“The English District was created for English churches to have a more holistic growth. How to let young people (returning from overseas studies) feel a sense of belonging, is one of the English district’s most important ministry.”
The first District Superintendent of the Sarawak Chinese Annual Conference (SCAC) English District, Rev Lenita Tiong, hopes to provide more resources for English churches through the English District, and to build an even closer relationship with SCAC.
The 44th session of Sarawak Chinese Annual Conference was held from November 20 to 21, 2019. During the conference, the proposal to set up the English District was passed. Rev Lenita Tiong was appointed as the first District Superintendent, officially starting on January 1, 2020.
Chinese VS English culture
SCAC uses Chinese as its main language. Sometimes, when ministries are promoted, churches that use English may have difficulties following along due to differences in language, way of thinking, and cultural background, so that they are unable to effectively implement or teach the congregation. For example, there are differences in understanding the offertory record. The Chinese churches have many years of “tradition” with the offertory record, but as for the English churches, many are against publishing the record due to “don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing”. So the English congregation uses token names or numbers for recording the offerings.
In fact, in 2008, the difficulties of using SCAC resources for English churches were discussed during the English ministry forum. In 2010 a forum was held again. Bishop Hwa Yung shared an insight: An English church in a Chinese district will not grow. He challenged the English churches to set up an English district. “That evening, Bishop Hwa Yung also raised the examples of the Presbyterian and Anglican churches which have both Chinese and English districts.”
Thus from 2014, English churches began actively planting new churches, including Tabuan Trinity MC, Living Hope MPC, and Agape-Grace MC, spurring on the formation of the English District.
2 Preaching Centres
Currently, under the English District are 6 churches and 2 preaching centres, namely Wesley MC, Faith MC, Grace MC, Emmanuel MC, Tabuan Trinity MC, Agape-Grace MC, Living Hope MPC and Permai MPC.
District Superintendent Rev Lenita said that in order to better promote English District ministries, the district has started 7 commissions, namely, Christian Education, Worship and Music, Missions, Evangelism, Social Concerns, Laity, and Ministry.
Since the focal point of SCAC’s ministry in 2020 is “Family Discipleship”, the main task for the English District is to promote small groups, so as to focus on the ministry of discipleship training.
As for pastors, the English District has 11 pastors of whom only four are elders. Thus, to train even more young people to go into full-time ministry is another one of the important ministries for the English District.
Rev Lenita revealed that actually quite a number of youths use English to communicate. Every year, young people return from overseas, yet the number of youths in the church is not increasing.
“A young person from Faith MC studying overseas came back for the holidays and saw that the number of young people in the church was decreasing. He felt very sad and asked me if I could find a way so that the young people would go to church. I was very moved, because even the young members have seen the needs in this area. What can we do?”
To have a sense of belonging
In her view, young people do not wish to return to church, because they feel they do not belong there. They cannot feel love. “Since I don’t feel that anyone cares and I only go to church to sit and listen to the pastor preach. It’s meaningless; I won’t grow.”
She feels that sometimes, a little gesture from the pastor is a representation of care and concern for a newcomer. Once a church member told her that because she welcomed him during the worship service, he felt he was valued. So he continued coming to the church. “At that time I probably just welcomed all newcomers generally. I didn’t think too much of it, but it’s these small gestures that can achieve unexpected results.”
She also admitted that pastors cannot always know who the newcomers are. Thus church members and greeters play a very important role. “The greeter’s job is not only to hand out bulletins. They are the face of the church, to warmly invite people in. Church members can be the pastor’s eyes and ears. If they are seated beside a newcomer, they can signal the pastor during announcements, and they can also take the initiative to know the newcomer and build a basic relationship.”
Rev Tiong shared that in one of the churches she used to pastor, she worked well with a group of church members. When they found out about the needs of some other brothers and sisters, they would inform the pastors, so that the pastors could show concern and attention. The church became a place full of love and care.
She also shared how she would address church members by name when handing out the holy communion elements. This allowed her to build a good relationship with her church members. “Of course, it’s not easy to remember so many names. But if you have the heart, you can do it. Actually, I frequently call the wrong name, or even forget the name. I have to keep asking. So pastors also have to learn to be thick-skinned. If you don’t remember, just ask. When you ask a lot, sometimes it turns out to be a great way to build the relationship, hahaha…”
In evangelism, she focuses on Sunday School. In her view, since the birth rate is lower, the number of children in today’s church is also decreasing. But outside the church are many more children and their parents. These are all opportunities to share the gospel.
Rev Lenita Tiong graduated from Trinity Theological College (TTC) in Singapore. In the 25 years since, she has experienced deeply the grace of God.
She was working in Singapore when she heard the calling of God during a missions conference: “The harvest is plentiful, the workers are few”. She responded actively. At the time, Wesley Methodist Church Singapore, with around 3000 members, was willing to support her financially. TTC also accepted her. But her father did not approve.
“My father was very angry at the time. The roof was nearly blown off the house. He was so angry he refused to talk to me. And he was also angry at the church. For a long time, he didn’t go to church. I had no choice, I gave up studying at TTC and went back to Bintulu to work.”
At Ming Ong Methodist Church because she did not understand Chinese she did not understand much of the pastor’s sermons. She and her sister were even rejected from the Christmas carol choir. She was despondent. Later, Rev Kong Chong Ling (a deacon at the time) was appointed to Ming Ong MC. One day he chanced upon them reading an English Bible so asked about their situation. He encouraged them to start a Bible study group with several other English speakers in the congregation with a view to starting a fellowship later. These Bible study group members later became the core of Emmanuel MC in Bintulu.
“After I had worked a year in Bintulu, I raised the matter of studying theology again. Again the roof of our house was blown off, because my father was still opposed to it. He reasoned that a pastor’s salary is low, and he was also worried that I would be facing many hardships later. So I stayed on in Bintulu. And I was able to experience the wonderful church-building process of Emmanuel MC.”
Initially the government had allocated a piece of land for the purpose of building a church. However, after receiving negative responses from the people living nearby, the government took back the land. Another piece of land, more beautiful than the first one, was then given where the Emmanuel Methodist Church now stands. From this we see how amazing God’s guidance is, how abundant his grace!
“Because we did not have many people nor the financial ability for a full church building, we decided on constructing a simple wooden structure first for Sunday worship and Sunday School. Besides, we wanted to build up the members first. This small and young congregation grew and went on to become Emmanuel MC later.”
Time passed. After 5 years of living and working in Bintulu, her parents also began to build their faith, returning to the church to serve. God also reminded her that it was finally time to enter full-time ministry. “At the time I asked God for 3 conditions: First, TTC would still be willing to accept me. Second, I would have the financial support. Third, my father’s approval and blessing. This time, I was successful. TTC still accepted me, SCAC approved to be my financial support, and most remarkably, my father agreed.”
Left for 3 years
After finishing her studies, she returned to yet another challenge. She did not speak Chinese, yet she was appointed to Xin Fu Yuan MC. It was a difficult time. “I could not speak a single sentence of Chinese then. I couldn’t understand much either. But to pastor a Chinese church, I had to preach in Chinese. It was very difficult.”
Thankfully, she met the late Mr Wong Ding Hua, former SCAC lay leader. He enthusiastically taught her Chinese, helping her to write pinyin in her Chinese Bible. After half a year, she was sent to yet another Chinese church – Tien Tao MC. This time she even had to learn Heng Hwa, another great setback. Then later, because she received a job offer from TTC, she decided to quit. After three years in Singapore, thanks to the invitation from Mr Wong and then-President Rev Ting Daik Choung, she returned to SCAC to serve.
She was thankful that in the 3 years of working at TTC, she learned about the administration of a seminary and also came in contact with many missions organizations. It prepared a good foundation for her missions work later.
In 1999, she returned to Wesley MC in Sarawak. After 2 years, she was sent as a missionary to Cambodia, in charge of the theology courses in the Cambodian seminary. “Now when I think about it, sometimes we think that God doesn’t hear our prayers. But actually God has his own beautiful plan. We just don’t know it at the time.”
5 years of missions
After 5 years of missions in Cambodia, her father passed away. She returned to Sarawak to accompany her broken-hearted mother. Originally she wanted to wait until her mother felt better before she returned to Cambodia, bringing her mother along. But her mother suffered a stroke resulting in much physical limitations and movement difficulties. Given these setbacks, Rev Lenita stayed on in Sarawak to pastor.
“As to this matter of returning home to take care of my mother, I have never regretted it. I never feel that my mother is a burden. Instead, as a pastor, to be able to take care of a church and my mother at the same time is my honor, and a blessing from God.”
As a single female pastor, what does she think about marriage? She laughed and said she isn’t committed to singlehood, but only that she has not met anyone she wants to spend her life with.
In the 25 years since graduation, she feels that the Father has sent many people along the way to build her up. All the heartaches have been part of the growth journey. Everything has a purpose, so she has never complained, considering them God’s grace upon her.
Interviewee: Rev Lenita Tiong
Translator: Joy Tie