Much like Hillsong only different… in Hong Kong, the singing city.
We were staying with Judith’s brother Graham and his wife Luise who were fantastic hosts. Since their arrival in Hong Kong some three years ago Luise has, for part of the time, been on the staff of the Vine Christian Fellowship which is where we decided to worship that afternoon, joining in with the third of their three services each Sunday. It was great to experience this church first hand; we had heard so much about it not only from Luise and Graham but also because of its support and connections with Care for Children – the Beijing based charity established and run by Rob and Liz Glover over ten years ago when they left our church in Guernsey with a call to the far East!
So after the morning with Rob Rufus at City Church International in Kowloon, then catching the Star Ferry back to Hong Kong island for a spot of lunch, we headed for The Vine Centre, which is actually not a separate building but a suite of rooms situated on the 2nd floor of Two Chinachem Plaza tower block and accessed by lift from the 1st floor office lobby. Complicated to find? Actually no, because a)
their church website has comprehensive directions for arriving on foot, by bus, MTR (metro) and tram, b) there is even an interactive google map on their site which allows you to put in your own address so as to produce detailed personalised directions, and c) there is a colourful band of welcomers you can’t miss in the plaza area where the lifts are situated ready to help you find your way up where you are greeted by more friendly welcome hosts. All in all they have done their best to ensure that their ‘Centre’ meeting venue, hidden as it is up a skyscraper, is as accessible and visible as possible.
Despite the fact that the location is clearly not ideal they have transformed the space in an incredible way! What they have done is to create a church meeting space using two or three floors of office space – amazing in itself that they got permission for this! They now have a vision to procure a purpose-designed facility in due course (the plans were available for viewing while we were there). In the meantime this office conversion gives them a theatre-type hall which holds about 150 people (looks like they knocked through two floors to get the height for this), and includes some clever sound-proofing, trendy unobtrusive lighting (there is no natural light), a smallish (in terms of depth) stage and excellent AV/PA facilities. In addition there is an small lounge area, coffee-bar serving Starbucks-style drinks, reception area, and rooms for kid’s ministry, counselling, storage and a small suite of offices. It perhaps helps that one of the two leading pastors, Tony Read, was an Ove Arup engineer before entering full-time ministry!
So in order to grow and accommodate new growth the church now holds three services on a Sunday (9:30am, 11:30am – both with kids & teen ministries, & 4:00pm – with kids ministry) We arrived with a few moments to spare and were warmly greeted by a group of teenagers who were manning the area around the access lift from the first floor walkway which is one of many walkways linking the plethora of high rise buildings in Hong Kong, and making it easier to get between one building and another without having to go down to street level each time.
There are many off-quoted urban myths about Hong Kong, such as the one about Hong Kong being so densely populated that the inhabitants would not be able to fit if they all had to stand at ground level. Clearly this is not exactly true, as there are huge areas of unbuilt space in the whole of the territory, but in a single section of the urban area like Mong Kok for example it might come close to the truth as the statistics show only 3.9 m² or 42 ft² per person, (whereas in Hong Kong as a whole it is 158 m² or 1702 ft² per person). This is certainly dense (compares to Guernsey’s around 1,190 m² or 12,800 ft² per person) and can truly feel so at certain times and in certain places, but the Hong Kong Government and planning authorities have been intuitive and forward-thinking in how they have allowed the city to be developed, especially in the last 40 years or so. As a result there are people everywhere but everything seems to flow much better than in a city like London for example. Moreover their public transport system is at least on a par with that in Paris; the trams, underground and buses coordinating seamlessly so that as long as you know where to get off and change it should not be difficult to find your way around in the urban area.
Having thus been flagged and greeted by a bunch of enthusiastic red T-shirt wearing youths we took the lift to the Vine Centre level and were similarly greeted and welcomed by more young people – the youth group were clearly on welcome ministry this week! We just had time for a brief introduction and chat with John Snelgrove one of the two Senior Pastors – who could almost be a body double for Hillsong’s Brian Houston in looks and mannerisms! The other, Tony Read was also present but already helping lead things at the front. John remembers visiting Guernsey 20 years ago and attending a Baptist church called Bethel (now Shiloh) while he was working around the UK. As the meeting hall is smaller and a more compact theatre-style than we are used to the feeling could best be described as cosy. I guess around 160 people were present as there were no empty seats visible, the rear doors were open and a few chairs spilled out into the lounge area.
The band struck up a song – I wrote in my journal “Hillsong style” – by which I meant it both looked and felt like I know Hillsong church ‘does’ worship; not in any critical sense, simply an observation: the singers were placed along the front of the stage, either side of the worship/band leader, four or five of them, a couple of yards space between each, encouraging and exhorting the congregation to enter fully into worshipping Jesus through their visible, heartfelt enthusiasm. It was loud, but not ear-splittingly. They sang familiar songs like Happy Day, Alleluia for the Lord God Almighty Reigns, God of this City (I found this quite moving to sing in Hong Kong!) After around 25 minutes the person we would call an “anchor leader” came on stage and brought the worship time to a close with some prayer, followed by a warm welcome to guests and visitors. He then announced the weekly news which took the format of an excellently presented video “Vine News” which was very funny too! So well produced – I think these are accessible on their website. Everything was on screen including a detailed ‘orientation’ for parents of their children’s ministry. Following this the anchor leader gave a short exhortation about giving prior to the offering being taken up (this was also very much in a Hillsong style). As the stewards took up the offering a moving testimony video was shown – an interview with a fairly new church member whom the Lord had healed miraculously. Matt Redman’s lovely song Befriended played in the background. We then prayed for the lady in the video who was present.
The preacher was Dawn Strachan and her text was Rev 3:7-13. If you’d asked me as she began what her profession was I would have guessed she was an unmarried school teacher. She was a good communicator, direct, made you feel like you ought to listen, funny at appropriate moments, spoke with a fairly loud voice and a fairly formidable presence on the stage. She was in fact an unmarried school teacher. Her text about Jesus’s message to the church in Philadelphia focused on one main point – that God is calling the greatness out of us; he is always in the business of doing this. She illustrated this ably from her own experience and of individuals in the church. There was a bit of camaraderie going on at one point with a few of the congregation members; being visitors we didn’t always get the joke, but it was not overplayed and demonstrated the strong sense of community and purpose that there is in this great church buzzing with potential.
There were lots of encouraging cries of amen! and right! during her preaching and it was here that I first noticed someone shout out “Come on!” – something I would hear lots more of in the following weeks at Hillsong in Australia as well as churches in America. I don’t know if this is a new phenomenon in terms of Christian affirmative quasi-imperative interjections but I certainly had not heard it in church before! And for a few moments I wondered if it was intended critically as in “Come on! Get to the point!” or even “Come on! No-one’s going to believe that!” I’ve heard many kinds of affirmative quasi-imperative interjections in my time in Charisendom, some carried over from Pentecostalism, others newly formed in the last thirty years (none as far as I’m aware from Methodism – we were lucky if we got a muffled amen after a corporate prayer back in those days!) So I was familiar with absolutely [very popular in the 90s], affirmative [Star Trek fans], agreed, all right [British], alright [US], alrighty [very US], as you say, assuredly [RSV readers], aye, certainly, exactly, good, hear-hear [slightly political], indeed, indeedy [British ex-pats in the US], ja [South Africans], most assuredly [NASB users], of course, okay, oui [Europhiles], positively, preach it [someone who’s just woken up in the middle of a sermon], precisely, quite [very English], rather [Famous Five fans], right [Charismatic & Reformed], right you are [Archers fans], righto [Narnia fans], sure [middle-aged & trendy], sure thing [middle-aged & sad], true, verily verily [KJV readers], yay [teenagers], yea [teenagers trying to sound like KJV readers], yeah [thirty-somethings], yep [forty-somethings], yes, yessir [moderate Western fans], yessirree [serious Western fans], you bet [North American pentecostals], you betcha [British ex-pats trying to sound like North American pentecostals], you said it [probably either the most inane or the most profound comment anyone could make], and the like. But I had not yet come across come on! Nevertheless it grew on me and I began to practise it from time to time as we travelled. By the end of my sabbatical I was a real come on-er!
But enough of that.
The service finished with prayer and one final song before we followed the crowd out into the packed lounge where visitors can get a free coffee at their Starbucks-style coffee-bar, newcomers can chat to leaders and parents are reunited with their kids. We were introduced to Nathan and Amy Sarchet-Waller, a great couple who have a connection with Guernsey as Nate’s father’s family was from the island, brought up in the Elim Pentecostal Church. Paul (Nate’s dad) planted Elim Full Gospel Church a thriving Cantonese-speaking Charismatic church with a base in Hong Kong, as well as dozens of other churches planted in neighbouring SE Asia. Nate is a qualified teacher and together they serve as youth leaders at the Vine. It was fun talking with him about Guernsey, a place he obviously loves too – they usually visit once a year – so we hope to see them next time!
After a long day, we made our way back out into the humid heat of the city in search of some supper. Graham and Luise took us via Hong Kong’s great electric ladder, the Mid-Levels Escalator, to one of their favourite
Vietnamese restaurants where soft-shell crabs were on the menu – a first for most of us and a real winner – absolutely delicious!
This was then followed by a long journey – about 4 metres – across the road to a restaurant which served only desserts. Of course all the girls were in heaven, whilst Graham and I humoured them and forced ourselves to eat some fruity syllabub or other. Whilst we sat their licking our lips we observed what looked like a Hong Kong Chinese family group setting off a small incendiary device across the road on the edge of the pavement. This turned out to be a religious ritual including chants and prayers to ward of evil demons and invoke ancestral gods, after the death of a family member and the closing of a business nearby. It made a huge mess and I’m not sure what our Health and Safety officers would have said back home with cars and pedestrians passing so close by.
Nevertheless it emphasised for me the massive opportunity as well as the massive and essential mission that the Christian Church is faced with in this singing city where the temples to hedonism, materialism, consumerism as well as paganism are not hidden but there for all to see, painted in garish colours in honour of the known and unknown gods who bind this people, packed so tightly together in their cosmopolitan millions.
Thank God for Hong Kong, and pray God that he moves in great revival power there!