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  • Pr Lionel Neo (CPC)

Young People and the Institutional Church

Updated: Jan 26, 2021

What comes to your mind when you think of the word “church”? For many young people, it seems that church evokes a mixed bag of feelings. A recent article, "Millennials and the Institutional Church", summarizes out the findings of a survey done by Graceworks to uncover out how millennials really felt about the the church.

The indication is that many young people view the church as over-institutionalized – a place where people are there to serve programmes; where systems of performance/conformity quash authenticity; and where the focus is turned inward rather than to the wider world.

On the other hand, it’s clear that institutional churches in general are deeply concerned about being able to connect to the next generation. According to a LifeWay article, 4 in 10 pastors said they were most concerned about the church connecting to young adults.

As a (relatively) young person myself, these findings really resonate with me. If these truly are issues the church needs to work on, then they are deep-set ones. Any solutions to bridge the gap has to go beyond than making the church ‘cool’ and ‘relevant’ – such as the church having a social media account or the pastor being on TikTok. At the same time, I am also part of the institutional church, as a new preacher in a Presbyterian church. In this piece, I hope to offer my thoughts to the following points which the survey highlighted.

The institutional church is prioritizing programmes over people

Some young people feel that the church functions as an organization, and treats people are as “cogs in a machine” (as the article puts it), to keep the church programmes running. This is probably exacerbated because: 1) young people, owing to their energy and availability, are typically roped in to assist in all sorts of ministries, and 2) in many cases, because of their youth/inexperience, young people have less say on how the programmes are run.

As a whole, churches have to be wary about overloading their youths, especially as this demographic is seen to be more ‘free’ and less likely to say no. Also, while many young people may not be part of the official leadership structure (i.e. an Elder/Deacon), I feel that a more consultative approach will go a long way helping them feel that their voice matters and they are not just ‘employees’ or legwork.

At the same time, we have to recognize that the church, as a multi-generational organization that has to cater to the needs of its entire community, cannot do without programme and structure. Take a regular Sunday service for example: there is a need for singers, instrumentalists, technical crew, ushers and so on. On top of that, we have not added in the support required for the crèche/Sunday School, cell Groups of various life stages, elderly ministries, community outreach, and other ministries essential to the whole life of the church.

Being actively involved in an institutional church, as compared to a small group of the life stage, means being involved in programmes. These do not exist for the sake of themselves, but for the wider community – the Sunday School kids are not going to teach themselves! Likewise, for sustained community engagement, rather than something done in an impromptu or spontaneous sense, structure and coordination is necessary.

All in all, churches have to care for those who serve, and those serving have to remember that this too is a form of care for the body of Christ. The ‘why’ of programmes and ministries have to regularly revisited.

The church prioritizes a façade of conformity over authenticity

This is a time where everything is curated and filtered; a culture where children are pressured to keep pace on the treadmill of achievement, lest they fall off and are left behind. One of the deepest longings of young people is finding a place where they will be unconditionally accepted. Can the church be such a space? Is the church meant to be such a space?

Churches, especially family churches which consists of both parents/grandparents and their children have to be wary about projecting certain (very worldly) expectation on their youths. On the other hand, churches who are more ‘trendy’ may hoist a whole different set of expectations on its congregants – such as being anointed, cool or prominent.

Institutional churches have to remember that every young person, even those who have grown up in Sunday, needs to have the gospel revisit time and time again – that “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). And not only do they have to hear it, they have to be part of a community that lives and breathes the gospel – that does not trade in hypocrisy, segregation and judgmentalism. This can be put into practice in many ways, through leaders/adults being open about their weaknesses and flaws, through mentors who are interested in the life journey of young people and not just what they can do or how they behave, amongst others.

At the same time, a community cannot just be about acceptance for acceptance sake. We see that even in the world – there is a cry for more and more ‘safe spaces’, but ironically, people feel more and more insecure. Radical acceptance is not the end-goal, radical transformation to the image of Christ is.

Perhaps a good illustration of a community moving toward an end-goal is when we confess our sins (those deep-set ones and not superficial ones) to our believers. This is, and has always been terrifying and humbling. As pastor-theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it, “In the deep mental and physical pain of humiliation before a brother - which means, before God - we experience the Cross of Jesus as our rescue and salvation”.

The Christian call is a call to die to oneself, and not to find approval for oneself. To surmise, it does take two hands to clap - we cannot wait for church to be the perfectly safe place (whatever that means) before we dare to be vulnerable.

The church focuses inward rather than outward

Many young people are deeply aware and even passionate about issues that do not traditionally fall within the four walls of the church, such as social justice, engaging with LGBTQ+, protecting the environment, and so on.

A structural inevitability of any sizable organization is that it tends to cater to the profile of the majority. This may lead to the walling out not just of those outside church but even those inside. For example, if a church is a family church, it will be natural that the focus will be on how to have Godly marriages, or raise children in a Godly manner. This may be reflected in the programmes, or even the sermon illustrations. Other groups, such as those singles or childless may thereby feel excluded. The solution is not for a single institution church to attempt to do everything; that only leads to nothing being done.

There is no simple way to address this tension between focus/calling (which involves moving in a certain direction), and inclusiveness and the wider view. This does not mean that the issues young people are passionate about should be dismissed or sidelined – in fact, these matters will only become more pertinent in tomorrow’s world. To avoid them will be myopic.

Perhaps churches could be more intentional about setting aside some time/attention to address the diversity of causes, even those that may not be traditionally in the church’s mission/vision. Another option is to link up with various parachurch organizations, who can serve as ways to educate youths and engage them to engage with issues they are truly passionate about. Ultimately, churches should aim to promote a larger vision of God’s kingdom, beyond what they are already doing.

The PE will post article for young readers each month. Watch out for "On First & Second Gen Christians (March and April); Relationships and Dating (May and June); Living in a World of Difference (July and August); What's My Calling in Life? (September and October).

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