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1 May 2023

An article published on the CNA website in 2021 states that according to the Singapore Census 2020, “20 per cent of Singapore residents had no religious affiliation in 2020”. This group, which forms a fifth of the population, is now the second-largest group after the Buddhists (31.1 per cent). The third largest group, at 18.9 per cent, comprises Christians.

Worryingly, the census also showed that younger people are more likely to have no religious affiliation, as compared to older adults. “In 2020, 24.2 per cent of those aged 15 to 24 years old reported having no religion, which was higher than the 15.2 per cent for residents aged 55 years and above”, the article reports.

According to Dr Mathew Mathews, Principal Research Fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), this is “an expected trajectory”. “Religion as an institution is no longer playing a major role in one’s life and so fewer people will pass faith down to their children”.

This trend is not unique to Singapore. In the United States of America, for example, millennials are leaving the Church at an alarming rate.

Reporting the findings of a study conducted by the Pew Research Centre in 2019, The Washington Post states that:

… America’s religious landscape found that although religious beliefs and practice have been declining at a rapid pace for people of all ages, the drop-off has been most pronounced among people ages 23 to 38. In 2019, roughly two-thirds attend worship services “a few times a year” or less, and 4 in 10 say they seldom or never go. A decade ago, it was more than half and only 3 in 10, respectively.

There are many reasons behind this trend.

Some young people are so overwhelmed by the commitments and responsibilities that come at this stage of their lives that religion is not given priority. Others are so influenced by the prevailing secular culture that religion seems to have lost its relevance. Still others are so disappointed with organised religion that they decide to sever ties with their churches.

Whatever the reason, parents, guardians and pastors must be aware of these trends, and nurture the young people in their care with extreme attentiveness and vigilance. This effort must be intentional for the spiritual maturity of our children and youth cannot be left to chance.

In an interesting blog published on the Biola University website, Dave Keehn highlights three myths we must recognise and reject if we are to disciple the next generation in a responsible manner.

Myth #1: The spiritual nurture of our children happens by osmosis

As Keehn explains, this refers to the misguided notion that “our children will catch our spiritual values by simply being around the parents and the Church”.

There is, of course, some truth in this¬—values are more often caught than taught. However, the fact remains that if children are not given proper instruction, they may not receive the encouragement and guidance they need to let the Word of God shape their lives.

Furthermore, Keehn offers the sobering reminder that “our children don’t always see our best side; they may catch the wrong values, displayed in our moments of weakness”.

Myth #2: The job of nurturing can be left to the professionals

This is quite a common mistake. Instead of taking up the responsibility of nurturing their children, some parents prefer to rely on the Sunday school teacher or youth pastor.

This, of course, does not suggest that pastors, Sunday school teachers, Christian counsellors, mentors, and small group leaders should not play their part. Just as it takes a village to raise a child, so it takes the entire church to nurture a child to become a man or a woman of God.

Myth #3: It’s not worth the effort

Some parents think that their children are merely undergoing a season in their lives as they make the transition into independence. Thus, it may be better to just leave them alone—they will come round once they outgrow this phase of their lives. However, Keehn warns of the “long-term impact of allowing a spiritual vacuum to exist”.

The danger of this has become all too evident in the trend involving millennials in the US. Once they have left the organised religion of their childhood and early youth, they are unlikely to return.

The Bible anticipates these modern myths surrounding the nurturing of children and young people, and gives this counsel to parents, pastors and Sunday school teachers, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6)

Above all, we need to pray unceasingly for our children to stay firm in the faith. As we nurture our young people, we ought to follow John Wesley’s exhortation to his co-labourers—to “work and preach as if everything depended on [us], but pray as if everything depended on God”.

[1] Chew Hui Min, “No Religion: Why more in Singapore are turning away from traditional faiths”, CNA, Jun 29, 2021. https://www.channelnewsasia.com/singapore/no-religion-humanist-society-singapore-census-2003576.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Christine Emba, “Why millennials are skipping church and not going back”, The Washington Post, October 27, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/why-millennials-are-skipping-church-and-not-going-back/2019/10/27/0d35b972-f777-11e9-8cf0-4cc99f74d127_story.html.
[4] Dave Keehn, “Passing On Our Faith – One Generation to Another”, September 10, 2014. https://www.biola.edu/blogs/good-book-blog/2014/passing-on-our-faith-one-generation-to-another.
[5] Quote attributed to John Wesley in ‘A Few Things About Preaching and Prayer’ in The Evangelical Repository Vo. IV, 277.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.