Photo by Goh Rhy Yan on Unsplash.

There is a growing awareness of the urgency in ministering to young adults. (For our purposes we define young adults as the generation born between 1980 and 2000.)

Why the urgency? One, there are many of them. A study in 2016 estimates that there are 1.2 million in Singapore, about 22% of the resident population.

Two, the Church doesn’t seem to be doing a good job of reaching them. In his book, You Lost Me, David Kinnaman writes:

The ages 18 to 29 are the black hole of church attendance; this age segment is “missing in action” from most congregations … Overall, there is a 43% drop-off between the teen and early adult years in terms of church engagement. These numbers represent about 8 million twentysomethings who were active churchgoers as teenagers but who will no longer be particularly engaged in a church by their thirtieth birthday. 

I am not sure what the statistics are for the Singapore church or the Malaysian church. More studies are being done. But conversations with church leaders from many denominations reflect the same concern, though some are doing better than others.

On the whole, we need to do better in our ministry to young adults.

The stakes involved 

The stakes are much higher than just stemming the bleeding of young adults from our churches.

When the young challenge us, it shouldn’t be interpreted as rebellion: They may want to buy in but they want to know why.

What is at stake is how we pass the faith on to a whole new generation at a time of great and rapid social change, an era marked by an ubiquitous internet, constant technological change, and globalisation.

A generation that has access to cogent arguments for and against every position will not blindly follow “the assured positions of the church”.

We must expect some deconstruction to take place, which is not a bad thing. It forces the church to rethink what we believe and why. It forces us to rethink our practices – are they really true to the Word and relevant to the world as it is today and not as it was in the 70’s?

When the young challenge us, it shouldn’t be automatically interpreted as rebellion: They may want to buy in but they want to know why.

The crucial place of mentoring

Many studies have shown that a key way to reach young adults is through some form of relational ministry. In her key book on mentoring young adults, Big Questions, Worthy Dreams, Shalon Daloz Parks writes:

… within a distracted, indifferent, or exploiting culture, emerging adulthood may be squandered on dreams too small to match the potential of the emerging adult life. In the good company of thoughtful mentors and mentoring communities, however, emerging adults can navigate the complex tasks at hand and galvanise the power of ongoing cultural renewal. 

Parks writes for a general audience, but the same conclusion has come from those who write from the perspective of the Church.

A relational strategy was Jesus’s main strategy for shaping the new community He came to form.

In their book, Shaping the Journey of Emerging Adults, Richard R Dunn and Jana L Sundene write:

If our years of working with successive generations of students and young adults have taught us anything, it’s this: Shaping the next generation through disciplemaking remains by far the most powerful strategy Christ has given us for shaping the church and changing the world. We are convinced, therefore, that this relational strategy is mission-critical to the future of the church in the world. 

Disciplemaking is needed at every age group. (We understand discipling as a form of mentoring, a relational strategy.) A relational strategy was Jesus’s main strategy for shaping the new community He came to form.

We shouldn’t be surprised then that it is also the most important strategy for shaping the lives of young adults.

Our ultimate concern – the renewal of the church

Of course disciplemaking/mentoring is tough. It is time intensive. There is no one size fits all because different people develop differently, each at their own pace with their own unique set of potential and struggles.

But this is what young adults need.

For the first time the young know more than the old because of the Internet. But they need guidance on interpreting the flood of data.

Young adults do not need older adults for information. This is perhaps the first time in history when the young know more than the old because of the Internet. But they need guidance as to how to interpret the flood of data available to them.

They need models to inspire them and to show them how to follow Christ.

They need safe places to process the many questions that are in their face everyday.

They need mentors.

Critical moments in history are times of dangers and opportunity. I don’t think anyone is an expert in the area of ministry to young adults, which is a good thing.

In humility we take a naïve approach and seek the Lord and work together. Who knows, in working together to better minister to young adults, we may see the whole church renewed.

About the author

Rev Dr Tan Soo-Inn

Rev Dr Tan Soo-Inn is the founding director of Graceworks. Since 1985, he has been journeying with people through his ministry of preaching/teaching, writing and mentoring. Originally trained as a dentist, he answered God's call to go into full-time, church-related ministry in 1981. He is an Arsenal Football Club fan and his favourite movie is Star Wars: Episode IV.