(Sun Ho as “Geisha” in China Wine. Source)
“Consider the work of God: for who can make that straight, which He hath made crooked?”
— The New King James Bible, Ecclesiastes 7:13
Disclaimer: This is not an opinion-post on whether the leaders of City Harvest Church are “crooks” or not. This is simply a post explaining how legitimization techniques work in a megachurch context, and especially one that has been in the global limelight recently as USD36million was involved. For an excellent satire post, click here.
I’d always been interested in how “crooks” make themselves legit, to the extent that even though tons of money might have been siphoned, some members of the public might still perceive them as legit. I don’t think this phenomenon is as “empathetic” or characteristic as the Stockholm-syndrome, but more of cognitive dissonance, and people not wanting their personal bubbles of delusion to be poked.
So today, I am going to blog about this really interesting paper titled “Faith-based organizations and the challenges of public legitimization”, in the context of City Harvest Church. Now this research paper really excites me because the authors highlighted four areas where the public legitimization of a faith-based organization can be challenged. And–in City Harvest’s context, the church actually does these four areas really well!
This framework also means that if you are a crooked-pastor and made aware of these four areas, you can then try to cover up your sins/crimes better in a systematic manner!!
Likewise, if you have been deluded by a crooked-church, you can then think about what the church is doing in terms of these four areas so as to arrive at a more systematic conclusion about your faith and the institution. And of course, whether to take the red or blue pill, in the language of The Matrix. 😛
City Harvest Church is a megachurch in Singapore which has 49 affiliated churches and 6 Bible schools across Asia. The head pastor Kong Hee and his team at City Harvest Church had been accused of misusing USD16 million to fund the (personal) singing career of Kong Hee’s wife, Sun Ho, in Hollywood.
When Sun Ho’s album flopped in Hollywood, the team then used another USD20 million to cover up. The total amount siphoned was USD36 million. The team was then sued by the Singaporean government and the megachurch did face a crisis of keeping its own attendees and therefore income stream. Also, something to note is that church funds (“tithes as they are called”) is tax-free in Singapore.
On the one hand, the leaders of city harvest church involved in this scandal said that they they just want to use Sun Ho’s singing career to reach out to more non-Christians. This–according to them–is an ambitious, natural and creative part of evangelism. This outreach project is termed “Crossover Project”. The video used was argued to be controversial on purpose, because “Jesus never ate with the righteous, he always ate with sinners”, and you need a “worldly” video to reach out to sinners and subsequently engage them in a conversation on God and His Love for us.
Here’s one of the videos in question, which took USD1 million to produce:
On the other hand, critics of City Harvest Church say that this line of argument is obviously bullshit, because USD38million of church funds have been siphoned off for Sun Ho’s private benefit.
Kong Hee and his management team of this “Crossover Project” have since been sentenced to jail, and they are now appealing against their sentences. Sun Ho however, was neither charged nor faced any legal consequences of this “cheating”. She now helms the leadership of City Harvest Church.
The 4 areas of legitimization proposed in the paper by Malmelin and Malmelin (2015)
- First: Mission. To appear as legit, a church/megachurch needs to justify its purpose in society. To achieve a public perception of legitimacy, Malmelin and Malmelin put it this way– a church needs to “be able to clearly communicate its mission, values and identity. (p.172)
Because of the rapid changes in modern society, the boundaries amongst a non-government organization, a faith-based organization, a company and even a country have blurred greatly.
Yet, I think a good way to differentiate one from the other is to follow the money: Is a church supposed to be rich? Is a country supposed to be all about gross-domestic product? Is a company supposed to be bottom-line driven? etc.
So you see, the traditional idea that churches are supposed to be poor is challenged, and people do get suspicious when a church is rich. Therefore, if a church is rich, pastors have to be sure to justify exactly why the church is rich, failing which they will lose legitimacy.
And City Harvest does this really well! First, they justified their richness saying that “God will never allow you to be poor, because he loves you too much”. This is alternatively known as the prosperity gospel.
Next, Kong Hee and his management team justfied spending USD36mil on his wife Sun Ho’s pop career because of the “Cross-over project”. Jesus after all, did not eat with the righteous but with the sinners, and look! a handful of people do get converted.
Is the salvation of a human soul not worth more than USD36milion? 😛
- Second, to appear as legit, the church needs to take care of its brand and reputation. In other words, these aspects should not be taken for granted just because a church is a “non-profit organization”, and one should not assume that the public will think that “non-profit”= “ideal”. Correspondingly, the act of communication should ideally be placed in the hands of professionals.
In particular, the authors gave a valid recommendation to churches:
“[Churches] that have taken their “good” brand for granted, may have omitted to develop as professional public relations or transparent accounting practices as commercial companies, which have always faced criticism and accountability demands. [Churches] need to clearly and transparently communicate the public good they are delivering.”
City Harvest does its PR and reputation management really well! Their social media channels, official materials, church-written books and devotionals are all professionally done. Even after their trial, church-goers are still speaking up for the sentenced pastors (check comments to Pastor Kong Hee’s facebook page).
- Third: Public relations. Churches have to engage the public.
The key idea is that to be legit, the church will have to get people to like the church, to talk to the church, and to submit to the church.
The premise then is for the church to deliver the messages to the public in a simple-to-understand manner, to balance the complex with the popular. This means that instead of preaching some weird old English with judge-y messages of condemnation to the public, messages have to sort of be re-framed in a more understand-able, engaging, even entertaining manner. To ethical pastors, this should be done without compromising the gist of the gospel, and therefore is a huge balancing act.
City Harvest has a strong public relations team, if you think about it! They have their own branch of news media, City News, which covered their side of the story to the pastors’ trials. Their social media is excellent. They have tons of youth volunteers who are regular church-goers and belong to cell-groups, which means that these devotees would be singing praises of the church most of the time on social media.
- Last but not least, trust.
The authors argue that public legitimacy and public trust go hand-in-hand. Trust can be conceptualised as:
“[a description of] the behavior of individuals in social sciences. In the NGO context, trust refers to the belief that the NGO will perform its role according to the socially defined normative expectations toward NGOs.”
Therefore, to increase trust, you have to influence normative expectations towards your institution, or your church.
Is the current society expecting churches to be poor? Challenge it. Is the society frowning upon the crossover project? Justify it. Is the public having doubts about your church and its sometimes suspicious beliefs and actions? Silence, discredit or re-frame them, through your church-owned media.
All of which City Harvest Church did well!
So the above are the four aspects to think of when you want to increase your church’s legitimacy! Let’s now answer the question in my title–
“Could City Harvest Church have averted its PR crisis?”
My answer is–What PR crisis? City Harvest Church did everything well, and this “saga” has only given their church more–not less–publicity. They justified this incident too as “Paul was once persecuted as well”.
My view is that their church will only get stronger, because now they have weeded out believers who “are not strong in faith”. The people who remain will want to prove that they are loyal, and they have gotten great personal value out of the church. Who is to deprive them of that, and their personal choice? 😛
Let’s end with another quote from the bible:
“You cannot serve God and wealth.”
(The New King James Bible, Matthew 6:24)