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Pioneering Taiwan church goes online to fund makeover

'Noah's Ark' church features futuristic design and futuristic fundraising

Pioneering Taiwan church goes online to fund makeover

The new Fushan church will use cutting edge eco-friendly design, if it can raise the necessary funds online 

Mhike So, Taipei

May 8, 2014

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The leaking roof remains covered with tarpaulin, and when the wind used to blow during Sunday services an irritating bellowing noise distracted from the sermon.

Abandoned for over two years, Fushan Presbyterian Church slowly deteriorated, its congregation of about 450 all but left to spiritually fend for themselves in the small town of Wulai, in an aboriginal conservation park 30 kms south of Taipei.

“We didn’t have a pastor here for years,” said a 60-year-old aboriginal man who gave directions to the church.

Now, the new pastor, Lin Ching-tai, hopes to turn the fortunes of Fushan around. A well-known movie actor in Taiwan, Lin is aiming to raise NT$7.7 million (US$256,000) to build a futuristic hillside church dubbed 'Noah’s Ark' due to its curvy, boat-like design.

But he’s not raising cash the conventional way through raffles and begging in the community. Instead, this 54-year-old pastor is using an online platform to try to build what would be Taiwan’s first crowd-funded church, and among the first in Asia. Worldwide, a handful of crowd-funded churches have been built in recent years, almost all of them in the US and Italy.

“My parishioners here are very poor and could hardly afford to send their children to college. But despite that, I told them that we will renovate this church and providence will provide,” he said.

Last year, Lin met Tahan Lin, a business developer at a Taipei-based crowd-funding company known as Flying V, and the idea of seeking financial help online to solve the leaking roof and extend the church’s space with an eco-friendly design was born.

Started two years ago, Flying V is the largest of a growing crop of crowd-funding companies in Taiwan, and has successfully funded 137 projects worth a combined $1.68 million so far. If a project misses its target, the money is returned to donors from a company bank account.

Fushan church looks set to miss its own target – the deadline was already extended by a month until the end of May, and by the end of last week the project had only attracted about $56,000, less than a quarter of its target, following the debut of  the online campaign in October.

However, “there is no way this particular project will fail because it’s a special case, the first religious organization we’ve helped so far,” Tim Cheng, managing director of Flying V, said with a smile.

As such, the church has been allowed to extend its funding target deadline, and bend Flying V’s own rules.

“There are big companies out there who have promised support in kind or services to accomplish this project after they learned about it online through Flying V, and therefore the target amount will be lowered since major building materials and expertise will be provided for free,” Cheng added.

In the past few days, one single donor contributed about $16,000, much higher than the average donation on Flying V of between $35 and $65.

Although the church has received special treatment from the company, keeping real-life donors happy is a different matter: the church has had to write letters explaining the deadline extension while urging them to stay committed to the project.

“Usually the donors still give because they believe in the cause,” said Cheng.

For Flying V, breaking its own rules is viewed as necessary given the publicity surrounding what is a first, not only for the company but for Taiwan. News of this pioneering church has already appeared in domestic media including the English-language daily Taipei Times.

For the church itself, bending the Flying V code has been essential for its survival. Pastor Lin says plans are still on track to break ground on the project on July 1.

“We’re hoping that by Christmas time we’ll be celebrating our midnight nativity services in a more spacious church - with no more leaking roof,” he said.

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