Malacca EFC is the first Evangelical Free Church in Malaysia.
JOHN Liong could barely sing, let alone know how to worship lead. He didn’t have a sense of rhythm and didn’t play any musical instrument. So when a leader of the Malacca Evangelical Free Church (MEFC) he attended said it was time he gave worship leading a try, he naturally balked.
“Don’t worry,” the Chairman then, Yoong Yee Soon, told Liong. “When you hear the piano strike a chord ‘Jeng’, that’s when you start singing lah.”
“Just do it” – that’s how it was, and still is, to some extent, for the leaders of MEFC. They serve not because they feel particularly qualified or even “called”, but out of faithful obedience to the conviction that the church is loved by the Lord and is precious to Him. Liong, who joined MEFC in 1981, started out by helping the Sunday School, then the worship ministry, and was later Elder-Chairman from 1991 to 1997.
The current Elder-Chairman, Yong Siong Sung, was elected to the position in February 2013, succeeding Lim Chow Loon, who had served faithfully as chairman for 20 years. Yong, 53, represents the rise of the younger generation in the church leadership and what MEFC’s small congregation hopes will be a new era of “doing and being church”.
Yong and Liong, 67, are the elders in this church of about 50 people. The church very nearly ended up without any elders this year because no one else wanted to assume leadership at that level, until Liong agreed to share the burden with Yong. This little episode illustrates the struggles MEFC has faced throughout the decades: leadership succession, difficulty in finding new blood and the loss of young people who move away to bigger cities for work and tertiary education.
These challenges may be common to many other small churches. But for MEFC, the struggles are all the more poignant in the light of its history as the first Evangelical Free Church planted in Malaysia 50 years ago. Part of the church’s new vision, say its two elders, is to recapture that same pioneering spirit and rediscover the mandate to fulfil the Great Commission.
Starting out by faith
MEFC was started by EFC missionaries and local individuals who prepared the ground for a new church by starting from scratch – distributing tracts and doing intensive house-to-house evangelism in the Bukit Baru area that was devoid of any Christian witness. In early 1963, American EFC missionary, Rev. Ben Sawatsky and a Singapore EFC lay leader, Henry Khoo, made several exploratory trips to Malacca in search of a place to start a church. At the same time, the Youth for Christ (YFC) ministry had just become active in Malacca, and the new converts had no church to go to.
The local YFC director, See Seng Teck, who was also a school teacher, was keen on starting a new church. See, Sawatsky and another EFC missionary, Rev. Eric McMurray from Canada, patiently and persistently kept on their tracting and door-to-door preaching.
By October 1963, several locals had accepted Christ. An old government building was rented as a meeting place. MEFC held its first worship service there on Nov. 17, 1963, which is the date officially recognised as the church’s inception. Somewhat prophetically, it was also just two months after the formation of Malaysia the same year. The new church began its journey to find its place and role in a new country.
See and McMurray played lead roles in the early days of the church. In 1964, missionaries Rev. Jim Phalen and wife Fran came to serve the church for three years. Sunday School started that year in both English and Chinese, and drew about 40 children by the year’s end. The Sunday morning service, meanwhile, had a regular attendance of about 20 people.
The congregation grew in the first few years. Notably, key activities during the 1960s included regular home visits by the leaders, tracting, gospel rallies and open air preaching meetings. There was a strong and distinct evangelistic fervour, as well as a deep desire for the Word with church members enrolling in the Berean Bible School correspondence courses. A missionary from EFC Japan, Sumie Yokouchi, also came during this period to develop a women’s ministry, assist the small Chinese congregation and administrate the Bible correspondence courses.
In 1965, MEFC adopted its constitution; in 1967, it purchased the land and building at its present location; and in 1969, it became an officially registered society with the government. The purchase of some 10,000 square feet of land and the bungalow that came with it was worth RM30,000 then and was paid for, thanks to the Women’s Missionary Society of EFC America. The sum was later paid back to the EFC Malaysia revolving fund.
Faithfulness and fruit
The 1970s brought new challenges. Maintaining a stable congregation became difficult as young people left town for work and studies. Then in 1971, several of the church’s founding members left over disagreements involving doctrinal issues that involved extreme interpretations of Pentecostalism. The badly shaken church was gradually revived under the guidance of Sawatsky and another EFC America missionary, Rev. Allen Tunberg.
By this time, MEFC was without a pastor as the Phalens had left in 1967. In 1978, Rev. Loh Soon Choy became its honorary pastor for two years while being Dean of the Pusat Latihan Kristian Melaka (PLKM) at the same time. In 1983, Mark Mah, a graduate of the Singapore Bible College, served as a full-time worker for three years.
By this time, MEFC had recovered and regained its strength. The replenished congregation now sought a larger space, and in 1984, the church sanctuary was renovated to accommodate seating for 80 people. The same year, the Chinese congregation, which had grown substantially, left MEFC to form the Chinese Life EFC Malacca led by Rev. Ho Kek Yun.
Over the years, a number of young people who had built their foundation in the faith in MEFC, went on to be leaders in churches elsewhere. Among them was Siew Woh who became a chairman of PJEFC. Several other youths also entered full-time ministry with Christian organisations in the 1990s. While this meant that MEFC was a “sending church” of sorts, able to advance the Kingdom’s work through its people who went to other churches and ministries, it was left with a shortage of leaders internally.
“The leaders persevered faithfully but they were getting increasingly worn out. When they looked for someone to pass the baton to, there was no one. You end up serving because if you don’t, no one else will,” Liong recalls.
With much of the leadership’s energy focused internally on running the church and keeping the congregation afloat, MEFC was in survival mode. This, muses Yong, is the “flip side to being faithful”.
“We can end up being slow to adapt to change, to identify priorities and to follow them through. We grew inward-looking. We have been focusing on the Word, worship and prayer, and one of our strengths is the closeness and sense of family we enjoy as a small community. But we have been weak in reaching out with the gospel and with good works,” he says candidly.
A faithful God
Liong adds that these difficult experiences of the past may be the reason why people are reluctant to serve more actively in church. There was a fresh start in the new millennium when for the first time a church member, Jerry Lim, became a full-time worker of the church; but it was only until 2005. In 2006, the old bungalow was torn down and rebuilt to seat 150 people, fully financed by the church members together with the purchase of the
semi-detached house next door. The anticipated growth in numbers, however, did not come in.
“People may feel let down by these discouraging experiences. It’s under-standable. But now we want to build up people’s confidence to serve. It is not about how qualified one is but whether one is willing,” Liong says.
And something is indeed stirring.
In the last few years, a handful of new people have joined MEFC, and some of them have been instrumental in strengthening the church. These include an expatriate couple with experience in counselling and mentoring. They are gradually helping the church build a ministry in outreach while providing spiritual support to the leaders. These newcomers found MEFC not because the church went out to bring people in, but because of its strategic location along Jalan Taming Sari, a main road connecting the heart of Malacca city with the suburbs.
“They saw our signboard that said ‘Evangelical Free Church’ and it so happened that EFC was the kind of church they were looking for,” says Liong.
Yong sees these new arrivals as gifts from a faithful God who knew the hearts of the tired leaders and answered accordingly. In the last year, a series of sermons by guest speakers on the church’s role in society have also moved the congregation to look beyond the walls of the church.
Nudged by this gentle breeze, one by one, people are stepping forward. At the church’s Annual General Meeting in February this year, ordinary members of the congregation agreed to fill up positions as ministry coordinators – something Yong says “hasn’t happened for many years”. The challenges ahead include intentional mentoring of those who have agreed to serve, to craft succession plans, and to mobilise the ministries for outreach. “I believe God, who is faithful, will respond. And we will see fruit,” says Yong.
But first, a party to celebrate 50 years as the pioneer EFC in Malaysia. A celebration-cum-evangelistic lunch is planned for MEFC’s anniversary on Nov. 17, 2013.
“It’ll be memorable,” says Yong. “Over the years we haven’t talked much about our history as the first EFC, and it is time we celebrate this legacy and learn from it.”
No doubt, as they trace five decades of history, they’ll find the hand of a faithful God who has promised to build His church and to never let the gates of hell prevail against it.