City Harvest attendance declines again

Last year's 6% drop a continuation of steady fall since criminal probe into church leaders began in 2010

The Straits Times, Singapore/May 8, 2016

By Danson Cheong

Attendance at City Harvest Church (CHC) - whose leaders were convicted last year of misusing $50 million in church funds but have filed an appeal, has dipped for another year.

The megachurch drew a congregation of 16,482 last year, according to its 2015 annual report released late last month. This is a 6 per cent drop from 2014.

Numbers have been falling since a criminal investigation into church leaders began in 2010.

Church members told The Sunday Times that while they still believe in the church's leadership, the criminal case shone a very public spotlight on the scandal in which millions in church funds were misused and this had led to some followers leaving the church.

In 2009, CHC was pulling a congregation of 23,565, according to figures from its annual reports. That figure has dropped by almost a third since.

The church has said its congregation numbers include executive, ministry and ordinary members; those who are part of its cell groups; and people who attend weekend services at least thrice a year and at least once in the past eight weeks.

At CHC's Easter and Christmas services last year, the church drew crowds of 23,736 and 18,689 respectively - down from 28,962 and 25,747 in 2014.

Last year, six CHC leaders - including church founder and senior pastor Kong Hee, 51 - were found guilty of fraud and sentenced to between 21 months and eight years in prison.

They were found to have misused $50 million in church funds as part of a plot to further the music career of Kong's wife, pastor-singer Ho Yeow Sun.

They funnelled $24 million into sham bonds to bankroll her career, and used a further $26 million to cover their tracks.

Kong received the heaviest sentence of eight years as the mastermind of Singapore's largest charity financial scandal.

All six have appealed against both the guilty verdict and sentence. They have posted bail ranging from $750,000 to $1.5 million pending the appeal, which is expected to be heard in September.

But current members say they still support the church leadership and church programmes, such as its overseas humanitarian work.

"Attendance has been dropping, let's be very frank about it, it's normal. People might be uncomfortable and they might leave, we cannot force them to stay," said civil servant Tan Kok Siang, 40.

But Mr Tan, who has been with CHC for a decade, added that members are proud of church leaders and the work they champion overseas. For instance, the church sent teams to Kumamoto city in Japan last month, after twin earthquakes hit the Kyushu region.

"I'm very proud and happy, it's really love in action," said Mr Tan.

Miss Auyong Jiexin, 24, said that since the end of the 142-day trial last year, church leaders have done their best to answer any questions members might have.

"Humans can make mistakes, and I think pastor (Kong) has already been through a lot," said Miss Auyong, who recently graduated from university.

In response to queries from The Sunday Times, a CHC spokesman said it was currently "in a good place". "We note that the numbers have stabilised this year, and we had a good turnout for our Easter services in March this year."

She said, referring to the efforts in Japan: "Management is confident and pastoral work is in gear... We feel privileged to be able to continue the work we are called to do."

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