Why are youths leaving the church?
I used to be a cell leader of a bunch of extraordinary 17 year-olds. Even after serving in youth ministry for eight years across different roles, the privilege of shepherding these youths remains the highlight of my service in church.
For 730 days, they became the polestar of my universe — my schedule would revolve around their passions and problems; my prayers gravitated towards them, hoping that they will find their breakthroughs. They burrowed into the deepest parts of my heart and set it aglow, forming constellation after constellation.
It has been approximately three years since I’ve stopped leading them, and a sizeable number today have left the church. There are cold days where I would think about them and wonder what went wrong; there are long nights where I would ponder if there were anything I could have done to reverse their fortunes.
This stark reality has caused me to examine about how we can stem the tide of youths turning their backs on Christianity. Mathew Mathews, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, states in a Straits Times interview that “among young people who go to church, conservatively, at least half drop out.” Even with well-organised programming and events that specially target their tastes and entertainment preferences, many youths are still disengaged with Christianity. On numerous occasions, I’ve witnessed individuals who drift into the worship hall, eyes transfixed on their smartphones through the sermon, and flake out of the hallowed hall with unbattered eyelids — unchanged.
What can we do to overturn this harrowing statistic? The reason goes beyond whether the church is “cool” or not, as hip programming with laser lights and electro sounds alone does not make disciples. As I ruminated about this baffling issue, three pieces to this intricate puzzle came to mind:
1. Community carries people across the valley of transitions
Transitions are endless for the Singaporean youth: from changing classes to changing uniforms, from changing CCAs to changing best friends. A good number of my previous sheep fell through the cracks when they transited from tertiary education to university or national service. For them, the pre-dominant reason was that there was no community to accompany them back to the fold. Moreover, everything beyond the fence seemed more attractive. Their absence demonstrates the importance of life-giving community in Christianity to me — one that sees through the thick animal hide we’ve learnt to put on.
Whenever I consider the way God has called us to live, ideas about authentic community pops into mind. The church, in its original design, is a place where people’s lives are weaved into a tapestry — love is found over, under, and in-between. This is exemplified in the Acts Church, where “all the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals, and to prayer” (Acts 2:42-47 NLT). An authentic community is rooted in true intimacy: everyone gives permission into their fears and secrets, and courageously hold out broken shards, allowing others to help piece them back together with the Holy Spirit’s leading.
Man is best discipled through community. Timothy Keller posits, “The essence of being a disciple is, to put it colloquially, becoming like the people we hang out with the most.” A biblical community should constitute an alternate society, one that is distinct from what the world can offer. In such a community, grace is abundantly given to others as we are all saved by grace alone (Ephesians 2:8); healing takes place through confession of sin and prayer (James 5:16); and destiny is constantly spoken into each other’s lives. When a God-honouring community is established, youths will no longer seek for belonging anywhere else, as life is flowing in and through it.
2. Role models are important
When I was in secondary school, I nursed an inexplicable desire to be guided in life. Like a newly hatched eaglet, I didn’t know my strengths, and focussed solely on my weaknesses and insecurities; there was little understanding of who I was in Christ (mostly because I didn’t care much about my faith). Similarly, I’ve come across many youths who are wandering and lost, hoping for someone to carry them safely on their pinions.
More specifically, I was looking for role models. As a student councillor, I had been exposed to a range of leadership styles, but I wasn’t certain about my personal leadership ethos and convictions. A persistent thought that ruffled my mind was, “How can the underpinnings of servant leadership taught in the Bible be successfully applied to the sphere of secular leadership?” Many youths I’ve discipled over the years tell the same story: they are desirous of Christ-centred influence to nurture them through the trying process of discovering who they are.
To be honest, only a handful of youths aspire to be pastors one day. This means that we need a variety of role models in different fields (athletes, teachers, entrepreneurs, etc) to connect with the young. I asked myself these questions a couple of weeks ago, “What if someone were a model and Christian, who can they look up to? Is it possible to pursue a secular music career and still be an ambassador for Christ?” In the same way that we are to “be imitators of God” that “walk in love” (Ephesians 5:1-2), youths are looking to follow eminent examples who embody the love of Christ in their specific professions. We can all adopt someone under our wing; like Mother Eagles that rouse their chicks and hover three feet above the nest (Deuteronomy 32:11), we can point out that they are made for flight. In doing so, Christianity for them shifts from fuzzy concept to gritty reality.
3. We need to connect youths to the city
When I had coffee with a young man recently, I asked him, “What is your greatest fear?” After a pregnant pause, he divulged hesitantly, “To not be somebody; that my life will not count for anything.” I knew exactly how he felt as I had shouldered identical fears when I was an undergraduate.
In the caverns of the soul, every youth searches for significance, like wells that are meant to be filled. Their boundless energy waits to be called upon and channelled into something bigger. Glenn Lim, a former Anglican youth pastor for ten years, agrees in a Straits Times interview, “Young people readily rise up for a cause, whether it’s animal rights, disaster relief, and Youth Olympic Games.”
When empowered, I have no doubt that youths will uninhibitedly “go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15 ESV). Yet, the sad truth is that church is often characterised by the same four walls, week in and week out. When church takes place once a week, Christianity easily becomes routine for youths.
Our God is a missional God — He sent His one and only Son to bring redemption and salvation to the world. We are well-aware that the Father has sent Jesus; in turn, He is today sending the church into mission (John 20:21). The church is flesh and blood, hands and feet. Christ courses through the thirsty veins of the church, and the church should bleed for injustice and extend mercy to the world (Micah 6:8).
Christianity was never meant to be comfortable and I am a firm advocate that Christian youths ought to be challenged from the comfort of the pews and into the chaos on the streets.
“For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.” (Matthew 25:35-36 NLT)
If we can galvanise youths into living out Matthew 25:35-36, their lives will be dramatically transformed — from insular Christianity to empathic Christianity. We can help them to envisage how they can meaningfully contribute to diverse causes in Singapore, especially for hot-button issues. When they realise how their individual destinies are entwined with the city’s destiny, the church and the city will no longer be the same again.
Imagine a youth who has someone to look up to, knows whom to look for when in need for support and prayer, and actively looks into the issues plaguing Singapore society.
Imagine dozens of them housed in one church.
Imagine hundreds of them packed in churches all across the island.
When youths recognise that they are lions and not civet cats, they are called out from the dregs of apathy. With Christ roaring on their insides, they shall dauntlessly reclaim lands ruled by the devil. When a generation of Singaporean youths boldly break out of their cages, it can only mean that a revolution is nigh.
P.S. For those of you who have worked tirelessly in youth ministry for the past few years and know of youths who have distanced themselves from God, may you “not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time [you] will reap a harvest of blessing if [you] don’t give up” (Galatians 6:9). Take heart that “you will always harvest what you plant” (Galatians 6:7).