Anyone who has served in a church ministry is likely to be able to share an anecdote or two about some misunderstanding or conflict that arose between members belonging to different generations. “That’s life!”, you may sigh, but instead of resigning ourselves to it, we have undertaken The Generations Project in the hope that our research can help to facilitate greater empathy through a deeper understanding of each generation. Our study focuses on the formative experiences that influence the ways each generation approaches church life and faith. The Generations Project is a compilation of the insights we have drawn from our 131 in-depth interviews with participants from 63 local churches across ten denominations and roughly 1,700 survey respondents1 across five different generations2 of Christians in Singapore. The publication is available from 18 March 2023 (details below) and we hope you will read it for a more balanced and complete picture than we can present in this short article.
We will focus on our insights of Millennials and Gen Z Christians here.
The problem of perception
It is no secret that most of our local churches are struggling with engaging and retaining the young adults and youths identifying as Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) and Gen Zs (born between 1997 and 2012). Our research and church engagements threw up trends of similar concerns that older generations harbour about Millennials and Gen Zs with regard to their service in church ministries:
- A lack of perseverance that usually results in reduced longevity of their service in church
- Many “one-issue” Christians who can be extremely passionate and vocal but tend to ignore the systemic concerns of running a church
- Many who are not willing to “carry the torch” from preceding generations and instead, want to do church “their own way”.
What factors might have brought about these impressions?
Am I just a cog in the church machinery?
In a Forbes 2018 article titled, “How Millennials Are Changing the Way We View Leadership”, Ashira Prossack wrote:
“Authoritarian leadership is out, and inclusive leadership is in. The emerging trend in leadership is a manager who directs, not commands. Long gone are the days when the boss can hold the role of a dictator, disconnected from the employees sitting somewhere in a corner office. Millennials even prefer the term leader rather than boss3.”
Indeed, many of our younger interviewees expressed their struggle with the hierarchy and bureaucracy that they experience in church.
While not totally opposed to the concept of hierarchy, they did not think it was necessary to exist in all contexts, particularly not in church where, they reasoned, it is potentially detrimental to the building of relationships and therefore a hindrance to the furtherance of God’s kingdom. Two factors may have contributed to this thinking:
- Unlike preceding generations, Millennials grew up in a social and cultural setting where authenticity and individualism were celebrated and encouraged. Their focus was to achieve their fullest potential and be true to their own passions. Thus, an over-emphasis on hierarchy is often perceived as pressure to conform which runs counter to what they espouse.
- In many churches, the system that has been mapped out made Millennials and Gen Zs feel like “a mere cog in the machinery”, with their worth determined by the function they fulfil. For many of them, the common model of serving in ministry appears to be being involved in one event after another. They end up feeling as though they are treated only as a resource to achieve a certain goal. In their opinion, this results in relationships between clergy and laity that tend to be very transactional.
The experience related to us by one interviewee, while not normative, illustrates the struggles faced by both Millennials and Gen Zs often near the bottom of the hierarchy in church. Having recently graduated from medical school, she became a first-year intern at a hospital. The shift work requirements meant she had almost no control over her time on weekends. When she approached her worship ministry leader to express her need to step back from ministry for a time, the only response she received was that she should ensure that someone would take over her duties. In her own words, she lamented: “I felt like a tool being discarded because it was no longer useful.”
Will you ever take me seriously?
Many Millennial and Gen Z Christians are second-generation Christians attending the church their parents took them to. Their familiarity to older church leaders who had literally watched them grow up, coupled with the influence of Confucian values in our society, had many of them questioning if and when they would be taken seriously by the leadership. They often feel as if they are The Stifled Millennial archetype4 (see below).
Not unexpectedly, the marketplace has a profound influence on how they navigate church life. Although most of them may be in the early stages of their working life, Millennials and some older Gen Zs in the workforce subscribe to the predominant worldview that competency and results are more important than experience (which is often perceived as outdated, anyway) and loyalty. This often makes it difficult for them to “submit” to their elders or leaders in church when there are differing opinions and hierarchy and/or tradition are the main deciding factors.
Why are we only interested in what happens in church?
The Third Lausanne Congress in October 2010 was convened to discuss critical issues of the time relating to the Church and evangelisation worldwide. Attended by over 4,000 Christian leaders from 198 countries, the Congress later produced a statement of shared biblical convictions, which included the following statement:
“The falsehood of a ‘sacred-secular divide’ has permeated the Church’s thinking and action. This divide tells us that religious activity belongs to God, whereas other activity does not.”
While it may not be fully representative, our research has shown that the older generations, due to their very valid formative experiences, tend to perceive church activities as having greater importance than what happens outside the church.5
Among Millennials and Gen Zs, the sacred-secular divide has been increasingly discarded. That pastoral or ministry work is “holier” or higher on a hierarchy in the kingdom of God is a viewpoint they consider outdated and even arrogant. Since they consider all work, whether within the Church or not, as equally “holy”, the lopsided emphasis of the Church on certain activities (usually church-based) and its lack of engagement with important issues in the world has caused some to see the Church as becoming increasingly irrelevant. Thus, the drive and motivation to serve exclusively within the context of a church they perceive as inward-looking is dampened for them.
Where do we go from here?
“Every generation takes for granted the good that went before it, reacts against the bad, and responds within its own historical context.”6
In our research into the five different generations, we have found this statement to be quite true. Whichever generation we belong to, we are often guilty of reading the other generations through the lens of our own. We use the concept of the “generational gap” as an excuse for ignoring the need for understanding and empathy. Due to the constraints of length in this article, it may appear that I am siding with the younger generations. That is not so. I have merely attempted to present the concerns that we heard without any assessment of their validity. While there is a need for older generations to understand the younger ones, it is equally important for the younger generations to understand what older generations went through and why they are wired to approach certain issues in particular ways.
In our findings, there is no doubt that all generations are genuinely concerned about the Church and have equally valid considerations. However, with the unprecedented pace at which the world is changing, it is possible that our churches now comprise of different generations of Christians with vastly divergent views and approaches to the practice of the faith who may lack awareness of the differences between the generations. Instead of trying to “solve” a “problem” that we have observed, maybe we need to pause and seek first to increase our understanding of others and to empathise with them.
We are constantly seeking to increase the accuracy of our insights through the collection of more data. If you would like to help us, please complete the survey using the link below that is relevant to your generation. The survey will end on 27 March 2023.
The online survey will be conducted from 1 March to 27 March 2023.
(Born between 1946 and 1964)
(Born between 1965 and 1980)
(Born between 1981 and 1996)
(Born between 1997 and 2012)
Silent Gen: https://form.typeform.com/to/h8O2tfF6
Baby Boomer: https://form.typeform.com/to/bwlUZH2M
Gen X: https://form.typeform.com/to/MDBshlMt
Gen Z: https://form.typeform.com/to/mgwVpFZu
The Generations Project will launch on 18 March 2023. Pre-order the book from 5 March 2023 and enjoy 10% discount. Visit Graceworks here: https://graceworks.com.sg/store/category/pastoral-resources/the-generations-project/
1 As of Feb 2023
2 Silent (Born 1928 – 1945), Baby boomer (Born 1946 – 1964), Generation X (Born 1965 – 1980), Millennials (Born 1981 – 1996), Generation Z (Born 1997 – 2012)
4 There are 7 different Millennial archetypes detailed in the book.
5 See chapter on Sacred-Secular Divide in the book for a more in-depth discussion.
6 Elizabeth A. Nesbit Sbanotto & Craig L. Blomberg, Effective Generational Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2016), 261.