World Vision collaborated with the Barna Group ("Barna") to conduct a global study called “The Connected Generation”, surveying more than 15,000 young people, aged 18 to 35, from 25 countries across six continents. Out of which, 500 respondents were from Singapore.
Barna's prior work documented in Faith for Exiles, classified Christians into four categories:
Resilient Disciples are those who identify as Christian, regularly attend a church, and are deeply engaged with their faith beyond worship services. i.e. an “intentional, engaged disciple”.
Habitual Churchgoers identify as Christian, regularly attend a church, but did not meet belief and behavioural criteria that would qualify them as Resilient.
Nomads identify as Christian but are not involved with a church.
Prodigals grew up Christian but no longer identify themselves as such.
Being a bit of a stats geek myself, I came really excited to glean some insights from the study.
There was so much thought-provoking stuff arising from the study, and we should cheer that a monograph is on the way.
Here're some thoughts that I have.
(Author's note: these do not represent any official views from World Vision or Barna.)
First, the good news.
Among Singaporean Christians aged 18-35, 22% were classified as Resilient Disciples. Now of course this is still a cause for concern (what, only 1/5 of the church in Singapore are resilient disciples? I’d wish that all the people of God were on fire for Jesus).
But when compared to the global figure of 13%, it’s actually not bad. We’re talking about easily over 100,000 exiles in “digital Babylon” who have chosen to be faithful.
One interesting thing about these Resilient Disciples is that they are what Barna calls a “Connected Generation.” This means that they are:
The study provided evidence that a large proportion of resilient disciples are ‘strong’ in their connectivity (33%), compared to habitual churchgoers (13%), nomads (17%) and prodigals (15%), and even to people of other faiths (16%) or with no faith (9%).
They have found a way to flourish, and I can envision many arising from these to go and be influencers for Christ.
But let’s talk more about the not-so-good news.
The study was entitled The Connected Generation, but there was a lot of evidence to suggest that we are more of a Dis-connected Generation.
We are relationally disconnected.
96% of Christians agreed that their faith was very important in their life, but only 74% regularly ‘attended church’. For those who aren’t attending Church but say that their faith matters, where is their Christian community?
1. Few attend a small group or a scripture study. Only 63% of Resilient Disciples did, but the figures drop to 40% for Habitual Churchgoers, and it sinks further to 7% for Nomads.
Only 20% of Resilient Disciples regularly meet with a mentor. For Habitual churchgoers, the picture is not very different (23%).
At least 4 out of 5 Christians (Resilient Disciples and Habitual Churchgoers) say they lacked opportunities to connect with older generations.
2. We have a disconnect between Faith and Life. About 65 – 70% of Christian young adults felt that faith is ‘more relevant in the hard times of life’, the subtext being that it is not so relevant in the mundane.
Only 23% of Resilient Disciples said that their church has helped them better live out their faith in the workplace. For Habitual Churchgoers, that figure slides to just 11%.
These stats make alarm bells ring in my head. The workplace is where we spend more than half of our waking lives—that fact alone should make us consider it to be the main place for growing as a disciple and being a witness for Christ.
Surely the Church has to provide more guidance in this.
These two forms of disconnect are symptoms of the long-standing challenge of modern urban living, which tends toward dis-integration. High-pressure city-life enables us to expand our number of connections, but depresses our depth of intimacy.
We make many acquaintances, but experience much alienation. Our lives get compartmentalised into distinct components (e.g. family, work, vacation, ‘church’, online) when it should have integrity (i.e. all held together).
Life in a secular society is also such that we are pressured (or sometimes unthinkingly allow ourselves) to ‘leave our faith at the door’ when we go to work, interact with non-believers, or engage in public discourse.
The Christian life was never meant to be so.
Enter the Church.
I remain convinced that the Church has an abundance of resources to help people flourish in their lives.
We have an amazing gospel that speaks to and transforms every facet of life—because the God of the Bible created and claims lordship over all things.
We are given the community of God’s people (i.e. one another) to do life together. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in Life Together,
"By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world."
We’ve had these blessings for years, but today’s realities bring the value of these resources even more to the fore—and we have to adapt.
How then must we reform ourselves?
I think of 4 tasks for ‘the Church’, for the Dis-Connected Generation.
#1 Bridge the Gap between the Word and the World.
On one extreme, we can study the Bible week after week, but fail to think through how it speaks to life today in all its facets.
If all we can say about the purpose of work is so that you can (a) earn an income to support ‘church work’ and (b) evangelise to your colleagues, we haven’t yet grasped the full biblical vision for life.
On the other extreme, we could go off on all kinds of tangents and engage all manner of issues in society, but find that we are grasping a tenuous thread of scriptural support.
Even something good like justice can be done in a manner or for purposes that are worldly. We must not settle for less.
(Photo courtesy of ReadAble)
We need to develop a sound biblical vision for life and offer practical handles for the Church to make sense of what to do 24/7.
What gets spoken from the pulpit, and what gets woven into baptism classes and small group discussion questions matter.
Let's help build a generation that champions justice, the environment, etc., with a keen sense of aligning with God’s holistic mission.
I must also add that the Word does not just refer to written Scripture, but also to the Living Word. We want to see people drawn into reconciliation and deep intimacy with God, and from such encounters, carry the presence of God into all of life.
#2 Bridge the Gap between Global Causes and Local Action.
What I found missing in the Barna study were findings on how churches seek to embody or express social justice within its community. The crucial missing link is that of how justice and mercy get worked out in the church community.
How does my church practice care for the poor and needy for its members?
How does my church practice inclusivity, where different races, socio-economic classes, disabilities, and sexuality are concerned?
How does my church come alongside her members who struggle with all kinds of issues (physical and mental illness, sexuality, past hurts and abuse) and help them to heal and to flourish?
How does my church embody creation care and weave such considerations into its policies and practices?
All this while staying utterly faithful to the Word.
This is a crucial exercise of integrating Word and Life, thinking global, acting local.
But more than that, it is part and parcel of being an authentic visible witness to the kingdom of God. This is also important for discipling the people of God, so that when we go out and seek to do justly and love mercy, we do it out of having witnessed it get worked out in real Christian community. This is how to equip Christians for kingdom impact in the world.
Doing this is not easy—it demands humility, authenticity and courage to address real life issues in the community. But it is necessary, and ultimately liberating.
#3 Bridge the Gap between the Generations.
We must acknowledge that what we say about the “Next Generation” is something that is inherently hard to grasp for the older generation. They grew up in a different era, and much of what we identify as critical issues for today may be a far cry from the issues they thought critical in their time.
Likewise, the younger generation has much to learn from the older generation. Teachability is an essential trait for God’s people.
Where this gap is particularly pertinent is when we talk about leadership and change.
The reality is that people in church leadership are generally from the older generation. A commonly raised theme from the Barna Study presentation was that of giving young people opportunities for leadership.
Yes I’d say that a key bottom-line is how many young people the church selects and appoints into positions of authority.
But it is much more complicated than that.
The challenge for the older generation in leadership is not just how to create opportunities for younger ones to step up, but how to mentor them and guide them through the challenging process of leadership.
Not only that, but also to disciple the whole church community to welcome change as necessary for faithful discipleship and witness. This is a culture change. But if it happens, naturally more young people will be willing to step forward to serve and lead.
For the younger generation, aspiring leaders need to hone the crucial skill of communicating to influence people who do not see things the same way that you do. They must remember that the Church comprises a diversity of ages and backgrounds. Learning to listen is more important than advocating for change.
#4 Bridge the Gaps within the Church.
All that I’ve written above amount to a herculean task for a church.
But then, what do I mean by church?
We often constrain ourselves by defining church as our local church.
From my vantage point of wandering around different circles in the church, I can affirm that God has dispersed gifts and talents throughout His body. No one local church excels in all things, but each part of the Body has something to contribute to the rest.
I think it is time to rethink Church.
As far as God is concerned, there is only ONE church in Singapore, which exists in the form of hundreds (if not thousands) of local communities, agencies, organisations, and movements. The wineskin that holds the wine of God’s people is a sprawling network of structures. There is an abundance of resource within the Body of Christ.
Let's consider how can we better leverage the whole Body, while remaining deeply rooted to a local community. Perhaps then every part will mature better.
We should be rightfully wary about false teaching existing in some sections of the Church, but by and large there is much we here in Singapore have in common—if only we would take the time to sit down and talk to each other.
A wise mentor once shared that he tithes his time to interact with people outside of his own denomination. Now that’s a practice worth emulating.
I hope to see more people initiating platforms to bring the different parts together.
Maybe we need a Reformation for our time.
The 16th Century Reformation transformed the whole landscape of the Church by getting people connected more directly to God. Salvation was by grace through faith, and not through the merits of dodgy rituals such as indulgences. The Bible was made accessible for people to read in their mother tongue. And the church recovered a sense of the priesthood of all believers.
Today, we need to grasp how God’s salvation extends to all Creation (and therefore, to every facet of life). We need God’s people to get re-connected with the Word, so they know they can access the Word to make sense of their world. And we need to cultivate in them a deep sense of mission—that we are prophets, priests and kings in the world, after the manner of Christ.
And in so doing we can better disciple the next generation to live lives of integrity in a dis-integrating world. A truly Connected Generation.
With Good News to share and Good Works to do.
Postscript: To the younger leaders who are now serving full-time in your local Church – I want to tell you that you are so precious, and that you play a very critical role in bridging the inter-generational gap, and you need all the resilience, coping skills, and wisdom to navigate this space. May you find good mentors and peers to walk with you in this. There are people out there who would love to help. Don’t be afraid to reach out.
Reference: The Connected Generation (2019), Barna Group
(This post was originally seen on Facebook.)
Zhiwen worships at Zion Bishan BP Church, and has been seconded to Singapore Centre for Global Mission (SCGM), where he serves in the area of missions research and missions mobilisation. He served as the Mobilisation IC for the 2018 GoForth National Missions Conference. His passion is to see a church united for God's mission.
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