CHURCHES that are growing and dynamic almost always have a strong culture and history of youth ministry. With this thought in mind I set out to understand the youth ministry in Singapore through the eyes of paid church youth workers.
In the second half of 2006 I conducted formal interviews with 35 stipendiary church-based youth workers. After reading the Methodist Church’s research on its youth programmes I wanted to illuminate the joys, needs and frustrations of the youth workers and their programmes.
The research revealed the strength of the youth ministry and the quality of the youth workers in Singapore when compared to Great Britain. It also identified needs and a few concerns. This article will briefly highlight a few of the key findings that are important not just for youths but for the whole church.
I was first struck by the size and theologically sound organisation of the Singaporean Methodist youth ministries. Methodist churches here have quite clearly been sensitive and responsive to the spiritual needs and changing culture of the young people. This sensitivity has led churches to seek trained youth leaders who can create teams of adults to enhance the spiritual development of the young people within the church and reach out to those beyond the church. In fact the demand for trained youth workers outstrips the current supply.
Youth workers frequently commented that this situation has made churches especially grateful for and supportive of their response to the call to work with young people.
Methodist youth workers in Singapore sincerely appreciate the practical encouragement shown by churches. Comments such as “within the church context we are honoured”, “I feel the church respects my position”, “I consider it [my calling] of high value and others in the church do as well”.
This support is vital for often these youth workers did not receive the initial backing from their family when they responded to the call to do youth work. The relatively low pay and community status is a far cry from the doctor, lawyer, or engineer that parents had imagined for their child.
The affirmation is also key because youth workers have often received the same training that their pastors have had and sometimes have more experience but carry little or no institutional status or titles. For some this was a real frustration but the respect and gratitude expressed by churches and pastors usually outweighed the irritations and insecurities.
Those who were hired for full-time youth ministry as opposed to being a lay worker or pastor assigned to youth work tended to demonstrate a much stronger passion and commitment to youth ministry. Youth workers who have been in youth ministry over five years were inclined to make comments like: “I have a strong idea of my calling – I know this is what God has called me to do, so if others do not think highly of a youth minister, I do!”; “My calling is to youth ministry. It is my joy and my commitment”.
Those who were new to youth ministry or assigned to youth made comments that demonstrated commitment to ministry in general but not necessarily a passion for youth work: “When the church asked me, I thought why not? I did not have a strong call but I was willing.”; “My passion is not in youth ministry but it’s where I’ve been assigned.”; “Youth ministry was the ministry position that was open but I’m now finding it too draining.”
Those who do not have a strong commitment along with a passion for working with youth usually will drop out in the first three to five years. This is important for churches because most youth work that makes a lasting difference usually has a consistency in leadership and vision.
The Methodist youth workers sought to engage in ministry in such a way that the youths would respond to the radical call of Christ and discover their ministries even as teenagers. They did not perceive youth ministry as a protective holding centre entertaining and keeping young people until they could grow up and become full members of the church.
Their vision was one of young people dynamically working now within the church and community to fulfil the churches’ mission. These feelings are illustrated by statements like: “I love to see the young people grow towards Christ’s likeness and see them become different – living by the word of and their passion for God and for the lost”; and “They live in their community with one another and are so passionate about the needs in the world – the church needs that passion.”
The research did expose concerns among some of the youth workers. These included: a sense of powerlessness, conflicting visions for youth ministry in the church, a lack of specific youth training, and a lack of recognition. They also noted the difficult challenges of working with young people who were caught between two cultures, have little available time to offer the church and sometimes were blasé, a second generation of Christians.
Important as these concerns were, the youth workers still expressed a passion for the ministry in which they were engaged.
One youth worker summed up the general feeling saying, “What a joy to work with young people, if you love them and give them Christ the sky is the limit.”