He sold his companies, donated his assets and became a janitor: YMCA CEO Steve Loh’s headlong journey into missions
Gracia Lee // March 13, 2020, 5:51 pm
"How do I preach the Gospel in strategic business decisions? How do I be a servant leader of hundreds?" YMCA CEO Steve Loh asks himself every day. Photo courtesy of YMCA Singapore.
Who would voluntarily go from heading three companies to becoming an unpaid janitor?
That would be Steve Loh.
Loh had an illustrious career in the media industry, complete with three companies under his name, when he gave it all up to become an unpaid janitor at missions organisation Youth With a Mission (YWAM Singapore).
It was not a decision that came easily. Nor was it one that he lived with effortlessly.
For two whole years after he surrendered everything to God, he would weep during worship, mourning his losses and fearing for his future.
“Man, in the Creator’s view and intent, was not made to be selfish … when we are, something within us dies.”
Yet, with this painful sacrifice came a greater reward – an immense joy and freedom that flowed from living out a higher purpose his Heavenly Father had carved out for him. One that was much more fulfilling than self-centred pursuits, said Loh, now 47.
“Man, in the Creator’s view and intent, was not made to be selfish. And when we are – and I am, there’s no two ways about it – something within us dies,” he said.
Looking back on the past 13 years of his service in YWAM Singapore and YMCA, where he is now chief executive officer and general secretary, he added: “Missions was God’s redeeming grace to save me from myself, to save me from an empty life.”
Back in the early 2000s, while in the prime of his career, Loh felt a deep emptiness that did not seem to make sense.
After all, he was running three lucrative businesses – a production house, a digital rental company and a Wagyu beef distribution. He had a dazzling resumé that included being a radio and news presenter at big names like local broadcaster Mediacorp and sports channel ESPN.
He was earning enough to be debt-free by the time he was 34 and could easily afford the trappings of modern society, including a private condominium and a car.
“The more I was focused on a very comfortable retirement, the emptier I felt.”
Yet, despite this and the fact that he was actively attending and serving in church, he felt a hollowness he now describes as a “deep divine discontentment”.
“Even though I was enjoying the blessings of Singapore life, which I recognise are from God, life ironically became quite empty. It almost felt like the more I tried to fill it, the emptier it got,” he said.
“Matthew 16:25 really rung true for me. The more I was focused on that fulfilment of self, trying to save my life – literally by saving my money, my career, my man-made plans, my 25-year trajectory for myself and a very comfortable retirement – the emptier I felt.”
And so began his search for purpose.
During this time, in 2007, one of his business partners and close friends left the company to join YWAM Singapore’s Discipleship Training School (DTS), a six-month programme that seeks to nurture and train Christians in their God-given identity through lectures and hands-on missions experience.
After the first week, his friend rang him up.
“He said, ‘Steve, these YWAMers are amazing. They hear God’s voice, they all live together and they all work for free. And there are 25,000 of them worldwide!’
“I was like, oh no, you’ve joined a cult! I’m coming to visit you immediately,” Loh recalled with a laugh.
“Where in the Bible does it say that discipleship is safe?”
He dropped in for a day, planning to check out what exactly his friend had gotten himself into. Unexpectedly, however, he was so gripped by what he was seeing that he asked to stay for another week, and another, and another, and eventually completed the entire six months.
Apart from the sessions of deep worship and learning, it was the faith of those he met in YWAM Singapore that made him experience God in a way he never had before.
“I was surrounded by people of faith who truly believed the Bible and had given up everything for God to live out the Great Commission. When you’re surrounded by such people, you, too, encounter God.
“It was like what Job said in Job 42:5. ‘My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you’,” he said.
Even though Loh had grown up as a Christian, a lot of what he knew about God was just head knowledge and also not entirely right, he said.
“My personal theology back then was that if I follow God, He will bless me financially and nothing too bad will happen to me. One of the reasons why I followed God so closely was for those reasons, to keep my risks low, to make my life as easy as possible.”
“Their risks were high, their life was hard and their joy was full.”
But when he began to study Scripture more intently, he realised that he had been dead wrong.
“Look at the life of the disciples. When they put up their hand to follow Jesus, their lives were anything but safe. Peter was martyred, Apostle Paul was jailed, beaten and shipwrecked three times, Stephen was stoned to death, and the list goes on. Where in the Bible does it say that discipleship is safe?”
Despite the risks involved in true discipleship, he saw how sold out for God those at YWAM Singapore were: “In John Piper’s words, their risks were high, their life was hard and their joy was full.”
This deeply challenged his faith.
Who is Jesus to you?
Loh was further confronted with his own beliefs during a week called Lordship Week, where he found himself examining his heart more closely.
“I loved the Lord but not enough. It was too much to give up.”
The questions were direct: Who is Jesus Christ to you? Is He not just your Saviour but also your Lord? Is He your Boss, your King, your Master?
Loh remembers clearly it was on a Tuesday that they read the story of the rich young ruler in Mark 10:17-22 who asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life.
Like the rich young ruler, he had lived his life faithfully following the commandments of Christ. But there is one thing you lack, he heard the Holy Spirit say to him, just as Jesus had told the man: Sell everything, give to the poor and follow Me (Mark 10:21).
Loh’s answer was swift: No.
“I realised that I can read the Bible my whole life yet not believe it.”
“Are you kidding?” he asked God. “I’ve spent the last 14 years building up my career, my resumé, my talents, my clientele, my three companies. Give everything up and come follow You?
“I actually told God, no. I was in tears, just like the rich young ruler was, because I loved the Lord but not enough. It was too much to give up.
“To me, finances equaled security. In my business days, what would give me peace that surpasses all understanding was my bank account balance. I would come home and check it every night. Financial security had become the idol of my life.”
He went home and processed this encounter with his wife, who strongly encouraged him to obey. Nevertheless, he continued to struggle with the Lord.
But three days later, his resistance turned into surrender after the Lord convicted his heart.
“I realised that I can read the Bible my whole life yet not believe it. I can read about how God is good my whole life, yet never walk in that knowledge or trust Him. If God is as good as the Bible says, then why am I not giving up everything to follow Him?
“Because I’m not sure. I wonder: What if He doesn’t deliver me? What if He doesn’t come through for me? What if Matthew 6:33 is not true?
“I was thinking it’s better have one foot in, one foot out. Some faith in God and some faith in myself. It’s safer to be lukewarm. But the Lord said to me, either you’re hot or you’re cold. If you’re lukewarm, I’ll spit you out (Revelation 3:15-16).”
From business owner to janitor
Thus, with much fear and trembling, Loh obeyed.
By the end of that same year, he closed down all his companies, donated all his assets to YWAM Singapore and joined the organisation, beginning his missions journey humbly – as a janitor.
“There was a need and I put my hand up,” he said simply. “I felt I needed the humility.” The role was also unpaid, as are all roles in YWAM, as staff have to raise their own income.
“I made sure that I had the cleanest toilet … The pleasure and presence of God over me was my great reward.”
For a whole year, he spent his time doing all sorts of tasks required to keep the place running, from cleaning toilets and mopping floors to painting walls and constructing beds.
“I loved it, coming from a very, very stressful corporate life to just making sure that I had the cleanest toilet that YWAM has ever seen,” he said. “The pleasure and presence of God over me was my great reward.”
That humbling year also taught him that he is not defined by what he does, Loh said.
“What defines me is what my identity is in Christ as the child of the Most High, and that set me up for the next decade of missions work. I had a lot of security in whatever God called me to do. I didn’t have to worry about rank, title or politics.”
The Lord also proved to him and his family that He would take care of them financially, no matter the circumstance: “God provided always. Every year, every month. There were some scary months, but He always provides when the time is right and when it’s in His plans.”
Created to worship
The following year, he became the school leader of DTS and subsequently was appointed its director a few years later.
“We were created to fully serve a living God … until we do that, we never really find out who we are.”
In total, he spent 12 years in YWAM Singapore and counts this decision the best one he has ever made.
“My great reward was meeting God in my field of obedience,” he said. “I discovered joy in living out my intended purpose, which is to do the good works that God has prepared in advance for me to do in Christ (Ephesians 2:10).
“In reaching out and preaching the Gospel, I got to discover that we were always created to worship. We were always created to fully serve a living God. Not partially, but fully. And until we do that, we never really find out who we are.
“All of us were created for a purpose which has an eternal impact, but most of us never walk in it. We are that aeroplane that sits on the tarmac and never flies. We are that ship that sits on the highway. We never fulfil our destiny.
“But being in missions allowed me to discover who I was in Christ and to live that out fearfully. It was a place of great joy for me. It still is.”
Called to go
He added that fulfilling God’s purposes for us not does necessarily mean moving to a different country to become missionaries in the traditional sense of the word.
“All of us were created for a purpose which has an eternal impact, but most of us never walk in it.”
“Being a missionary is a state of the heart. I have met hundreds of missionaries who are CEOs of multinational corporations, lawyers, doctors, captains of industries, small business owners, taxi drivers, cafe owners, all very much with what appears to be regular jobs.
“But they’ve made Jesus Lord, they’ve made a promise to fulfil the Great Commission and to represent the character of Christ, and they’re doing it in their sphere of influence.”
In fact, this has been Loh’s latest challenge since he left YWAM Singapore in 2018 to head YMCA, whose mandate is not to preach but to serve the community, he said.
“How do I preach the Gospel in strategic business decisions? How do I be a servant leader of hundreds?”
“Traditional missions was easier because it’s very straightforward – serve the poor and needy, and preach the Gospel.
“In my current season, however, how do I be a CEO of a charity that runs social enterprises and preach the Gospel in my strategic business decisions? How do I be a servant leader when I have to command hundreds? That’s much more difficult.”
In any case, the Bible is clear that all of us are called to fulfil the Great Commission (Matthew 28: 19-20) and be lovers and doers of justice and mercy (Micah 6:8), he said.
“Nobody has to wait for a call to missions. Everybody is called to go. The question is where?”