Since Heart of God Church in Singapore started more than 20 years ago, it’s succeeded in attracting a hard-to-capture demographic: The average age of its congregants has remained steady at 22 years old.
Today, about 5,000 people attend Heart of God Church each Sunday. Cecilia Chan, the church’s co-founding senior pastor affectionately known as Pastor Lia, noted their strategy: “Youths need to be invited, included, involved, before they can be influenced and impacted.”
That means teens as young as 12 are given responsibilities like designing slides, filming church livestreams, running the soundboard, or even helping coordinate Sunday services. At the same time, they are mentored by others a few life stages ahead of them.
Churches in Singapore face similar struggles as their counterparts around the world in keeping Gen Z engaged, as the digital natives are bombarded with distractions and noise from the rest of the world. Many young people’s views on issues like sexuality or what comprises a family unit are no longer defined by Asian societal norms. A 2020 census found that a growing number of young people (ages 15-24) say they have no religious affiliations: The number rose from 21 percent in 2010 to 24 percent in 2020.
Singaporean students, who are known for their chart-topping test scores, also experience high levels of anxiety and stress about doing well academically. With pressure from their parents as well as their peers, students spend afterschool hours in tutoring and enrichment classes. In their remaining free time, many spend it on their phones. Activities that provide opportunities to interact face-to-face and don’t focus on schoolwork are a breath of fresh air.
Christianity Today spoke with three Singaporean churches that have bustling youth ministries to see how they are reaching this demographic. These congregations are getting young people involved, providing interaction across generations, building in-person relationships, and pressing deeper into why the Bible and God can be trusted.
“I feel empowered”
Goh Xin Yi, 19, started attending Heart of God Church six years ago after a friend from school invited him to the church’s Easter service. “It was interesting to see so many young people at one place outside of school and [tutoring] centers,” he said.
As a new member, he attended a ministry training program which introduced him to more than 80 ministries in which he could serve. At the same time, he took part in Bible studies to learn more about God.
Goh chose to serve in the church’s live-feed team before becoming the camera director at 16. Now at 19, he is the leader of media operations, supervising 50 others.
“Serving in the ministry gives me a sense of belonging,” Goh said. “I feel empowered. I feel trusted to be given a chance to handle the very expensive equipment.”
More than 80 percent of the congregation serve in various ministries, with seven “generations” of leaders working alongside each other. Each generation is about three to five years apart and forms its own youth group. The first generation includes homegrown pastors in their 30s, while the newest generation incorporates leaders as young as 13.
In Goh’s case, he is mentored by a 27-year-old leader who heads the entire media team of more than 300 people. And Goh himself works with young teens who are 12 and 13.
“They offer very raw thoughts and fresh perspectives,” Goh said of his mentees. “I like to empower them like how I used to be given responsibilities when I was at their age.”
Lia noted that giving young people opportunities to lead and train helps keep them engaged. “Older generations are not replaced but reinforced as the younger generations join the ranks” and serve with them, she said.
Finding a family in the church
Over at the Chinese-language congregation at All Saints Church, leaders are using a different strategy to reach young people. One challenge the congregation faces is that young Singaporeans are more comfortable speaking English than Chinese, so they often attend English-speaking churches.
Yet All Saints Church is seeing its Chinese-language youth ministry, which currently has 70 members, grow at about 6 percent each year. It builds on its strength of being a multigenerational church by creating activities for both teens and the elderly to participate in together.
For instance, the church organizes an annual camp for students at Anglican High School, which is connected to the church. The elderly church members serve food during camp and pray for camp members, while the young adults oversee camp programming and lead the church camp small groups.
“In a Chinese church like ours, the family culture and tradition is more pronounced,” said Fu Weikai, an associate pastor at All Saints Church who oversees the Chinese youth ministry.
According to Fu, some young people find in the church the kinship or family bonding missing in their own homes. "We have this program called Dinner with the Elders where couples in their 50s open their homes to young adults for dinners and fellowship with them.”
Clement Ong, 29, joined the church when he was 16 after participating in the Anglican High School’s student camp. Today Ong serves in the youth ministry. He has observed that in some dual-income families, a child’s support system has shifted from their nuclear family to the church family.
“With Instagram and social media, we leaders are also more tuned in to the lives of the youths,” Ong said. “When we see certain updates, we will check in on them more often, dropping them a text and meeting them one-on-one for meals.”
But such technology has a flip side. Fu noted that many young people’s worldviews are formed through their smartphones.
“What they know about their friends are from the Instagram stories and TikTok videos,” Fu said. “Some youths are actually awkward in social situations as most of them communicate virtually.”
That’s why Fu and the church’s other leaders are intentional about building in-person relationships. The church has a space for Anglican High School students to gather and get to know some of church workers during recess. In this air-conditioned environment, students can also play with the onsite guitar or drum set to unwind.
Thinking about how young people engage with information, Fu has also changed the way he delivers sermons and what he covers in the youth ministry. “I cannot nag at them for 40 minutes,” Fu said. “It used to be when we ask them to jump, they say ‘How high?’ Now they ask, ‘Why jump?’” said Fu.
Now he caps his sermons at about 20 minutes and no longer has a list of dos and don’ts. For instance, when he preaches on the topic of pride, he can’t just tell them to stop being prideful. “It is about explaining the problem of pride, acknowledging the presence of pride in our lives, and how to lean on God’s faithfulness to deliver us.” said Fu.
Answering the “whys”
Eddie Ho, a pastor at Faith Methodist Church who oversees its youth ministry of 200 members, said young people often ask him, “why should I trust the Bible?”
This is different from the past, when teens would more willingly accept what their parents and teachers tell them. Now with easy access to the internet, young people seek other points of views and alternative perspectives.
“We cannot assume they are convinced that the Bible is the truth,” said Ho. “We have to provide the ‘why.’ We need to tell them the underlying principle behind God’s commandments.”
For instance, Ho’s sermons dig deeper into the question of why Jesus commanded his followers to love their neighbors as they love themselves: “Because we are all created in His image,” Ho said. “We love God, we love his image, we love our neighbors.”
Once a month, the church hosts youth services with a panel of speakers discussing relevant topics like serving in church, social media and online games, sexuality, and apologetics. Afterwards, there is time for students to discuss and reflect on the topic, and sometimes they gather for a meal.
Ho believes one-on-one ministry is important in an age when young people want quick answers to their questions. “We need to equip good youth leaders to connect with the youths, especially at this age when youths rather listen to their friends than their parents.”
Yet even with the best efforts of their parents and their congregation, young people can still stray from the church and from God. Ho encourages those with wayward children or loved ones: “Look further ahead, some youths may not attend church now, but we as parents, as spiritual parents, and families should continue to show love and plant the [seed], and prayerfully wait for God to do His work on these youths.”
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