City Harvest leaders' guilty verdict

City Harvest Church sees 25% drop in members since 2009

The church's congregation has gone from 23,565 in 2009 to 17,522 last year. (Left) A City Harvest Church service held on March 19, 2011 at Suntec convention centre.
The church's congregation has gone from 23,565 in 2009 to 17,522 last year. (Left) A City Harvest Church service held on March 19, 2011 at Suntec convention centre.ST FILE PHOTO

Many ex-members believe decline began when criminal probe was launched in 2010

The six City Harvest Church (CHC) leaders may have broken the law but they had good intentions and the interests of their church at heart, according to members who have stayed put even as the group awaits sentencing.

"We saw the start of the Crossover Project and saw people blessed, lives changed and transformed directly because of the project," said music producer Eric Wong, 37, who has been at CHC for 17 years.

However, those who have left said they lost confidence in the leadership and that questions raised about financial mismanagement went unanswered.

On Wednesday, the courts found that the six accused - including founding pastor Kong Hee - had misused millions in church funds for the Crossover Project, a church mission to evangelise through the music career of Kong's pop singer wife Ho Yeow Sun.

The verdict ended a criminal investigation that began in 2010 - what many former members thought was the start of the decline of one of Singapore's biggest mega-churches.

In 2009, CHC was pulling a congregation of 23,565, according to figures from its annual reports.

That figure has been dwindling since, dropping to 17,522 last year - a decrease of more than 25 per cent from 2009.

Civil servant Melvin Lee, who left in 2013, pointed to inconsistencies between the court evidence and what was told to members in church. Kong "had told us that no church funds were used in the project, but it seems like church funds were in fact used", said the 27-year-old, who joined in 2003. "That's when I... decided to leave."

Businesswoman P.L. Toh, 51, said the Commissioner of Charities (COC) inquiry - which took place concurrently with criminal investigations - also unearthed misdeeds. For instance, it found at least $2.1 million of CHC funds was used to finance the Crossover Project under the guise of donations to its affiliated church in Kuala Lumpur.

"That's when I felt we were being manipulated... and at that point, all the scales were falling off (from my eyes)," said Ms Toh.

Former entrepreneur of the year Nanz Chong-Komo, 46, said: "The writing was on the wall - the people who stayed believed; the people who didn't stay stopped believing in the leadership."

But the faith of many of those who chose to say remains strong, it seems.

"We knew what the church was doing, and as to the character and integrity of our leaders, personally we never had a doubt," said bank executive Lester Chee, 26.

Other members said they had forged relationships and even found their life partners in church - and that leaving would be akin to walking out on their family.

"There is nowhere else to go for me; I found my family there. That has been the biggest impact on my life - it was about the relationships in church," said Mr Roger Ng, 26, who has been at CHC for 10 years.

Since 2012, CHC has had a new management and board running the operations of the church, led by Ms Ho, who was ordained as a pastor in August. She spearheads the new church vision, called CHC 2.0, which was formulated by Kong.

A long-time supporter of the church, entrepreneur Elim Chew, 48, said: "We have been at our lowest and the only way forward is up. We trust our leadership and board to run the church just as they have done so for the last three years."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 24, 2015, with the headline 'Mega-church sees 25% drop in members since 2009'. Print Edition | Subscribe