Saturday, January 15, 2011

Reflection on church and youth in light of “God wants youth” article – Part 1 of 2

Singapore Straits Times newspaper has a religious article "God wants youth" on 27 Nov, section D2-16. The writer Lee Siew Hua summarizes the religious community's involvement in engaging the youth. The Protestant Christians receive the most attention among other religious communities. In a poll by Straits Times directed at young people, 25% respondents claimed to have turned to Protestant Christianity, 11% to Catholicism, 7% to Buddhism, 4%, to Taoism, 2% to Hinduism, and 1% to Islam. However, the attrition rate among the youth Protestants is as high as 50%. City of Harvest Church which started with 20 young adult members and has 33,000 members today was briefly mentioned. Pastor Tan Seow How of the Heart of God Church which has currently 1000 youth and 250 adult members was interviewed for his strategy. His church provides an avenue for the youth to express themselves through multimedia, dance, fashion, worship and coordinating events. On top of that, his church offers group tuition to its young members and ropes in parents who sponsor iPod, Nike vouchers and cheques as a form of achievement award. Other religious community's strategy was featured as well, such as a Buddhist's youth rock band; youth's engagement in Buddhism teaching before dinner and board games together; Muslim teachers' effort to be facilitators, friends and mentors instead of lecturers; and Hinduism's volunteers working with youth.


The newspaper article was written in the light of recent youth gang activities. On top of arresting those involved and affiliated street gangs, the public has been awakened to the existence of street gangs which are usually at the fringe of society. Why do youths turn to gangs? Many answers have been offered and one of them is the ease of being recognized and accepted in gang. Straits Times senior writer Lee Siew Hua documents how religion is another viable alternative for youths to locate their identity. Indeed, we all construct our self-identity. Our identity is reinforced in social interaction and affirmed in community espousing our values. We live within our own narratives. Our narratives are constructed stories about ourselves. These stories manifest our values and our relationships. Every one of us has his/her own narratives and in many layers. A community has its communal narratives. A nation has her national narratives too. Communal interaction enriches our narratives, forms the lens interpreting our narratives and our narratives shape how we interact within our community. Individual's narratives and communal narratives share a bi-directional relationship. This underscores the importance of living within community.

While a child depends heavily on relations within her family to construct her self-narrative, an adult has more varied sources and more mature framework to construct multi-layered narratives. Youth is in a transition between childhood and adulthood. As one transits from a familial source for self-narrative to a wider community which often takes place in school setting, the peers whom one interacts with become an important agent in shaping one's self-narrative. If these peers share a narrative that creates space for one's narrative to blend in, it is easier for one to be part of this wider community. If these shared narratives uphold values such as honesty, hard work, respect for self and others, it is likely that one's narrative will be further reinforced with the same values. However, if one's narrative is incongruent with her immediate wider community, it is likely that she will seek another community that creates a space for her self-narrative to blend in and develop further. Lee Siew Hua tells us that religion is another community that provides fertile ground for self-narrative to develop positive values. This is not new to us. The challenge now is whether the religious community is up to the task.

Among all the religious communities featured, I would say Protestant Christian churches provide the most diversified avenues for youth to invest their energy in. What I learned from Pastor Tan is  his church has created a space for their youths in their churches to tell their own stories of who they are. These youths feel connected meaningfully in their church and their narratives tell of their importance in the church-based community. Their narratives uphold values such as academic excellence, creativity, artistic expression, and because they are a community, they share communal narratives. These communal narratives reinforce every member's self-narrative. I applaud Pastor Tan's effort to integrate the youths and even to provide a platform for them to shine. He admitted that this is not an easy task as youths generally do not command high income and limited budget is always a reality.

Youths are in a state where they need relationships to affirm who they are, and to provide a context for them to construct their own narratives. This could take place in school, at home, in the church setting, in the movie theatre, in game arcade centre, on Facebook, etc. Anyone who spends time with a youth is part of the youth's narrative. Parents, siblings, relatives, teachers, church ministers, church members, the youth's peers, artistes are all part of the youth's narrative. The more one spends his time with the youth, the more he shapes the youth's narrative. However, the shaping of narrative is bi-directional. The person who invests an interest in the youth will in turn find his narrative directly or indirectly shaped by the youth. Parents who spent lots of time with their children will have enriched their narrative by their children's. Though it is commonly assumed that the parents shoulder a major responsibility in shaping the child's narrative, the exposure and peers' influence the contemporary youths are exposed to are growing at the expense of the parents' influence. The youths nowadays have more alternative sources to choose from to construct their self-narrative. If the church is willing to explore being an alternative for the youths, the congregation must be ready to create space for to share their communal narrative with the youths.

1 comment:

Diane Lauber said...

"I do what is within my means and leave the meaning and issues of the calamity to God." Words of true love, true spirit -- truth. Thank you Arthur.