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Yvette Lau on Worship Identity and Calling in Hong Kong During a Time of Pandemic

In this episode, Yvette Lau, worship leader and chief executive of Anabas Ministry for worship renewal based in Hong Kong, shares with Maria Cornou about leading worship and the wisdom and discerning spirit that is needed to shape worship and pastor God's people during these urgent times.

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This interview occurred in the fall of 2020 as part of a course "Learning from Worshiping Communities Worldwide" offered by Calvin Theological Seminary and taught by Calvin Institute of Christian Worship staff Maria Cornou and John D. Witvliet.

See all episodes in Season 2

Episode Transcript:

Host: 

Welcome to Public Worship and the Christian Life, a podcast by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. In this series of conversations hosted by Calvin Institute of Christian Worship staff members, we invite you to explore connections between the public worship practices of congregations and the dynamics of Christian life and witness in a variety of cultural contexts, including places of work, education, community development, artistic and media engagement, and more . Our conversation partners represent many areas of expertise and a range of Christian traditions offering insights to challenge us as we discern the shape of faithful worship and witness in our own communities. In this episode, Yvette Lau, worship leader and chief executive of Anabas Ministry for worship renewal, based in Hong Kong, shares with María Cornou about leading worship and the wisdom and discerning spirit that is needed to shape worship and pastor God's people during these urgent times.

María Cornou: 

Today I have the privilege of interviewing a good friend of the Worship Institute: YYette Lau, now in Hong Kong. Yvette is a Calvin Seminary graduate, actually serving as a freelance worship pastor and trainer and as the chief executive director of Anabas Ministry. Yvette is also a very gifted person: a songwriter, a hymn translator, a choral conductor, preacher, and worship consultant. So I'm very glad that we are able to interview you today. And really, I want to express my gratitude for being with us today.

Yvette Lau: 

Thank you, Maria.

María Cornou: 

I'd like to ask to start this interview asking you about your congregation, your faith community. If you are able to describe your worshiping community, a little bit of your role in your community, and the neighborhood that surrounds your congregation.

Yvette Lau: 

Sure. After I had graduated from CTS in 2010, I have been serving in different churches with different roles, but all relating to the worship ministries. For example, I've been the choir conductor for the Saturday morning worship for my home church, North Point Alliance Church, since 2010, because at that time, the Saturday morning worship just started, and I was invited to be the founding conductor [unintelligible]. I've attended this church since I was a primary school student. My home church is a megachurch in Hong Kong with more than 6,000 [in the] congregation and ten worship services each week on both Saturdays and Sundays. And it is very common for a church in Hong Kong to hold worship services on both Saturday and Sunday. Because the choir rehearsals are scheduled at 9 a.m. on Saturdays, and our worship starts at 11 a.m., I'm still free to serve in other churches. And so I started as a part-time worship pastor for the Kornhill Alliance Church from 2011 to 2013, and also the Grace and Joy Alliance Church from 2014 to 2016. And after resigning from the church staff position, I've been more engaged in different roles and different churches, as María has described. So I have served these churches with different sizes, from megachurch to medium-sized to newly planted churches across denominations.

María Cornou: 

This is wonderful, Yvette. A very interesting experience. And you are actually serving in relation to the Christian Missionary Alliance denomination, correct? And could you share a little bit about the story of the congregation or the worshiping communities and a little bit of the identity of this community you are serving?

Yvette Lau: 

Yeah. Maybe I will introduce more of my home church. My home church, North Point Alliance Church, was founded in 1952, October, in North Point on the Hong Kong island. It was a very small church in the early days, and I have been witnessing its growth from a medium-sized church to a megachurch in the recent decades. We had moved from different venues until 1991, [when] we bought and moved into our current venue, and we have added more nearby satellite venues afterwards. We have more worship services in Cantonese, which is the mother tongue language of most of the Hong Kong people. But we also have worship services in Mandarin and English. We have worship services for secondary school students as well. And since 2008, the special needs ministry has been started, and a large number of brothers and sisters with special needs also join our worship services.

María Cornou: 

This is very interesting. So the church has experienced a lot of growth over fifty years. And can you describe for us a little bit of the neighborhood and people the congregation is reaching out [to]?

Yvette Lau: 

Actually, in my home church, more congregation members, they will be defined as middle - class people, but then we also started a social service unit, so we can keep contact with the neighboring people around us. And what I mentioned about the Grace and Joy Alliance Church, it's a newly planted church. The composition is more of the people that come through our social service projects.

María Cornou: 

And most of the people are people from Hong Kong, or do you have a lot of immigrants or other kinds of neighbors?

Yvette Lau: 

For most of the members, they are people from Hong Kong and they speak Cantonese, but then all the people that we come into contact with in the social service unit, they are maybe more immigrants and lower-class people. So a combination.

María Cornou: 

That makes a very interesting ministry, the outreach to different people and the challenge to bring everyone in the same community, especially because you have all these layers of speaking different languages, too. And we have been aware because of all the news of the social unrest and the particular situation in Hong Kong. So now this virus came, and you have now to face not only the political situation and the social situation, but also this health crisis. How has your congregation responded to this crisis, or which were the main challenges, and how has your congregation has responded in terms of worship, preaching, ministry to the community, witness?

Yvette Lau: 

Yes. In January of this year [2020], COVID-19 started to threaten public health here, and people at first thought it would be something like SARS back in 2003, but it was not. Churches had to decide whether or not they would continue in - person worship. And at that time, I was in the US studying at Perkins [School of Theology] and then attending the Worship Symposium at Calvin.

María Cornou: 

I remember it because you---this is very interesting, because you are starting with the COVID crisis much earlier than most of us ... we were hit in March. So I remember that you were with us in Michigan when all of these issues emerged in Hong Kong, back at home.

Yvette Lau: 

Yeah, back in January. And my home church actually decided to have at first both online and in-person services, but starting from February, the church had decided to hold just the online worship services because our church is a megachurch, so the impact may be very severe. So originally the worship services were ... we prerecorded the services. But then they changed most of them to livestreamed services, with only pastors leading, shortly afterwards. This is possible because we did not have any bans or restrictions on people going out on the street unless you need to be quarantined because you have traveled or you have close contact with COVID-19 patients. And some churches in Hong Kong actually did not want to stop the in-person worship services altogether. However, in the end of March, the government announced new regulations to combat the spread of COVID-19, including a ban on gatherings of more than four people in a public place. So all churches were forced to switch to online worship if they would like to continue their weekly corporate worship, and ... online worship services would be very different from the in-person ones, and not many pastors had much idea of it at that time. Someone actually encouraged me to write something on online worship, and so I published my first COVID-19 related article on online worship in mid - February through the website of Anabas Ministry, which is the ministry founded by myself on worship renewal a few years ago. The title of the article is "Unavoidable Online Worship?", and the article addressed theological considerations and worship practices and participations specifically relating to online worship. It is also translated into English for the English church communities for reference as well. The online worship services are all executed and led by the pastors in my home church. The content has been simplified a little bit, with less singing, and during the original offering time, there is still the musical offering by the organist or the pianist. And as time went by, churches needed to think of the issue of taking communion or not as a worshiping community. So then I had written another article on online communion in April, and the article recalls the original meaning of communion and advises on alternative practices for not having online communion and also practical considerations and measures for having online communion, because there were in fact substantial numbers of churches advocating for both decisions. This is a very hot debate topic too. My home church decided to continue to have communion online starting from Good Friday. And we all got the communion packages from the church during weekday office hours, and then we partake together [of] the elements during the online communion services. In May, when the governmnet was to relax the ban on the gatherings, I published my third article, firstly on the website of CICW and also translated into Chinese for the Hong Kong churches on the preparation for reopening of churches for corporate worship during the pandemic. I have found that ... every precautious measure that we take to combat the spread of the virus, including singing less songs or not singing at all, adversely affect our worship services and practices. So I have suggested fifteen ways to remedy those effects and show hospitality. In fact, our church, and also many other churches, they resumed in-person worship in June. However, due to the third wave of COVID-19, a ban on gathering was implemented in July again, and until the moment, now, [when] I'm having this interview, my home church has not resumed in-person worship yet. And talking about a social concern and care mission and testimony in the neighborhood, there had been times when facemasks---we all wear the facemasks when we go out---those were in a shortage. And since we had experienced SARS before, we Hong Kong people all know that the facemasks are super-essential to protect ourselves from getting the virus. And so our church did collect and gather some masks and distributed them to some people in the neighborhood and also some senior members in our church. And in the end of July, due to the third wave of COVID-19 in Hong Kong, there was a ban on restaurant dining , though only for two days, and many people who needed to work, either in the construction site=s or offices or on the street, could not find a place to have lunch, and you are not supposed to get [unintelligible]. And so in a very short time, our church decided to open some venues to offer a dining space for these people in the neighborhood. Our church also encouraged members to write down things that they were grateful for during this pandemic time and share with other church members through the church website.

María Cornou: 

And in the preaching or in the worship, could you identify a main Bible text or Bible story that has been more prominent to address the concern of these times?

Yvette Lau: 

Actually, I know some different churches or organizations, they will have more focused on the psalms, to be honest, because psalms are something that we need, to learn how to pray and express our concerns and problems. So my home church, we do have prayer sessions, prayer meetings online, but then for the worship, because we have a year[ly] theme [unintelligible], but it's very relevant, it's about to pray and to give thanks to God. So our scriptures are already organized or being arranged. We are looking at the book of James, and the preachers, of course, they will preach on the content of James, but then they will also have some applications and relevant suggestions of where we are living in this pandemic time. So I think for the application parts our pastors will try to reflect on how we should live as God's people during this very unusual time.

María Cornou: 

So this is very, very inspiring, and very interesting to see how the psalms across cultures have become in many cases the core of the prayer and even the teaching of the congregation as the psalms allow us to express our fears, our concerns, and our dependence on God.

Yvette Lau: 

We definitely use psalms in our prayer meetings. A lot.

María Cornou: 

And we from the West, we usually see the Eastern people that are more into prayer; it's closer to the culture than perhaps the busy-ness of the doing in the Western culture.

Host: 

You are listening to Public Worship and the Christian Life: Conversations for the Journey, a podcast produced by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Check out our website at worship.calvin . edu for resources related to this topic and many other aspects of public worship.

María Cornou: 

In this sense, talking about culture and worship, which cultural elements or cultural values do you think are more relevant or have influenced more the worship practices in your congregation, especially if you can contrast this with worship in the US or in other settings in the Western world?

Yvette Lau: 

I will talk about more on the general nature. I think the shortage of land in Hong Kong is surely an influential factor for many worship decisions for many churches, not only that they need to rent some venues---the rent, the price for a venue or space is expensive here. Many churches have only very small spaces and can hold less than 100 or 200 people at a time, not to say that if they want to have a fellowship hall or a lobby, it's a dream. So some of them, they can just rent maybe a [flat] in a commercial building or a classroom in a kindergarten. So they really think of how to design the worship space with theological insights into designs, et cetera. And when the space is more, but they have more and more people, they need to start a new worship. And so the church is forced to be divided in worship times. Some churches may have three worship services because of lack of space, and the people who need to serve can be extremely exhausted. Another factor is the extremely fast-paced city life and the busy - ness of the people definitely influence our worship practices too. People may need to work on Saturdays and Sundays. And so they cannot commit to come to church every Sunday or every Saturday. So if they are leaders or in serving positions in worship, they will create instability in manpower, especially in a smaller church setting. Besides, it may be due to the busy-ness of the people partly that many churches face the problem of having many latecomers. In some churches the latecomers proportion may even be as high as 30 to 50%. And this, of course, I think will affect the opening prayers, at least, when there is only slightly more than half of the congregation singing, and the not-yet-ready atmosphere is really an adverse effect on the unity and spirit of the corporate worship. But of course I'm thinking another reason is that they may have some concept of, "Oh, I go to church to learn the Bible," so they think the sermon is the thing, so they can be late.

María Cornou: 

They are ready for the sermon, like they can join later.

Yvette Lau: 

Yeah. Just that "I won't miss the sermon; it's okay." Something like that. And I think our people are not too competent in aesthetic appreciation and artistic expression. That's not enough in our education system. So it is not easy to develop more art ministries for the worship services other than music, like a scripture reading that I've seen in the US, or drama, or dance, or paintings, artworks, et cetera. And even for the music ministries, if a church has some form or some kind of it, there are still many obstacles and a shortage of musicians to serve faithfully in the churches. And one thing that really stands out is that our mother tongue, Cantonese, is a tonal language, but when the missionaries first came here and helped us to translate all the Western hymns, the translated versions were not honoring this tonal quality, and thus all the hymns in the hymnals even now actually are not tone-fitting for the language. Some people who have been raised by these things for decades, they may have already been used to these sounds and practice, or maybe some of them, they have been influenced by the Western classical singing training. So they may care more about the perfection of pronunciation of vowels while Cantonese has some glides and other features that may not be too compatible with that standard. But many non-believers and young people who have been listening to Canton pop would feel that our hymns are very alien to their ears. In recent years some Christians, including myself, have the passion to deal with this issue. What I've done is to retranslate the hymns with tone-fitting lyrics while sticking to the original meanings. And I've also composed new songs, and songs of psalms in particular, to fill in the niche for tone-fitting songs for people to sing in worship services.

María Cornou: 

I think this is fascinating. And it's a challenge throughout the world, all of these matters of inculturation and how every culture can appropriate the message of the gospel and worship and express in a way that is relevant for the local culture and the features of a culture.

Yvette Lau: 

It's a step for contextualization.

María Cornou: 

And even though I think the global church is moving forward, there is still a lot of road to walk. So this COVID crisis has challenged a lot of congregations to be more creative, to respond in va ery short period of time to a new reality, and probably some of these features, some of these new developments will continue after this crisis is solved. We have a global classroom too, in this course. So I'd like to ask you about your insights about this crisis, wisdom that has been particularly important for you and for your community in these times, and which learning could you share with us and with other believers that are in different parts of their work.

Yvette Lau: 

Thank you for this question. Actually, I've talked to different people and different pastors. And I know that even from the very beginning of the pandemic, since we were forced to switch to online worship, many pastors have been already worrying about the spiritual life quality of the members and whether they will still come back to in-person worship after the pandemic, whether they will be just wanting to comfortably stay at home, very eagerly watching worship services and listening to sermons in particular from different churches, according to their own timetables, or just hopping around, finding the most attractive sermons to listen to rather than committing to a church to worship, to invest their time, their energy, their friendship, and love, to serve and grow there. So I was grateful that I was introduced to a book called Analog Church ... and why we need real people, places, and things in the digital age. It's written by Pastor Jay Kim; it's a new book that just came out in March [2020]. When I was auditing a class from Calvin University during the summer, I was introduced to this book. It was foreworded by Scott McKnight, and the theology behind the proposed analog church is incarnation and sensing the tremendous tensions in the digital age, which are shaping us into more impatient, shallow, and isolated people. How can we still persist to journey on the narrow way and grow as Christ's disciples and worship God as a united church body? I think this is very, very important to reflect on and I envision after the COVID many pastors will need to---or even before the finish of that---many pastors will need to make a lot of decisions on how their churches are going to exist as a real church body both offline and online, what's the proportion, and how it should decide on all those things. People will have been shaped and wired differently during the pandemic for a foreseeably long time already. And thus many things will be different, both in good or bad ways. So in order to have a clear mind and discerning spirit, I think we need to read some, something like this book, some books like this, so that we can discern what is essential for our identity, for our calling as God's people, and what is unreplaceable in our ministry and worship practices, and what is changeable without altering our core values and beliefs as we continue to pastor our people in the spiritual and worshiping journey following the lead of the Holy Spirit. And I really hope that I can translate this book into Chinese so that the Chinese church communities, they would be blessed by the wisdom and pastoral concerns of Pastor Kim, for example, and I'm liaising with a publisher at this moment, and I really hope that this project will work out. And I think this is so important for all of us to reflect on, to think through, why we choose to have this practice and why we're not doing that too. And finally, I want to conclude my sharing by using Romans, chapter 12, verses one to two. I think this is a time more urgent than ever when we need to rethink the true meaning of presenting our bodies "as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is our spiritual worship. We should not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of our minds so that we may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect." So I hope may God have mercy on us as we journey on the [unintelligible] before us as peoples of pilgrimage [unintelligible].

María Cornou: 

And it's very, very relevant, and very interesting, because there are a lot of conversations about what it means, the body engagement when we are online. This opens the door to many other conversations and reflections. One of the beauties I think of these times is that we are able to learn from the global church. Even though we are isolated at home, we are more connected than ever through these means. Thank God for this technology that allows us to have these kinds of conversations that enrich our lives and inspire our ministries, learning from communities from all over the world. That's why I'm so thankful for having you in this class, in this conversation and for the wisdom you have shared with us. Thank you very much, Yvette.

Yvette Lau: 

Thank you.

Host: 

Thanks for listening. We invite you to visit our website at worship.calvin.edu to learn more about the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, an interdisciplinary study and ministry center dedicated to the scholarly study of the theology, history, and practice of Christian worship and the renewal of worship in worshiping communities across North America and beyond.

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