The Generations Project is an endeavour that Graceworks embarked on which seeks to improve the unity within our churches by increasing the empathy that the different generations have for one another. Having concluded our research into Millennial, Gen X and Baby Boomer Christians in Singapore, our team compared the findings and identified some potential areas of conflict and convergence in the way that the generations experience and view church. This is the third in the series where we will present our insights and provide a preliminary biblical response on the issues. In this essay we look at how different generations view mentoring.
In our conversations with the Boomers, we found that the majority did not have personal mentoring relationships where an older person with more life experience would journey with and help guide them to grow in maturity in Christ. Many tended to view prominent Christian authors as their “mentors” because they were greatly influenced and inspired by their books. This was also largely due to the fact that between 1967 to 1980, almost 1 in 2 persons in Singapore was within the same age group (refer to table below). This likely meant that most Singaporean churches during that period were essentially mono-generational and it wasn’t easy for Boomers to find older, more mature Christians as mentors. As such, peer relationships were much more influential for this generation’s spiritual growth. Coupled with the prevalence of the master-apprentice model that most Boomers experienced in their working lives, many of that generation tended to see mentors as experts who provided solutions rather than warm supportive relationships.
The Gen-Xers, often the “missing and overlooked” generation in most churches, feel that the church in general has not been sensitive to their changing needs as they progressed through their different life stages. The common shared experience has been that when they reduced or stopped their service in church ministry due to struggles in work and/or family, the church seemed to stop caring about them. This has led them to believe that one of the greatest weaknesses of the church is the lack of emphasis on deep relationships and the formation of community beyond the official ministries of the church. This, in their opinion, has been brought about by the church’s unhealthy emphasis on programmes and numbers.
Millennials especially value people willing to have deep authentic relationships with them and who are ready to journey with them without trying to run their lives. As such, they are much more attracted to mentors or friends who are willing to be honest about their own failures and struggles instead of those whose lives are so “perfect” that they are difficult to relate to. This is certainly influenced by this generation’s post-modern culture which results in their great scepticism towards those who appear to “know it all” or “have it all together”. Thus, putting mentoring relationships within the context of a structured church programme can seem too contrived. Some churches place KPIs or ROIs on mentoring relationships where one is expected to emerge as a “better person” who can then be of greater use to the church’s ministries. Millennials feel that this results in a spirituality that is content only with external behavioural modification with no real internal change.
With relationships being such an important part of church life, what are some Biblical principles that may give us some handles on how we can approach the subject of mentoring? Here are some basic convictions.
1. God has saved us to be a new humanity, a humanity that bears the image of Jesus (Romans 8:28–30).
2. Hence, the church ought to be intentional in helping followers of Jesus grow toward being “fully mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28–29).
3. God has given us three resources to grow in Christlikeness: His Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:17–18); His Word (2 Timothy 3:14 -17); and His people (2 Timothy 2:2).
4. We need God’s people; mentors who will show us what it means to be Christlike and inspire us to do so (2 Timothy 3:10–13). Wholistic growth comes from imitation (1 Corinthians 11:1).
5. We need mentors because we need people we can go to, to process the questions we have as we try to follow Christ in the world. The Word is unchanging but in a fallen world we often struggle with how to apply God’s truth in various situations (1 Corinthians 7:1 ff.).
6. We need mentors to lovingly hold us accountable to live out what we know to be true and to help us do so (Philemon).
7. We need mentors to encourage us when following Jesus in the real world becomes costly and tiring (Galatians 6:9).
8. Modelling, life processing, accountability and encouragement — these things are only possible if mentor and mentoree know each other personally (Mark 3:14 ).
9. Mentoring therefore is crucial for spiritual formation in the body of Christ. Here is one definition adapted from the book Spiritual Mentoring by Anderson and Reese.
“Spiritual mentoring is an intentional, relational process by which one person takes responsibility for guiding the spiritual growth of one or several others.”
There are many terms for spiritual mentoring in use — discipling, spiritual parenting, spiritual life coaching, etc. Each of the terms carries its own nuances. And different people use the terms differently. It is more helpful to stick to definitions. We use the one above.
10. Gen-Xers teach us two key lessons about mentoring. One, that mentoring is especially needed at the transitions of life, e.g., when entering National Service, starting tertiary education, starting work, getting married, becoming parents, retiring, etc. This is when we need others further down the road to help show us how to follow Christ in a new chapter of life.
11. The other key lesson from the Gen-Xers is that we cannot reduce mentoring to some functional exercise to prepare people to fit into the ministry machinery of the church. Our concern in mentoring is the mentoree and how we can help the mentoree grow in Christ.
12. Older and more experienced believers have so much to offer younger believers. In an internet world, the younger believer probably has more learned expertise, but the older believer has more lived experience.
13. The best mentoring is mutual and younger believers also have much to share with their mentors about the challenges of following Christ in a rapidly changing world shaped by the internet and globalisation. They will have their own wisdom to share.
14. While mentoring is critically needed in the church, our Generations Project has shown us that different generations understand mentoring somewhat differently. This is particularly true for Boomer-Millennial match ups. Boomers may feel that they are the ones who are more experienced and their main job is to instruct the mentoree. Millennials are looking for loving guides who will help them discover the truth for themselves. Therefore when a church decides to embark on a mentoring approach to spiritual formation, such differences should be surfaced early. Teaching and training ought to be provided to both mentors and mentorees so all are on the same page as they embark on a mentoring journey.
15. When generational differences are not understood, it may lead to negative mentoring experiences. A Millennial may be traumatised by a mentor that is always teaching and correcting him/her, where their own opinions are neither sought nor respected. Boomer mentors may be wondering why their hard-learned insights are not appreciated and therefore they and their hard work are not appreciated. Bad experiences may make people shy away from mentoring, believing that it will not work.
16. In our research, we found many younger believers longing to be mentored and having older believers journeying with them. But we found that many older believers are not that keen on mentoring for a number of reasons, the main one being that few were mentored relationally and so are not sure how to do it. Or they have tried their hand at mentoring — usually by instructing — and were surprised and confused by the negative feedback they received. With some teaching and training, such mismatched expectations can be overcome, and indeed must be overcome.
17. A basic principle of relationships in the body of Christ is this: Value others above yourself (Philippians 2:1–40). This should include mutual respect, honesty, and the commitment to “wash one another’s feet” (John 13). The mentor is still the primary guide, but Jesus is the final mentor who guides mentor and mentoree through each other.
The pandemic has forced the church to pause and relook at how we do church. We need to return to our primary call to help our people be fully mature in Christ. Armed with the Word and the Spirit and aware of generational differences, we may be entering an era of effective spiritual formation that connects the best of all generations.