The Generations Project is an initiative by Graceworks that seeks to improve the health of the churches in Singapore by increasing the empathy that the different generations have for one another. After researching four different generations, we realised that the issue of evangelism is and probably will continue to be one of the areas of differences between the young and old. This has particular significance when we take a quick glance at the Singapore census released in June last year. In the report, you will find that within the period of 2010 to 2020, those in the age ranges of 25 to 34 and 35 to 44 years old had the highest rate of increase of residents with no religious affiliation and were also the only age groups that saw a decrease in the proportion of Christians. This is worrying and begs the question of why our evangelistic efforts to the young had not been effective in the last decade. Could it be that the younger generations no longer have the evangelistic zeal of the Baby Boomers who were around during the explosion of conversions after the 1978 Billy Graham crusade?
Evangelism — How Do the Young View the Church?
When we spoke to the Baby Boomers, there was a very strong sense that they viewed evangelism as a key activity which was and is the greatest priority of the church. Armed with tools like the 4 Spiritual Laws, much of what evangelism looked like was telling people about the gospel and leading them to say the sinner’s prayer during street evangelism or evangelistic events in church. People were lost in their sin and needed to know how to find forgiveness and heaven. This has changed dramatically with the younger generations who now live in an age where technology has taken away the need for pure knowledge transference. Most of them feel that their non-Christian friends already know the crux of the gospel message and additional information alone will not make much of a difference.
Among the Gen Xers, Millennials and Gen Zs, there is also a belief that the moral influence of the church has greatly diminished and this makes it a lot harder to convince others that Christianity is worth believing in. Here are some of the reasons for why the influence of the church has declined in the public sphere in the eyes of the young:
- The lop-sided emphasis of just sharing the gospel without noticeable efforts in areas like caring for the needy and creation care has been perceived as hypocrisy and a gospel that has no relevance for life.
- The church’s response in the public sphere on issues like LGBTQ+, gender equality, and mental health has resulted in people perceiving the church as legalistic and lacking in compassion.
- The way church and church events are run gives the impression that only some groups of people are welcomed — namely, the upper middle class, the educated, and the English-speaking.
For the younger ones, it feels (whether rightly or wrongly) like they must overcome a mountain of negative impressions and misconceptions before they can even reach a neutral ground to explore the issue of God and faith with their friends. Without help, many younger believers are choosing to avoid this difficult conversation.
Evangelism — What Is Form and What Is Essence?
As a younger person myself, there were times when I felt that evangelism was easier in the world in which the older generations grew up. After our research, however, I must confess that this could not be further from the truth. While we may face the opposition of cultural trends, many of them had to grapple with the anger of their non-Christian parents/close ones who saw their conversion as a form of betrayal; embracing Christianity often came at a significant personal price. Lest we “younger ones” use the prevailing culture as an excuse, let me humbly suggest that evangelism was never easy, and it will never be easy. However, that is also not a reason to avoid the fact that the cultural context has changed and the need to relook at how we can share the gospel in a cultural climate that has changed significantly.
Much has been written about the post-modern world of the Millennials which rejects absolute truth and scoffs at anyone who would even dare to suggest a single “right” way. I have been asked why the influence of post-modernism has received a lot less attention in recent years and whether it has “run its course”. From our research into the Gen Zs, the unfortunate finding is that post-modernism is not discussed as much simply because it is already accepted as the norm. Couple that with the emergence of the “new tolerance” and we get a better idea of the barriers to evangelism for the younger generations:
The new tolerance suggests that actually accepting another's position means believing that position to be true, or at least as true as your own. We move from allowing the free expression of contrary opinions to the acceptance of all opinions; we leap from permitting the articulation of beliefs and claims with which we do not agree to asserting that all beliefs and claims are equally valid. Thus, we slide from the old tolerance to the new. [D. A. Carson, The Intolerance of Tolerance, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.), 2012, p2]
The experience of one of our Gen Z interviewees illustrates the conundrum we are in. She attended a ten-week evangelism course and attempted to practice what she learnt with her friend. The first lesson of the course taught the participants to speak about eternal life and the reality of it. However, when she brought up this topic with her non-Christian friend, her friend responded with this nonchalant comment: “Why would anyone want to live forever? I just want to enjoy my life now … YOLO!”
So, are younger Christians interested in evangelism? Personally, I think so, but many are probably in a position where they don’t know how to do it effectively in today’s culture. While the essence of the gospel will never change, we need to seriously rethink the form in which it is presented. For Millennials and Gen Zs especially, we need to equip them with tools to navigate the current negative impression of the church and the inescapable influence of popular culture.
In the next e-comm, we will explore the Biblical implications of evangelism in the current times.