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Indonesian architect, CEO and pastor is building for the kingdom

INTERVIEWS | John Sandeman
Eternity #67 March 2016

We meet in his impossibly slick office looking out over Sydney and I revert to the architecture writer I once was, for a moment. “Design has become almost the number one driving force of the company,” Sunito tells Eternity. Note the almost – you’ll see why later. “It is not about being bigger first then better; it is about being better first, then bigger.”

Sunito is CEO of Crown Group, which brings real architecture into the apartment market. Their buildings are intelligent and boldly sculptural. Sunito wants buildings to be beautiful, but “if it is beautiful without a meaning then it is a gimmick. It has to serve a purpose.

“There are three things that make Crown different. It has to be iconic in its architectural look; it has to be beautiful in its entrance – it has to have a sense of arrival; and it has to have a beautiful garden. Everyone wants to follow a convention. Here’s a budget, build it within that budget and work within the norm. But I have learned that during the crisis time you are better off to be different.”

Sunito says that Crown’s policy is to be optimistic but cautious when it comes to the real estate market.  “There’s a difference between being brave and being stupid,” he says. Sunito suggests that being a Christian might be naïve, and lead you to take a riskier path. “Faith is very good but faith also has to make sense. If it makes sense spiritually it also has to make sense in the head.”

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Iwan Sunito

Eternity asks the obvious question about the farmer in the parable who pulls down his barns to build bigger ones.

“It’s fascinating about the rich man who builds. So that I can live (with the promised wealth) for the rest of my life. But God says, ‘You fool. Your life is required of you.’”

Sunito has a story of struggle, conversion, then God blessing him so that he can be a blessing.

“I am the product of a kid that struggled in life, struggling all the way from year one to year eleven. I failed one year. Then I had an accident in Bali that almost took my life and I was in a coma for five days. Through that accident I was put in the top students’ class – I was from the lowest of the low and suddenly I was put in with the top five students. That accident becomes almost my miracle because of the change of people around me. I used to mix with people who were street-smart but not thinking academically, but then I was thrown into a class that was academically smart. They saw things differently and it changed my perspective in life.”

His dad sent him from Indonesia to Australia to study.

“My dad was not a Christian. But he had these Pentecostal missionaries living at the back of our house. They came from a big town, and they opened up a church there. In the context of a Chinese community that was more Confucian rather than Christian. He faced a lot of opposition. But somehow my dad began to help him. I don’t know why. He was not a Christian but he helped him by supplying electricity. At that time we used generators. And we grew up going to that church behind the house. We jumped over the fence to go to church every Sunday.

“I grew up to be quite rebellious – in year 11 and year 12 I felt there were a lot of hypocrites – that was my perception; I was wrong.

“I said, ‘There’s no point in being a Christian.’ So I did not go to church. I was not believing until I came to Sydney. Then I did my year 12, then I met the person who became my wife. She went to Newcastle and became a born-again Christian. She radically changed and began to visit with a friend. I said, ‘You are a fanatic.’ I was arguing about the whole thing. I was arguing against what the Bible says.

“But one thing I could not deny was the love. ‘You guys keep coming from Newcastle and you want to share the gospel, you never give up and you just keep loving.’ They were persistent – I was in year two at UNSW doing architecture.

“And then in year four that persistence broke through. In trying to argue, I found the truth of the Bible. I was bored with being a ‘nominal’ Christian, going to church and not being any different from the world on the other days of the week. I just felt I wanted to be different. In year four that is when I committed my life to Jesus Christ.

“There was a complete change in my life. I was born again. My marks started changing. The strength is relying on the power of God, who can do it through me. I am trusting his power and his ability to change me. My marks started to go from credit, to distinction, to high distinction, and stayed there until I finished university. It was a radical change.”

The story of early struggle followed by business success, is mingled with Sunito’s calling to be a pastor. His church is SCWC – Sydney Christian Worship Centre which meets at Moore Park.

“Then I started my architecture business. We prayed as a family and we believed that God would use our business in order to be able to build a centre one day, which will train a lot of leaders – a lot of pastors of small churches.” He had a vision: “I saw a big building. I did not know who would pastor it. I didn’t know who would lead it. And we think we need a million dollars to do that – the rest can come from everybody else.”

So he started his architecture business with that vision in mind. It began slowly. Too slowly it seemed. Sunito had a conversation with his God: “At the rate that we are growing there is no way I can bless your kingdom. If you want me to bless a million, you had better give me ten, so 10 per cent is for you and the rest is for building up the business.

“But we believe that everything belongs to God. Not 10 per cent or 20 per cent – everything.”

Humanly speaking, Sunito’s goal was a tough one to reach. “I did not have the network. I did not have the experience. I was just straight out of graduation. I never had the experience of working in a big firm, There is no way I can build what God had given us the vision for.

“We had a recipe for just an average growth. And God gave us Joshua 1:7-9: Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.’

“I called on that scripture all the time. It was about building the business God’s way. Whenever there was [temptation] like taking clients to a wrong place – let’s do clubbing and things – God’s word reminded me, ‘look, you will be successful not because of your ability, but because I will open the door.’

“So I keep on doing that and I start cracking it. In the seventh and eighth year I start making good money. Then the recession hits but we stick to it. And along the way, the calling that God is first.

“Making disciples for Christ is number one. The business, leadership, being known, is a tool for it. So it is not two things; it is one thing. I use my leadership skill, my business skill to do what I am called to do – for the kingdom.”

The path was not straight. God had plans that Sunito didn’t expect.

Eight years into the business, in 2004, Sunito’s church was shut down by a pastor who decided to merge congregations. “I asked my senior pastor, ‘What do you want me to do with this church here? Shut down?’ He said, ‘Look, continue it. I will send you a pastor.’ I said, ‘OK, great, make sure you do.’ But he never did.

“From 2004 to 2007 I never wanted to be a pastor of that church. I was always looking for somebody else. That was the most difficult time of my life.I didn’t know what to do … [I was] waking up with a cold sweat.

“During that time we were building the church with 20 people. Imagine this: Maroubra Bay public school hall, really basic. Set up the chairs, put up the sound system. Mop the floor on Saturday. And we did that for three years.

“I was in a conference and I saw a vision, a person speaking in front of thousands of people. And I looked at the person and I thought, that must be somebody else. But I was actually looking at myself and I said, ‘Why is it me?’ ‘Because I am calling you. Not because you are qualified. But I am calling you for that.’”

On a flight back to Sydney from a Full Gospel business meeting, Sunito was mulling over the issue of the pastor: “The guy I had asked to do it was not committed fully. During the flight I was by myself and a question came to my mind. ‘Iwan, if the job is small, who looks after it?’ ‘Of course I give it to someone on the staff.’ ‘If the job is important and big, who looks after it?’ ‘Of course I do, God,’ I said. ‘Well, is reaching souls important for you? Why do you ask someone else to do it?’ So I kind of broke down and said ‘God, OK!’

“Within the year of that vision, I was speaking to thousands of people. I was invited to Seoul to speak to 5000 people: four services, 25,000. That was God fulfilling the vision. I have gone with the flow. The church is growing to reach multi-generations, multi-cultures, and multi-nations.

“In the last ten years it has become no longer a matter of reaching just one or two souls, it has been building a church. We are in Dubai, Jakarta, Brisbane, Israel – we have a church there.

“It’s been a joyful thing. Now I see all the leaders under me that are amazing – preachers, evangelists. We have always said to people we are not full-time. That’s the journey – I was forced to do it.”

Sunito believes that other business people should offer the church more, just like he was led to do. “I would like to encourage a lot of business people to realise their spiritual gifting. We often say this is my boardroom. I go to church and I serve by leading connect groups, I serve by listening, I serve by serving as an usher. I feel that professional business people may have a greater calling than just that. Most people don’t realise that if you can just move from developing [yourself] in being happy, to being transformed by renewing of our mind and beyond that, by being a spiritual leader …

“I can work hard, yet I can only produce an eight-hour day reasonably. I can work with my mind, and I can become creative. I can become a good leader. But when you work in the spiritual dimension it becomes unlimited.”

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