Ask people what they know about “Gen-X” and you might get puzzled looks and questions about whether they are the same as Baby Boomers or Millennials. A quick google search will probably reveal that while there are many articles and plenty of research about Baby Boomers and Millennials, you would be hard-pressed to find much about Gen-Xers in general, let alone Gen-X Christians in Singapore.
Interestingly, the label is often credited to Douglas Coupland and his novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. It was used to describe a category of people who wanted to hop off the merry-go-round of status, money, and social climbing that so often frames modern existence. The “X” refers to an unknown variable or to a desire not to be defined, so perhaps it is understandable that not much is known or said about this generation. Thus, the Graceworks team was really excited when we started this research as it seemed that we were moving into uncharted territory.
This e-Commentary seeks to present a snapshot of some trends that emerged from our qualitative ethnographic research with Gen-X Christians from 23 churches across ten denominations in Singapore. The trends presented are definitely not representative of the experiences of all in this generation but are, in our opinion, worthy of consideration.
Loyalty to church and participation in ministry is greatly influenced by work and/or family considerations
Many of our interviewees are currently at the stage of their lives where career and family take up a lot of their time and energy. As such, their ability to be actively involved in the life of the church has been severely hampered and a sizeable proportion have made the decision to cut their involvement in ministries. Many have also chosen to leave their church of origin (both first- and second-generation Christians) because they felt that their family (especially their children) would benefit from being in another church which can provide better support for parents and families, e.g. with a better Sunday School. However, this should not be seen as a “selfish” or self-centred decision because their ideal parenting style is vastly different from that of previous generations. While they are grateful to their parents, most in this generation seek a different way of parenting because they are mindful of what they perceived as undesirable in the way that they had been brought up. Healthy emotional and spiritual involvement as parents is crucial to them and, thus, sacrificing family time for church ministry is a constant struggle.
“After having kids, you are not just thinking for yourself anymore, for example, you have to consider how to stay engaged in service with young children. You also start thinking generationally because it doesn’t end with me, how is this faith going to continue for the next generation?”
The overlooked and missing generation
Most of this generation feel that the church was not sensitive enough to their changing needs as they progressed from youth to adulthood. Expectations of their involvement in church often stayed the same despite their life-stage change. Usually, when they reduced or stepped back from serving in ministry, they felt that their church stopped caring about them. So, because many of them had served actively in their youth and young adult years, their involvement had caused them to be burnt out and disappointed with the leadership. As a result, they may feel that they should take a step back in their current season of life. Upon reflection, many lament that a good number of their friends had either dropped off from regular church attendance or even from the faith entirely. Since there is a reduction in the number of Christians of their generation in churches and many of those who remain may be jaded, their absence is especially stark in leadership positions.
“Most of the people serving in the leadership roles of my church are old and have been in the same roles for the last 10 to 20 years. I think this is also because there aren’t many of my generation left in the church, there just wasn’t any succession planning in the past.”
Greater inclination toward the institutional church but also a recognition of the value of organic churches
When commenting about the church in general, most Gen-Xers acknowledge that the overall situation is far from ideal. However, they feel that while the church system is not perfect, it is not inherently flawed, and it is the way the system is being run which is causing problems. Thus, while most Gen-Xers think that there is still a major role that the institutional church can and should play in God’s kingdom, it is not perceived to be the only legitimate or viable system. They tend to be very open to the concept of organic churches and feel that the apparent rise of house churches should not be seen as “competition”. Institutional and organic churches, in their opinion, are simply different expressions of the Body of Christ and they should learn to complement each other for the greater good.
“Theologically, there is no command for us to be part of an institutional church, but realistically I think we need to be in one. Essentially, the issue is not about institutional or organic churches but whether there is obedience to the Bible.”
Those who fall outside the “normal trajectory” of life are often left disappointed and hurt.
While not the majority, a good number of our interviewees are of the opinion that churches generally cater for what one interviewee termed “the church’s idea of the normal narrative of life”. In this “normal path”, one should naturally progress from Sunday school to youth and young adult ministries, then on to the adult congregation and finally to the seniors’ ministry. While not conceptually wrong, each milestone progression presupposes certain life experiences. For example, when one “transitions” from youth or young adult to the adult congregation, there is the implicit expectation, based on the way ministries are structured, that you would be married with children. There is little sensitivity for those who deviate from these assumed “markers of life” and, as a result, they often find it difficult to fit in.
“Most churches have an emphasis on children and youth, but what happens after that? The expectation is that you’ll get married and then transit into family life ministries and so on. This system is not sensitive to deviants from the norm. For us, the journey can feel very lonely in church.”
The four trends identified above are not meant to be seen as a critique of this generation’s spirituality or a review of the institutional church in Singapore. It is simply a reflection of what was shared with us during our interviews. It is not meant to further exacerbate the tensions between the generations, but to invite honest conversations that we hope will lead to greater unity through deeper empathy for one another in the Body of Christ.
If you are aged 41 to 56 in 2021, please help us to validate our insights by taking a survey (about 10 minutes) here: https://form.typeform.com/to/p1bq8aBP. Or if you know someone in this generation who would be willing to help, please help us by forwarding this link to them.