The origins of Grace Baptist Church lie in the spread of the Gospel in the late 20th century across Asia, in particular, as a result of the Chinese Communist Revolution in October 1949.
The Communist successes in China prompted a reluctant exodus of missionaries. Of those who left China, there were two ladies who made the long journey to Singapore – Ms Lora Amelia Clement and Ms Dorcas Lau. Both ladies, who wanted to continue outreach to the Chinese, were longtime partners during their years in China.
In 1951, Miss Clement looked for a location to begin work among Cantonese Chinese. The Lord opened a place in Kampong Silat near the General Hospital, where she rented a shophouse at 12 Silat Crescent.
On 1 January 1952, the work of the Baptist Gospel Centre at 12 Silat Crescent had begun with a week of evangelistic meetings.
With the Gospel Centre as a base, the two ladies had a simple strategy: knock on doors and share the love and gospel of Jesus Christ using tracts and other materials. They were joined in gospel partnership with the Overseas-Chinese (Cantonese) Baptist Church (now Kay Poh Road Baptist Church) who met in a three-storey house on Tras Street, where they directed many of the Cantonese converts.
As the Baptist work grew, other missionaries from the Baptist Mission helped out. Among these included missionary pastor Herbert Howard Holley and his wife, Frances Holley, who arrived in Singapore in 1956.
Activities at the Gospel Centre consisted of daily children’s meetings, weekly women’s meetings, literacy classes, Vacation Bible School, Sunday School and Training Union for the youth, thanks to the tireless efforts of the missionaries. Evangelistic Sunday evening gatherings were also conducted.
Through these efforts, more began to respond to the gospel, especially among the young, and youth programmes and evangelism activities were organised under the “Baptist Training Union”, as it was known, at the Gospel Centre.
An American couple, Dr Ernest and Mrs Verda Poulson, had been stirred for gospel ministry to Indonesia, but found obstacles in their visa application due to the President Sukarno’s hostility towards the West. They were diverted to Singapore to help at the recently-established Singapore Bible College while they waited for their application to be approved, but the visa never came.
In 1953, through contact with Baptist missionaries, the Poulsons connected with the Gospel Centre in their first week of arrival, and began to supplement the evangelistic-style preaching of the missionaries with more steady expository Bible teaching at the Gospel Centre.
While the Poulsons were away in the US on furlough, it was decided that the afternoon English congregation would form a new Baptist church. When the Poulsons returned, a new work had begun.
Many at the Gospel Centre were simultaneously involved with Oversea-Chinese (Cantonese) Baptist Church, which eventually started a formal English service. From that church, two other churches were subsequently founded. The English-speaking service became Grace Baptist Church in 1959 and was founded with 51 chartered members (44 by letter and 7 by baptism). The Cantonese-speaking core group relocated to Kaypoh Road two years after and adopted the name of their premises. The Baptist Mission assigned Holley to lead Grace Baptist Church as its first pastor.
When the Holleys went on furlough in 1960, Dr Poulson was invited to serve as missionary-adviser. Paul Lenn was his main interpreter and the two men worked together to communicate effectively from the pulpit.
In this rather youthful congregation, its few adult members had the weightier responsibilities like that of Treasurer. Dr Poulson, therefore, provided much-needed biblical depth in the form of longer sermons and spiritual mentorship for the emerging leaders of this young church.
When the Poulsons returned to the States for a period of furlough in 1969, Dr Poulson arranged for his friend, Norman Mackintosh, who was running the Scripture Union bookstore, to stand in as interim pastor for a spell. Under the influence of non-Baptist missionaries, the group had an ecumenical breadth beyond Baptistic practices, for instance, in the area of membership by immersion.
Sunday activities consisted of the main worship service, Sunday School, and then Training Union under ceiling fans set at full blast. Some church activities, like Sunday School, took place outdoors in the badminton court, or under the shade of big trees, as curious passers-by would look on. Packed to the brim, the shophouse was close to its maximum capacity and special police permission had to be sought for the crowd to spill into the parking lot.
On Sunday nights, Dr Poulson also conducted a hour-long Bible class. In addition to his trademark flowing expositions of Scripture verse by verse, Dr Poulson also taught on theological matters like eschatology.
By the seventies, the church had grown to 161 members. But God had further plans for the growth of Grace. The outreach ministry of the church was continuing to bear fruit among the residents in the area, and the Chinese-speaking group grew further. This strained the capacity of the Kampong Silat shophouse, and new premises were sought for this growing segment of the church.
In 1976, an apartment at nearby Dragon Mansion in Spottiswoode Park was acquired for the Chinese services as well as the church office, and care groups, youth groups and womens’ meetings were also held there. Meetings continued there until it was sold in 1982.
God had been gracious to provide, as the Government had plans to redevelop the Kampong Silat area for public housing, and it became untenable to meet at the shophouse after September 1978.
Between 1978 and 1983, Grace held services at various venues. They included the DBS Auditorium in Shenton Way, the PUB auditorium, the Peninsula Hotel function hall, the Singapore American School, Grace Singapore Chinese Church and Kum Yan Methodist Church.
Even during the “nomadic years”, the congregation kept growing. To cope with the growing needs, several young men had been identified in the early 1970s to serve as deacons, or lay preachers. Under Dr Poulson’s training, they were to be prepared as lay preachers, and provide pulpit teaching.
Grace also started missions and gospel partnership with the Singapore Baptist Convention in 1975, hosting visiting missionaries, speakers and special music groups that were passing through Singapore.
After a period of nomadic existence, it was decided that the church should acquire its own venue for worship. The Dragon Mansion flat was sold in June 1982. Between 1978 and 1983, members of Grace raised about $1.2 million for the new building, supplemented by $50,000 from the Southern Baptist Convention. The church made it a policy not to take a bank loan.
An option to acquire freehold land in the newly-built Macpherson presented itself in 1980. At the end of the building campaign in 1982, the church gave thanks for its new permanent premises at 17 Mattar Road, having paid around $434,000 for the land, and $2.2m for the building.
On the 22nd January 1983, a dedication service was held to give all the glory to God, with every cent fully paid.
Lawrence Khong, a homegrown youth at GBC and rising lay leader, had expressed an interest in Christian ministry as a young student at the NUS Business School, and began serving as an intern pastor and lay preacher. At Dr Poulson’s recommendation, the deacons agreed to send him to Dallas Seminary in the USA for further theological studies. After his studies, Khong returned to Singapore in November 1981 to serve the church as pastor, and Dr Poulson stepped down as Church Counsellor. Khong was ordained on 31 December 1981.
Over the next five years, Khong, led the church through a season of extraordinary growth as attendance went from 400 to more than a thousand attendees across two services each Sunday. Some reports suggest that church attendance at its peak was as high as 1,600 on Sundays. In 1982, a Vacation Bible School programme for 260 children was held.
The church choir also travelled overseas to Malaysia for mission efforts supporting Khong as he preached the gospel to the lost. Grace was zealous for its door to door ministry, with members going out in teams all over the Macpherson area, and many were drawn in by the activity and energy of the congregation. One celebrated high point was the “Reach Out Macpherson” campaign, which saw the church erecting a “getai”-like stage at the nearby carpark for music and evangelism, which attracted the attention of the neighborhood.
Upon returning from a mission trip with the church choir to Sarawak, Khong shared with the team of deacons that he felt increasingly drawn to new ecstatic experiences of the Holy Spirit, and felt strongly that this should an important part of the church's new direction.
For the next year, the pastors and deacons studied the issue carefully using the writings of Peter Wagner, John Stott and others. Seminarians Walter L. Baker and Crosby Anglizian, who both taught Bible classes at Grace, also provided counsel to church leaders on the subject. White papers were written to articulate various theological points of view. The deacons also reached out to then-president of Dallas Seminary, Donald Campbell to clarify the seminary’s official position.
In 1984, at the Malacca Village Hotel church camp, the issue of the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” became a strong point of disagreement. This led to a series of meetings, and which led to an Extraordinary General Meeting to determine the future of the church and its leadership.
At the meeting, two different positions were presented to the congregation. More than half of the congregation elected to support Khong. However, the meeting accepted a 13th hour proposal that the official decision required the support of least 75% of members present, which proved to be unsuccessful.
After the meeting, plans had actually been made by the deacon-led minority to leave Mattar Road and hold services at the newly-built Singapore Labor Foundation theatre at Thomson Road.
It was surprising, however, that a week after the vote, the majority decided that they would vacate the premises, and under Khong’s leadership, move to the theatre and form a new church.
With 300-odd members left at Grace, the deacons invited Dr Poulson, who had retired from the Bible College, to formally lead the church as pastor adviser from 1987 to 1989, and then as senior pastor from 1989 to 1996. Under his leadership, more pastoral and ministry staff were hired for the English congregation.
At the church’s 50th anniversary celebrations, church members recall how during this difficult period, many who had “retired” from ministry came “back” into active service, providing leadership to the church, teaching Sunday School, and serving in worship leading, and in many other ways. They attest to the faithfulness of God helping the church to recover in this period, gain strength, and look ahead.
In addition to the morning services in English and in Chinese, a second English service was started in the 1990s to reach out to a younger age group. The service took on its own distinct laid-back style and approach, with time for testimonies and more casual sharing, and grew.
Care groups were an important ministry to help members connect with one another and find a sense of community during this time. Missions work at Grace also grew as a Baptist church was planted in Myanmar. Evangelistic Christmas cantatas and musicals were held, with church members showcasing their talents in music and drama.
During this time, various members, especially those with special giftings, stepped in to provide stability for the church. Lay leaders were challenged by Bible teaching to adopt a more pastoral understanding of leadership. The church leadership was also organised into two teams for pastoral work and administration respectively, to set aside layperson capacity for member care, prayer and the teaching of the Scriptures for the sustainability of pastoral ministry in the church.
The pastors who served Grace at this time included George Kwek, Chin Wei Fong and Dr Rick Griffith, who was also a lecturer at Singapore Bible College then. When Dr Griffith was unable to continue, Tom Chandler, a church member and missionary to India, came on as a teaching pastor between 2000 and 2002.
By the early 2000s, the church had grown to the size of 468 members.
As the Chandlers’ time at GBC was coming to an end, former deacon Richard Cher recommended a former GBC member and graduate of Fuller Seminary now based in Hong Kong, Peter Lin, to the pastoral search committee for consideration.
Lin, a Hong Kong American and former member of Cher’s CG, was invited to leave the corporate world and relocate to Singapore to serve as senior pastor of Grace. He accepted and came to Grace in 2002, bringing with him his wife Michelle Lin, his sons Barnabas and Samuel, and the leadership gifts of a theologically trained CEO to the church.
By 2006, the church had grown to about 570 members by God’s grace. Spurred by a sense of newfound common purpose, Lin helped re-organize the English congregations in other ways.
The English pastoral team was strengthened with the arrival of Bobby Lee, a graduate of Singapore Bible College and homegrown GBC member, as pastor in 2006. Richard “Dick” Hugoniot, a veteran American missionary to India and Nepal with long affiliation to the church was invited to serve after his retirement from Wycliffe International in 2007. With his wife, Edith, the Hugoniot were invited to helm missions at GBC.
Pastoral Leadership Team members were redesignated with the biblical title of “elders”, and took on duties in preaching, teaching, pastoral care and service planning. The long-standing afternoon English service was brought forward to become a second morning service at 11.45am, and saw numerical growth.
Lin led the church through a memorable “40 Days of Purpose” campaign, which saw mass participation where new care groups were formed. He was supported in the campaign by longtime member Kuan Kok Pui, who joined the church in October 2011 as outreach director.
Over the next two years, elder Yap Kim Meng sought leave from his role as senior staff with the Navigators Singapore, and supported the church full-time as an elder. He anchored the teaching and preaching of the pulpit in the interim, stressing Christian discipleship and a zeal for the gospel. He was supported by Lee, Hugoniot and Oey, while a pastoral search committee continued its work of seeking new leadership.
But by God’s grace, the faithful work of lay discipleship and shepherding had borne fruit. In 2008, member Oliver Chia was sent by church leaders to pursue a Masters at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. A new group of youth had started to grow from the church’s ministries.
God was still not done with Grace Baptist Church.
In 2009, Arnold Wong, a Chinese-American pastor based in Texas, was recommended by international apologist Ramesh Richards as a candidate for the role of senior pastor of Grace.
Arnold and his wife Efie, arrived from the US in 2009, and provided much-needed pastoral care and counseling for the congregation. Wong continued in the tradition of expositional Bible teaching, and stressed church unity and positive relationships between believers.
Under his leadership, the English congregation moved its two morning services back to back with the first at 8.00am and the second at 9.30am. The church also began short-term mission trips, partnering with Kathy’s Home in Pua, Thailand, and Project Home in Cambodia. Locally, the church partnered other mercy ministries like Gracehaven, for the spread of the gospel.
Oliver Chia and Eugene Low, both graduates of Southern Seminary, came on board in 2010 and 2011 respectively as pastoral staff. Carrie Chong, a longtime church member, was brought on staff to serve as a ministry worker especially to women. The pastors were supported by the team of elders.
Wong also introduced a series of demographic-specific ministries, including the Young Adults, Careers, Family and ENJOY (seniors) ministries.
In 2013, the congregational leadership of both English and Chinese congregations agreed to refresh the church’s vision statement: “to be a disciple-making church which transforms lives with the gospel and love of Jesus Christ”. For the English congregation, a Disciple-Making Task Force led by Chia was convened to study how to make this statement a reality.
These efforts culminated in the formation of a Rebuilding Steering Committee chaired by Beh Soo Hee in Feb 2014 to put together a proposal for church rebuilding.
On 27 April 2014, at an Extraordinary General Meeting, 87.6% of members voted “Yes” to rebuild the thirty-year old building at the cost of around $22 million.
On 27 Sep 2015, GBC held its final worship service at the old building in 17 Mattar Road, and the first combined English worship service was held at the temporary location at the Chapel of the Holy Spirit in Potong Pasir on the afternoon of 4 Oct 2015, which would continue for the next two years. A temporary church office at Tannery Lane was rented for the duration of the rebuilding.
To better support church ministries during the period offsite, the office of deacon was also re-introduced at Grace.
In 2014 and 2016, two Reformation Concerts were also held to galvanise interest in the historic beliefs of the Christian faith.
As the church entered the new building, full of hope and expectation, we wondered, what would the future bring?
Ian Buntain, a Canadian IMB missionary and Baptist pastor was led to Grace as senior pastor in October 2016. A former member of Grace, Ian and his wife Sherri had returned to Canada to pastor some years before, before being led of the Lord to return to Singapore.
Buntain’s goal to steer Grace towards a future of national pastors had involved inviting Eugene Low, who had been pastoring at Redemption Hill Church, to return to Grace in June 2017, and later, employ homegrown church member Samuel Beh, first as ministry support staff in August 2017, then as associate pastor in July 2018 before his seminary training. In July 2019, Beh departed with his family for Regent College in Vancouver for theological studies.
In August 2017, the church moved into the new building at Mattar Road after two years of rebuilding debt-free, and deeply thankful to God for His provision. One morning service at 9.00am is presently held in place of the two at the old venue, and the sanctuary, which seats 750 persons, is filling up in capacity.
Two months after moving back, our beloved Emeritus Pastor Dr Poulson was called home to the Lord on the 17 October 2017, having completed his final teaching assignment on 2 Kings. His wake services were held in the new church building, as Grace honoured him and celebrated his life of faithfulness.
At the time of writing, more men of GBC have been challenged to assume the role of leadership. Through the elder associate programme and pastoral development initiative introduced by Buntain and the pastors, more lay leadership has emerged. Between 2018 and 2019, elders elected included those born in the 1980s, who are entirely home-grown at Grace. New deacons were also appointed to serve various ministries in the church.
At the time of writing, Grace Baptist Church is 60 years old, a congregation grateful for how the Lord has led us, and ever, by the grace of God, looking to the Lord for the future.
60 years, compared to the breadth of eternity is but a blink of the eye, but it is our prayer that those years, when presented to the Lord as our witness, would show that this congregation was found faithful in His sight.
Soli Deo Gloria!