When I (Wei-Hao) met with Matthew in a café in eastern Singapore to talk about generational divides in the church, he was very relaxed, jovial, and candid until the issue of church leadership came up. I knew I had touched a raw nerve when he leaned back, folded his arms, and sighed, saying, “This is a conversation that I often have with some friends. A lot of us are struggling to convince our leaders that the church needs to stop being so old-school and inward-looking.”
Matthew and a few friends had approached their church leaders to talk about creation care a few years ago. A big conference had just been held at their church, and they were appalled by the amount of plastic waste generated from the meals and refreshments.
“We suggested that this issue should be addressed over the pulpit and those who feel the same way could organize activities or, you know, maybe start some recycling initiatives in the church,” Matthew, a millennial, said.
“But you know what was my pastor’s reply? He said that the pulpit was meant to address spiritual stuff and most of the congregation probably wouldn’t be interested anyway,” Matthew said with a shrug of his shoulders and an even deeper sigh than before. “To his credit, he said he agreed with us that this is an issue, but it was definitely not going to be a focus for the church.”
Matthew’s experience of attempting to initiate positive change in his church and receiving pushback from his baby-boomer pastor is not an isolated one. There is a serious lack of understanding and empathy among different generations in Singapore churches. Each generation does not understand the other’s actions, as they often read each other through their own lens. For example, boomers grew up in a time of extreme turmoil in the local Christian world, which prompted lines to be drawn in the sand as a means of keeping their faith “pure,” whereas millennials live in an era where pluralism and tolerance are a given.
In 2020, we embarked on a research project to investigate areas of church life in which different generations held varying opinions and how churches can work toward greater unity through building an intergenerational community. We conducted 131 in-depth qualitative interviews with Singaporean Christians from 63 churches across 10 denominations and circulated an online quantitative survey that had 1,672 respondents. These believers were from five generations: the silent generation (1928–1945), baby boomers (1946–1964), Generation X (1965–1980), millennials (1981–1996), and Generation Z (1997–2012).
One of our biggest considerations regarding the validity of our project was whether we were reinventing the wheel and whether there was already material readily available on the market. We found that much of the research in this area had been done in the West (especially in America), and there were no parallel publications that we could find for Asia, let alone Singapore. While some Western research is applicable in our context, we believe there are significant local issues that the Singapore church needs to grapple with.
Here are three of our most unexpected research findings:
1. Gen Z values the institutional church.
One clear trend that emerged as we spoke to the different generations is the decline in perceived importance of the institutional church as the interviewees got younger—until we started speaking to those in Gen Z.
Most interviewees from the silent and baby-boomer generations saw the institutional church as an absolute necessity for the Christian faith. This started to wane with the Gen Xers, who became much more open to organic or house churches after negative experiences in their institutional churches. Millennials identified with the importance of the broad concept of church but were very uncomfortable with how Christianity was being expressed practically when it came to issues such as LGBT and women’s rights, as they felt it caused nonbelievers to have misconceptions of the faith.
However, many Gen Z individuals appreciated the stability and predictability that the institutional church brought during the COVID-19 pandemic when everything else seemed to be spiraling out of control. They viewed the church as an integral part of being a Christian, citing its importance particularly in the areas of community, accountability, and scriptural instruction.
While they were relatively open to the concept of organic churches, they were also cautious about the potential lack of orthodoxy and governance. Yet they struggle deeply with the implications of the faith on broad societal and popular-culture trends that are often not given much attention from the pulpit.
2. Gen X is the missing generation in most churches.
Many Gen Xers we spoke to were active in church during their youth and young adult years, but work and family commitments caused them to shift their focus in life. When they spent less time serving in church, they felt that church leadership—mainly comprising baby boomers—stopped caring for them.
In our interviews, churchgoers and pastors shared stories of a mass exodus of Gen Xers in their congregations in the late 1990s to early 2000s. Many left to attend megachurches that had resources to run vibrant children or youth ministries. There are Gen Xers who still attend church faithfully, but a major motivation is so that their children can attend Sunday school or youth ministry. They are often no longer interested in getting involved in church ministries because of previous negative experiences and the lack of motivation to reestablish themselves in a new church. Anecdotally, some Gen Xers estimated that up to one-third of their church friends are no longer attending an institutional church; they either are in house churches or have simply stopped going.
Because churches do not have this buffer generation that can understand both boomers and millennials, we have a leadership transition crisis in our churches now.
Boomers are at the age where they have no choice but to start the process of leadership transition to people from younger generations. But without Gen Xers around, they have had to pass the mantle to millennials. These two generations differ greatly in their formative experiences—so much so that when a boomer tries to train and equip a millennial in leading a church, they clash over issues like preaching and teaching, the sacred-secular divide, and congregational hierarchy structures. Millennials typically end up leaving these churches: Some stop going altogether, but there is a rising phenomenon of mono-generational churches where the bulk of the congregation consists of millennials and older Gen Z members.
3. Mentoring has exacerbated intergenerational tensions.
Young believers are reluctant to be mentored in church because it often entails someone older taking over their lives and telling them what they should be doing, with no attempt to understand their contexts. Older generations perceive mentoring as a means of giving valuable advice to younger people based on their life experiences, which they didn’t get growing up. But when they offer this type of mentorship, they feel not only unappreciated and hurt but also rejected by young people. As a result, while churches are actively trying to cultivate good intergenerational mentoring relationships, responses to these efforts are often discouraging.
Close to 90 percent of the boomers we interviewed did not have personal mentoring relationships where older individuals with more life experiences would journey with and guide them through challenges. One key reason for this is that between 1967 and 1980, close to one in two persons in Singapore were within the same age group. Thus, most local churches at the time were largely mono-generational.
Prominent Christian authors were their “mentors” instead. When we asked a well-known local boomer pastor whether he had mentors in his younger days, he replied with gusto, “Yes, I had many! John Stott, A. W. Tozer, C. S. Lewis, and many others!” He quickly clarified that he didn’t know these spiritual giants personally but that their books had a tremendous impact on his life and ministry. “In our time, mentoring was unheard of; we were content to admire our heroes from afar,” he remarked.
The pastor’s comment sums up the sentiments of his generation. Boomers saw their mentors as heroes or paragons of faith, implying a focus on their achievements and successes. The word afar assumes the absence of any personal relationship—mentors were examples to aspire toward rather than people you shared meals with. Thus, in many boomers’ view, a mentor is almost like a superhuman expert who provides solutions rather than someone who offers a warm, supportive relationship.
In contrast with boomers’ ideas of mentoring, Gen Xers we spoke to believe that one of the church’s greatest weaknesses is its lack of emphasis on deep relationships and community formation beyond its official ministries. Millennials especially value people who are willing to have authentic relationships and are ready to journey with them without trying to run their lives.
Members of Gen Z, meanwhile, find it difficult to establish meaningful relationships in church. They find that most friendships are built around structures and activities that seem to have unspoken rules and expectations.
A renewed ecclesiology
If intergenerational cohesiveness in the church is an aim, it is dangerous to assume that simply gathering people from different generations into a ministry with a stated end goal will naturally produce good outcomes. Our anecdotal observations seem to suggest the opposite: When older and younger generations are put together without intentional and purposeful preparation and scaffolding, it usually results in further alienation and division.
During our interviews, a sizable number of millennials and older Gen Z individuals critiqued Celebration of Hope, an evangelistic nationwide rally held at the 55,000-capacity National Stadium in 2019. They felt that such a large-scale event was not attractive to their friends and that it wasn’t a good use of resources such as money and manpower. The pageantry was also something they struggled with. “The way that they (older generations) were running the event—I’m not sure whether it was for God’s glory or for their own glory,” said one Gen Z Christian in her mid-20s.
From the older generations’ perspective, however, this event was motivated by their concern over a perceived drop in evangelism efforts, as the proportion of Christians in the nation-state has grown by only 0.6 percent in the past decade. It was also an attempt for them to recapture the magic of the Billy Graham crusade in 1978, where almost 20,000 people gave their lives to Christ.
When there is no awareness or understanding of generational differences, it is almost natural for one generation to interpret another’s actions through their own generational lens. Unfortunately, this sometimes results in a particular generation feeling that they are trying to be true to God’s calling for them but that another generation has become a stumbling block in their journey.
Nevertheless, bearing in mind Christ’s command that we love one another, we approach the intergenerational journey with a shared appreciation for spiritual friendship as the essential bedrock for building mutual understanding between the different generations. With a deliberate effort to relate to one another by understanding “the other,” we can help reduce the likelihood of misreading intentions from observed actions.
This essay was adapted from The Generations Project: Bridging Generational Divides in the Singapore Church by Wei-Hao Ho and Soo-Inn Tan. Copyright © 2023 Graceworks Private Limited. Used by permission of Graceworks.