while and I talked briefly with a couple of the worship team members and with Rob and Glenda again.
It was good to get a bit of background on this church, where they’re at and where they are currently heading. Much falls on the shoulders of Rob and Glenda who really run the place. They suffer from a transient membership which many city churches do – people come, especially ex-pats, stay for a couple of years then move on. So it is not easy to build consistently. In addition Rob and Glenda travel a lot, speaking at conferences and churches in their network New Covenant Ministries International, as well as hosting conferences themselves. Through these means they seek to get the grace message spread abroad, but it does mean that they are not always around which for the only full-time pastor/elder in the church must be tricky, especially when Glenda is basically the church administrator.
Speaking to those who attended the home group and others on the Sunday morning, the church seems to have what I have sometimes referred to as a ‘Field of Dreams‘ vision. Field of Dreams was a slightly bizarre 1989 movie about an Iowa corn farmer who has a kind of epiphany involving a dead baseball player, and hearing voices he interprets them as a command to build a baseball diamond in his fields. When he does so the Chicago Black Sox team arrive and play there. It includes (apparently) great sporting heroes like Shoeless Joe Jackson (sounds like Baseball’s equivalent of Seasick Steve!) and the immortal line whispered by The Voice “If you build it, he will come.”
In the early days of our church and my experience in what was then called the ‘Restoration movement‘ we had a Field of Dreams vision for the local church; we believed that all we needed to do was to build local church right, with the correct ingredients, Baptism in the Holy Spirit, freedom from denominational structures, New Testament teaching, apostolic and prophetic leadership and no dead religion… If your built according to this pattern then ‘He would come‘ and dwell there, and by implication ‘they would come‘, i.e. the lost would automatically start getting saved, the church would grow and revival would follow.
As a result most of the growth we had at that time was from existing Christians, disgruntled with their dead church life, leaving one church and joining ours which was marginally better. We did some occasional outreach and evangelism but we did not really engage with the culture around us, learning its language in order to communicate the Good News effectively. And so our church life did not really attract non-Christians and the few that ventured in, found it intriguing at best but confusing in the main and difficult to interpret. We were very inward focused – what we did satisfied us and other Christians who were looking for ‘something deeper’ but did little to enable us to be salt and light, or to fulfill the Great Commission or impact and transform the world around us.
I was not disappointed by my visit to City Church International, for Rob and Glenda are wonderful warm people; Rob is a powerful communicator who has a gift of putting ideas into pithy little saying often using rhyme, alliteration or assonance, which make them humorous and easy to remember; they are both genuine exhorters of the flock and clearly father and mother the work – a trait which the Lord would impress upon both Judith and me over and over again in Australia; and the congregation is like an extended family, totally supportive of their ‘parents’, convinced of the doctrines of grace and living in the good of this. Nevertheless I was surprised that the church was not larger, given Rob’s inspiring zeal, and not more conscious of the need to be seeker-accessible given that it has been in existence for over 5 years and Hong Kong is a city of several millions.
But we left filled with the presence of Jesus and touched by the love of his people, and caught a passing Number 8 bus back to Central Hong Kong via the Star Ferry.