or lose them over time
In January, Christians in Singapore were jolted by news of a “self-radicalised” 16-year-old “Protestant Christian” who had planned to carry out a violent attack on Muslims at two mosques.i We know little of the context or causes that led him to such ideas and actions. This troubling news is an uncomfortable reminder to attend faithfully and fully to our core concern of Christian discipleship.
If we pay attention to and make time for our youth, we inoculate our youth against, and create a social environment that is resistant to, radical, dehumanising and destructive ideologies that have nothing to do with Jesus. This requires intention and constant and consistent attention. There are many ideologies and activities that compete for the attention and loyalty of our young people and call them away from Christ and Christian community. Radical extremist ideologies are just one.
Loving, engaging, involving and discipling our youth is how the church is called to disciple and teach our young. We either make time for our youth or lose them over time. I suggest three ways in which we can meaningfully engage our young people: intentional parenting, shifting our focus from Church programming to persons, and modelling friendship across ethnic and religious lines.
The primary youth ministers in the Church are parents—not the Sunday school teacher, not the youthworker, not the youth cell leader. A slow confluence of social shifts and changes in congregational practices has resulted in greater outsourcing of the primary parental responsibility for discipling our children to Sunday schools and youth ministries. Increasingly, we have grown in over-dependence on full-time children and youth workers for the discipling of our young.
Intentional parenting recovers the ancient role of parents as primary religious educators. In Deuteronomy 6, the commands concerning the nature, worship and love of God are followed immediately by instructions for parents. Parents are tasked with the work of discipling our children to know and follow our Lord. We are to model faithfulness, engage our children in spiritual conversations about God and life, be alert to teachable moments in the course of life and surround our lives with reminders of God’s goodness, grace and commands.
Intentional parenting is not optional. We are all called to active, intentional and competent parenting. We spend an inordinate amount of time studying (and paying) for certificates and degrees for our careers. How much time and effort do we put into learning how to parent? Many parents start strong in preparing for the birth of babies and the early life of toddlers. Few prepare intentionally for the adolescent years when the challenges are both profound and nuanced.
Developing a relationship with our adolescent children so that they feel safe to share uncomfortable thoughts, deep feelings, frustrations and unsettling questions takes time. It also takes a consistent practice of exercising patience, faith and courage to hold our own anxieties in check and make time and emotional space for our teens to speak without interruption. Learning about adolescent development and appropriating new parenting knowledge and skills are helpful. However, the first and biggest step that parents can take is to make (more) time for our children.
We need to examine our preoccupations with work or other activities. Intentional parenting means setting aside consistent time to “waste” with our children because the deep and important conversations usually surface in unscripted ways. These deeper conversations about their friends, what they read and see on social media, their social media or gaming communities, their sense of self-esteem, passions or sense of injustice that they have about various issues, cannot be hurried.
Shifting Congregational Focus from Programmes to Persons
Our congregations support parents in the discipling of our young people. We can only become aware of what our youth are thinking and doing and be alert to youth starting down dangerous paths if we have made time to develop close and intimate relationships with our youth as parents and congregations. To do so as congregations, we must focus our energies where it really matters. There is a growing realisation among youth workers in Singapore that ministry with youth in our churches tends to be unduly focused on programmes and, in particular, the “production” of youth events.
Many of our churches are large. A side-effect of trying to minister to many is a commodifying mindset of trying to manage the church and efficiently “reach” as many youths as possible. Consequently, youth within the church sometimes feel fatigued by the pace of activities and with putting up a “show” instead of being ministered to and discipled. Other youth who do not care for existing modes and activities simply drop out or do not come.
Have our regular programmes become sacred cows that no longer serve their intended purposes? If our youth ministries and churches are to be safe spaces for youth to feel engaged and able share intimately, we need to make time and space in our life together for meaningful engagement and conversations. We need to prioritise persons over programmes.
Are we able to shape communities of faith for youth where they have a keen sense of belonging, have peer support and encouragement, difficult questions are welcomed and critical thinking is taught and encouraged? Our congregations and youth ministries can serve as a second safety net, a place where our young people are discipled and experience loving communities of acceptance, learning and where unhealthy and dangerous ideas and propensities can be addressed and redirected toward what is pure and holy (Phil 4:8).
Modelling Friendship Across Ethnic and Religious Lines
The third way we can engage and disciple our young people is by modelling—as parents, Christian adults and youth workers—how we make friends across ethnic, religious and also social-economic lines. The Bible describes Christians as people who love, bless, offer hospitality to, befriend and seek the welfare of those they live among (Jer 29:7).
Churches and parents can (and must) take the lead in modelling how we make friends and maintain friendship with people of different ethnicities, faith, and economic situations. We can begin by sharing meals and celebrating our different festivals. We can also expand our common space by learning to partner with one another in doing good for our communities.
The Rev Bernard Chao is a Lecturer in Practical Theology at Trinity Theological College