My response to the results of the Millennial Survey can be grouped into three main themes: 1) Rediscovering Community; 2) Rediscovering Rhythms; and 3) Rediscovering Mission. These reflections have been born of my spiritual sojourn over the past 50 years, a growing understanding of the gospel of the kingdom over the past 10 years, and the changes brought about by Covid-19 over the past nine months.
Rediscovering Community: Observations from my “church” sojourn over the past 50 years
Church has been an integral part of my life since birth. As a pastor’s kid, my life basically revolved around church. This was especially so because the church also doubled up as our home — we lived in the Vicarage on the church premises. When that church was at the centre of the charismatic renewal in the 1970s, you could say that I basically had the privilege of observing this exciting period from the front row. My father was the pastor in charge of the English congregation and was involved in planting house churches in new HDB estates in the ’70s and ’80s. I have memories of sleeping in the back pew of the church during late-night revival meetings, helping to man book tables at the spiritual renewal seminars, and having our pet dog sent away to the kennel because she started chasing church members around the church compound.
There were two notable inflection points in my journey. One was at the age of 13 when I graduated from Sunday school to youth fellowship, and the other was when I was sent out with a group of fellow youth leaders to plant a new extension centre which later became part of a newly formed church. As a group of young bi-vocational church planters, we participated in the gamut of church-growth trainings, including Ralph Neighbour’s cell church concept and Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Church. As a 20- to 30-something actively involved in planting and leading a young church, these were exciting times and the church experience was integral to my spiritual growth and formation.
As I moved into my 40s, a few key shifts started to take place. I found my calling gravitating towards ministry in the marketplace and public square. In particular, I responded to a call to pilot a model of ministry involving cafes as a missional third space. During this time, I began to realise that the gospel of the kingdom had to spread beyond the walls of the local church into every sphere of society. The second major shift was seeing my children graduate from Sunday school into adult church. They did not seem to be following the path I had found myself on previously, with active participation in youth ministry when I was their age. Adding to the concern was my observation that they were not really engaging in the adult life of the church, which by this time was limited to attendance of a Sunday service (where they would mostly be on their cell phones throughout the service) and lunch after that. It bothered me that they did not appear to be growing spiritually, and that the tried and tested “youth ministry” route which my generation had taken wasn’t working for them.
Another dramatic shift happened as I moved into my 50s. Several of our friends whom we had grown up with in youth fellowship decided to look for new church experiences which would help their kids stay engaged. As our closest friends started to leave for other churches, we decided to form an informal fellowship group to stay connected and to encourage one another in our spiritual growth. We formed a Whatsapp chat group (which is the genesis for many things these days) called “Next Steps” and we found ourselves meeting once a week to pray and discern the next steps God would have us take. We began to engage in the ecclesial minimums of what is effectively a micro-church — worshipping Jesus together around His Word, loving one another, and encouraging each other to reach out in mission.
As the adults (Gen Xers) were being ministered to in this new expression of micro-church, we began to pray about what it would take to see our kids form their own micro-communities of faith. My oldest daughter who is 24 and who found her faith when she went abroad to study, laments her discovery, upon returning to Singapore, that most of her friends had left the church.
Rediscovering Rhythms: What Covid-19 has revealed about the essentials
Covid-19 has forced us to explore what Church really means to us as a family. When other families started to do church at home due to Covid-19, the opportunity came with phase 2 of the Circuit Breaker to invite another family to join us on a Sunday morning. So now the routine is that we have breakfast together. The initial plan was to watch a sermon together but it ended by being an epiphany of sorts when my children suddenly started to take sermon notes, only for us to find out at the end of the sermon that the notes were being used to rebut the arguments presented. The preacher had evidently touched a raw nerve with my millennial kids. The upshot is that we finally had them interacting and responding with what they agreed with or didn’t agree with. It was a great opportunity to find out what they truly believe and why they believe it. It has also been an opportunity for the two families to engage in discussion topics which were rarely brought up when we were just attending church services on a Sunday. Everyone is now forced to participate in the spiritual conversation.
We are now enjoying the benefits of closer community. The adults have an opportunity for intimate fellowship on Saturday nights and, because we stumbled on the idea of family church on Sunday mornings, we are hoping that this will be an opportunity for our kids to form intergenerational community bonds which go beyond the traditional “sit in church together and then go for lunch” routine. There is benefit in two families coming together to help each other work out their faith journey. It is indeed still a journey and we are not sure where this will end up.
One of the major themes for my 24-year-old daughter (who is the eldest child in the group) is that she feels that Singaporean Christians need to learn to think for themselves, and not just swallow everything that is being taught from the pulpit. This bias has sparked a healthy discussion during the Sunday morning family gatherings. Our ultimate desire as Gen X parents is that each of our Millennial and Gen Z children (there is a wide range with kids ranging from 24 to 14 years of age) will encounter Christ in a real and personal way, and that their faith will become strong enough to take on the challenges which society will place upon them. Over the past two months, there have been robust debates about issues ranging from Social Marxism and Donald Trump to abortion and the church’s stance towards the LBGTQ community. Our goal as parents is to steer these conversations with the light of Scripture as the ultimate truth source. We are also learning to “let go and let God”, and to rely on the power of prayer to shape and transform our kids.
Rediscovering Mission: Being different enough to make a difference, in a world which is different
The combination of my exposure to proponents of organic church expressions over the past decade, and the hot-house experience of doing church at close range with my family over the past nine months, has led me to a series of basic conclusions which may provide an answer to the millennials’ angst with church KPIs, Structures and Programmes. My personal conviction is that if the church is to raise up a generation of believers who are different enough to make a difference in a world which is different, we need to think about embracing the following paradigm shifts.
1. Defining our Core Values around kingdom DNA vs an institutional agenda
Instead of a pre-determined institutional agenda, the mission of church can be defined around the core values of Divine Truth, Nurturing Relationships and Apostolic Mission. The three core values encompass the great commandment (to love the Lord out God and to love our neighbours as we love ourselves) and the great commission.
- Divine truth results from being immersed in the Word of God as our truth source and compass for life’s journey.
- Nurturing relationships arise from being baptised into a close community which can journey with us through the mountains and valleys of life.
- The Apostolic mission Christ left the church with is to join Him in His mission to make disciples of all nations.
2. Adopting a new set of Core Rhythms: AVA vs Programmes
Having the DNA embedded into the hearts of each member of the community will lay the foundation for a New Testament rhythm of Authenticity, Vulnerability and Availability.
- Authenticity — when we gather in community, we follow a simple format which involves breathing out (sharing what is happening in our lives). Being totally transparent injects a refreshing authenticity into our relationships.
- Vulnerability involves “breathing in” the word of God, and allowing it to be a mirror to our souls — penetrating deeply into our lives and pointing out uncomfortable truths about where we need to repent and be transformed.
- Availability involves opening our eyes to the needs of the people that God has brought into our paths and responding as the Good Samaritan did. By not forcing a set of programmes on our members, but drawing out the qualities of AVA, we hope that spiritual growth and maturity will be the result.
3. Aspiring to a new set of Core Outcomes: MMT vs KPIs
When we begin to allow the DNA to produce the AVA rhythm (replacing programmatic engagement), we achieve something of far greater significance than any set of KPIs or goals. We develop the ability to pursue the Mystery of God in our daily lives. By stepping out in faith and obedience, we will begin to see the Miracles of God at work in our daily lives. This will in turn build our faith and allow our lives to count for the Things which really matter to Him.
This article is in response to last week’s commentary Millennial Christians and the Institutional Church and is part of the Graceworks Generations Project. Through this series of commentaries, we hope to invite honest conversations that will lead to greater unity through deeper empathy for one another in the body of Christ. If you are a Gen X-er, or from another generation, we would love to hear how you think the church can begin to build bridges. Leave a comment on our Facebook page GraceworksSG or email email@example.com.