The best things in my life have been unexpected. Like meeting Bernice across a book table. Or the gathering of almost 40 young-adult ministry leaders in our house. It started innocently enough. I was taking a retreat with Bible Presbyterian young adults and I mentioned to a dear friend and the main organiser of the retreat, Zhi Wen (Singapore Centre for Global Missions) that there were more and more in Singapore who were doing ministry to young adults but, as is often the case, most were doing their own thing. I said wouldn’t it be great if we all sat down and exchanged ideas and encouraged one another.
I have since learnt that it is dangerous to say such things in front of Zhi Wen, who has the spiritual gift/mutant power to organise events and start movements. Within a few days, he told me that he had contacted some young-adult ministry leaders and they were excited about the idea. I thought, cool, maybe a few of us could sit down over a meal and begin to build relationships for the kingdom. Last Thursday we had almost 40 people in our home. We had to turn some away. (We have planned another run on 25th August. You can sign up here.)
“O ye of little faith” Soo Inn is excited; well, more blown away. Bernice and I have sensed the Lord wanting us to focus more on young-adult ministry for some time now. But we never anticipated anything of this scale. We are clear that God’s vision of the church is intergenerational; that the young and the old and everyone in between must learn to love one another and to learn from each other. Indeed we must also be wary of overplaying the differences between the generations. God has called us to make disciples of all nations and all generations, and the promises and demands of the gospel are the same for all. Yet it is also true that each generation is shaped by different formative experiences and we must also work at connecting the unchanging Word to how a given generation hears the gospel, just as the apostle Paul tailored his approach to Jews and Gentiles.
There is some urgency in reaching young adults. For our purposes, we will define young adults as the generation born between 1980 and 2000. Why the urgency? One, there are many of them. A study in 2016 estimates that there are 1.2 million in Singapore; about 22% of the resident population. Two, the church doesn’t seem to be doing a good job of reaching them. In his book, You Lost Me, David Kinnaman writes:
The ages eighteen to twenty-nine are the black hole of church attendance; this age segment is “missing in action” from most congregations . . . . Overall, there is a 43 percent drop-off between the teen and early adult years in terms of church engagement. These numbers represent about eight million twentysomethings who were active churchgoers as teenagers but who will no longer be particularly engaged in a church by their thirtieth birthday.
(David Kinnaman, You Lost Me [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011], 22).
I am not sure what are the statistics for the Singapore church or the Malaysian church. More studies are being done. But conversations with church leaders from many denominations reflect the same concern, though some are doing better than others. On the whole, we need to do better in our ministry to young adults.
The stakes are much higher than just stemming the bleeding of young adults from our churches. What is at stake is how we pass the faith on to a whole new generation at a time of great and rapid social change; an era marked by a ubiquitous Internet, constant technological change, and globalisation. A generation that has access to cogent arguments for and against every position will not blindly follow “the assured positions of the church.” We must expect some deconstruction to take place, which is not a bad thing. It forces the church to rethink what we believe and why. It forces us to rethink our practices. Are they really true to the Word and relevant to the world as it is today, not as it was in the ’70s? When the young challenge us, it shouldn’t be automatically interpreted as rebellion. They may want to buy in but they want to know why.
Critical moments in history are times of danger and opportunity. I don’t think anyone is an expert in the area of ministry to young adults, which is a good thing. In humility we take a naïve approach and seek the Lord and work together. Who knows, in working together to better minister to young adults, we may see the whole church renewed.