Mystery Worshipper: Whoopedoo
Church: New Creation
Date of visit: Sunday, 29 June 2008, 9:00am
The church was founded in 1984 but has never had its own land or building. Since 1999 they have rented space in Suntec City Mall and the connected convention centre for their services. Their venue is named "The Rock" and unless you wander into it and notice the Christian bookstore inside, you would mistake it for a disco or club.
This is the second largest church in Singapore, claiming an attendance of over 20,000 just the Sunday before I visited it. There are four English language services, one in Mandarin, and one in the Hokkien dialect. Their many ministries and outreaches are all described on their website.
Suntec City Mall consists of five buildings plus a convention centre built according to the ancient Chinese concept of feng shui, which involves the positioning of objects to achieve a positive influence on people. At the centre of the mall is the Fountain of Wealth, claimed to be the largest fountain in the world (although the claim has been disputed, and rather than take sides Guinness World Records has removed the category). This being one of the largest malls in Singapore, it is extremely busy on weekends, especially when there is a popular exhibition or convention in progress. There is a cineplex right beside the church's auditorium and a hypermarket on the floors below.
Deacon Matthew Kang began the service. A young lady identified only as Angie was the worship leader, and the speaker was Pastor Joseph Prince, senior pastor. Angie wore a cap and reminded me of an 80s Cyndi Lauper, the American singer, songwriter and actress.
What was the name of the service?English Sunday Service.
How full was the building?
The Rock seats 1400 people. We arrived 35 minutes early and it was already standing room only! Our names were added to a queue for seating as it became available. A number of other rooms were set up with a video feed to accommodate the overflow crowd (as they would have to, if their claim of an attendance of 20,000 is accurate).
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Entering the church was akin to attending a concert or exclusive nightspot in town. Smartly uniformed bouncers – oops, I mean ushers – wearing wireless earpieces were stationed at the entrance, along with uniformed security guards from CISCO, the oldest and most widely used of five auxiliary police forces authorised to provide armed security at events in Singapore. We entered at the wrong side of the queue ribbon and were asked where we were going. We answered that we were new and weren't sure of where to go. An usher explained that we could stand in the auditorium or go to one of the overflow rooms. When we opted for the former, he led us personally to the proper door. Another usher there said, "Welcome to church" and handed us a four-page notice packet.
Was your pew comfortable?
Since we were standing, we were given cushions in case we wished to sit on the floor. From that vantage point, all we could do was look at the LCD TV screens on the pillar. Some people who were seated left about 10 minutes before the end of the service, so we did get to try out the chairs even if only for a brief moment. They were imported from the Spanish firm of Ezcaray Internacional, maker of customized seating for theatres, auditoriums and performing art centres. I felt that they were the most comfortable church chairs I've ever sat in. I was half-expecting cup holders next to them.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Though all the seats were taken, the auditorium was practically empty! People had come early to reserve seats by placing Bibles, handbags or other objects on them and then head off for breakfast. Of the people already there, I saw around a dozen engrossed in reading the morning papers. Just a few minutes before the service started, people streamed into the auditorium to take their reserved seats. Not very far from where I was standing were four empty seats that remained "reserved" for the entire service – the people who had claimed them never showed up!
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning, church! Praise the Lord. God is good all the time – and all the time God is good."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
No books were used. Instead, the song lyrics were superimposed on the camera feed that was projected onto three large screens on top of the stage as well as two LCD TVs hung on the pillars. Copyright information for each song was also displayed at the bottom of the screen. It was like a live karaoke session.
What musical instruments were played?
The band consisted of two keyboardists each with their own double deck of synthesizers, an electric guitar, an acoustic guitar, a bass guitar, a drummer and a percussionist. The worship leader, Angie, was supported by four backup singers and a 50 member choir. Everyone on stage was impeccably dressed. Most of the songs were either Hillsong or written by members of the church's music ministry.
Did anything distract you?
Quite a few of the congregation appeared to be from the middle to higher class of society, wearing very trendy hair styles, makeup, accessories and clothes (some with low necklines). In other words, it was like "Beverly Hills 90210 Goes to Church," where the hip and beautiful get spiritual. The main distraction, though, was waiting for seats to become available. An usher approached several times with single seats to offer, but there were two in my party. Even so, I was sorely tempted to say, "Yes, please" as the usher said, "One single available." The other thing that distracted me was the occasional display of funky graphics on the middle projection screen; they reminded me of a screen saver.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The worship was like a concert or music video, with the musicians playing like a top-notch band. It began with the usual progression of high tempo praise songs and ended with slower worship songs.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
80 minutes. Much too long for my liking.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Pastor Joseph Prince is a very dynamic speaker and captured our attention despite his digressions. He used a personal tone and pop-culture references to identify with his audience, including things like current TV commercials and movies. I couldnt get one of his jokes, though, as I dont watch Singapore TV often. But the sermon meandered and was way too long.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He began with a recap of the previous week's service and its record attendance. He also talked about how to get leaders to pray over oil so that it can be used as anointing oil. He related how such oil has been used in other churches to bring people out of coma and cause other forms of healing. His sermon proper was based on Jeremiah 23:1-8 (The Lord shall raise up shepherds over his flock); Psalm 23:1-6 ("The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want..."); and Psalm 78:70-72 (God chose David to be shepherd over Israel). He said that good shepherds lead their sheep and do not beat them. He then turned to Daniel 9:23-24 ("Seventy sevens" have been granted in which the people must mend their evil ways). He interpreted "seventy sevens" to mean 490 years, a prophetic time interval and the precise time between 31 October 1517 (Reformation Day) and 31 October 2007 (when he preached a particular sermon). Finally he spoke about the grace of God and said that God sees us as beautiful no matter what we think of ourselves. His final text was Song of Solomon 1:5-8 ("I am black but beautiful...").
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The sermon was the best part of the service. Pastor Prince made us feel that God really does love us. Writing it down doesn't do justice to how he put it across.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I didn't like the irreverent atmosphere before the service, with people reading newspapers and saving seats. It was like waiting for a show to begin instead of coming to the house of God to draw near and pray.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
An announcement was made that newcomers should go to the visitors centre. We remained in our seats, but after about four minutes an usher approached and asked us to leave so that the next service could enter. We could see that the queue was already about 200 metres long.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
We found the visitors centre, where a greeter gave us a welcome pack including the two copies of the church's magazine, a sermon on CD, and some information on care groups and pastoral services. One interesting freebie in the welcome pack was a time limited special offer from Passage New York, an upscale fashion boutique, of a free "little black dress" plus a body scrub or facial at $88 instead of the usual $680 (or $730 for ladies 23 and older). I was also offered (at room temperature) a packet of green tea, chrysanthemum tea, or bottled water.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – The sermon was good, but getting to know the people in church could be a problem. With that many, you don't get to know anyone.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, especially for the message that God sees us as beautiful and loved no matter what we think of ourselves.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The hip and trendy crowd attending.