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Building a Place to call Home

posted 25.07.2012

The St James’ Church New Building Consecration

On 18th February 2012, a consecration Service was held in St James’ Church for their new building at Leedon Road. It was a vibrant Service in the fully packed 600-seater Sanctuary as Bishop John Chew and other diocesan officials led the Service. Here, DD interviewed the Vicar, Revd Canon Terry Wong on the project:

What were the reasons that led to this new SJC building project?

The thought of rebuilding the church at our freehold land at Leedon Road had already been raised even before I took over as Vicar in 2001. This took traction round about 2004 when we began a serious exploration of the possibility. It was not that all our Services were overflowing. It was a combination of reasons including accessibility for seniors, adequate facilities for our worship, community and ministry needs and, of course, projecting into the future and preparing for growth.

There were secondary reasons, such as the renewal of the Holland Village area. I realized how out of place the old building was when I had an aerial view one day from a member’s nearby flat. The new MRT station will also provide new opportunities. Of course, through prayer and observing what the Lord has been doing, we also sensed His will and purpose for this parish.

Sharing anecdotally, my late mother visited SJC in the first year I was here. She had to walk up the car park slope and a few flights of stairs before she reached the sanctuary. She told me she was sweating and panting. She commented on how difficult it was to get to my church. I have never forgotten her remark. It is strange but sometimes, it is little things like this which gives you a push to do something. Recently, I was in the lift with some senior members of the Chinese congregation. You can imagine the joy in me when I heard them saying how easy it is now to get from one place to another.  

And as always, every church should do their level best to be salt and light in society and these new facilities simply helps us to do that more.

How did this design materialize? Was it easy to share or sell this vision to the congregation?

I have already stated the reasons for re-building and that was how the vision was shared with the congregation. But there were challenges we had to consider.

Buildings and land are very expensive in Singapore. Though the freehold land is already an Anglican property, the eventual cost of $14.5m is not a small sum. Indeed, we had to count the cost. And more than just money, it is the stress that will come with the project and the need to find alternative places for worship. We did consider taking the route of “A & A” (Alteration and Additions) but that was not cost-effective. 

At the early stage, we had hoped to be able to build up to a gross floor area (GFA) of 1.4 times of our land size. However, despite our various appeals, which went right up to the highest level of the government authorities, we were only allowed a GFA of 1 x of the land size. At that time, we were already using about 80% of the allowable GFA. Unless there was a change of GFA policies by the government, it did not seem to make sense to spend so much to gain so little space. A Parochial Church Council (PCC) member remarked to me, “Perhaps it was not to be in our watch that a new church building would be constructed”.

The authorities did advise that with some creativity usable space can be created within this GFA limitations. We tendered the architectural design and that was how Mr Quek Swee Kiang came into the picture. He presented a design which multiplied our usable areas significantly. There was a huge buy-in. The vision needed to be presented ‘concretely’ and the design plans and usage ideas helped to convince the church to go ahead. We are thankful to our architect for his creative ideas and the authorities for their cooperation to make this new building possible.  

Was it easy to find an alternative place of worship?

We are all aware that the MRT and the roads are much more crowded these days. The same can be said for the need for church facilities. For two years we “joined the market" as a congregation in need for a roof over our heads. For this we are grateful to Queenstown Lutheran Church for hosting our Chinese and our Saturday English Congregations. We are also blessed with a kindergarten hall at Dempsey which is large enough for the English Services to be hosted. For two years we were worshipping God amidst nature. It was a wonderful experience.

Tell us how the fund raising experience was like.

Early on, we decided to adopt a certain ethos for this. We will not force or burden our members to take radical steps, such as downgrading unless it is their own choice. We have always believed that Christians glorify God with good stewardship of their resources in a whole range of context: family, relatives, cross-cultural work, mercy relief and so on. The local church is just one of them. If I have to force most of our members to neglect their other financial responsibilities, we will have to ask whether such a project is appropriate or timely.

The finances came in smoothly, mostly through direct giving and pledges. Food and gift item sales allowed the non-working members like youths and retirees to contribute. Fund-raising dinners were an opportunity for the whole parish to come together periodically (as we were worshipping in different locations). These dinners help to bring some focus to the needs of the project and were milestones to help our members to work towards.

What about other parishes in the Anglican family?

I work with my PCC and I understand the limitations in terms of releasing huge amounts from the parish entrusted funds. Most parishes contributed, for which we are grateful. What was interesting was how members from other churches contributed. Often it is through friends of our members, who were bold enough to present the needs. We are encouraged by how generous Christians can be, especially towards building projects. I think Christians instinctively know that facilities are needed and will serve many areas of needs and mission over many generations. It is in a sense, it is a long-term investment.

Every local church will have to acknowledge that the main financial challenges need to be mostly owned by the local church community. We seek ways to encourage others and we hope this building project will encourage similarly-sized churches to expand their facilities.

There are some who think that expensive church buildings can hardly be justified in view of poverty in other parts of the world or the needs in world missions. 

This is a complex issue but I will attempt to answer it briefly. A church facility which serves thousands now and in the years to come will always be “expensive”. Do we need urban church buildings in Singapore? I will say, most definitely. And I will challenges Christian leaders to have a stronger foresight and long-term view of the Church.

Future generations will be struggling for worship spaces if we do not plan ahead and invest into the future. In an open and urban society, buildings play a very important role not just as Sunday worship spaces, but as places where the community gathers to encourage, be trained, do various ministries and so on. You can’t keep renting premises. And buildings are not just shells. They help shape communities.

The facility does not need to be ostentatious and I am confident this building is not. But a lot of thought needs to be out into the design as space enables community and ministry. In SJC, we want to create ‘a place to call home’ and the design concept is built on that.   

We are grateful for those who had the foresight to envision and work on the previous facility. I am grateful to the vision of Canon Guok and members of his family, the members of the Church of True Light and countless others who have contributed to it. Now I trust that future generations (if the Lord tarries) will look back and said that ours did not fail during our watch.  

Any final words?

I am thankful to everyone who has contributed to this project, Bishop Chew for his unwavering encouragement and the wonderful building committee members who served with so much passion and commitment.

We are just a local church like any other here in Singapore. We share in the challenges and dreams to be salt and light in society, to be faithful to the Lord and be the church as He has called us to be. Much of this verse from Jeremiah 6:16 is precious to us during this season, and it speaks for itself:

“Stand at the crossroads and look;

    ask for the ancient paths,

ask where the good way is, and walk in it,

    and you will find rest for your souls.”