God's Pandemic Wake-Up Call
In 2019, I wrote an article for SBC Heartbeat entitled “The Singapore Church on the Cusp of Change”,1 in which I noted that the majority of churches were in the midst of generational leadership shifts and facing increased challenges from cultural and social change. Two years later, the trajectory does not appear to have changed, and unfortunately, with the impact of the pandemic, has only deteriorated.
Before the pandemic hit, the Singapore Census of Population 2020 already painted a troubling picture about the Christian population.2 The percentage of Christians did rise slightly from 18.3 to 18.9 percent between 2010 and 2020, accounted by the 15–24 (+ 0.9%) and 55-plus (+ 1.7%) age brackets. But the remaining three groups aged 25 to 54 all showed decreases (25–34 [- 0.7%]; 35–44 [- 1.8%]; 45–54 [- 2.4%]). Moreover, the largest increase was of those with no religion, growing from 17 to 20 percent. This is consistent with trends in the United States and South Korea, which are about one to two decades in trajectory ahead of Singapore. (It should be noted once again that this data is pre-pandemic.)
The pandemic’s impact on churches
One need only attend meetings of the ETHOS Institute for Public Christianity and the Singapore Centre for Global Missions to know that the pandemic has exacerbated the trends. Almost every pastor and leader I have talked to shared that they have not been able to reach the full capacity of their restrictions-limited Sunday services, even though these are roughly 30 percent of pre-pandemic capacities.
But not all churches have declined during the pandemic; some actually grew. The pandemic provided an opportunity to explore other churches. When everything was online, many Christians “church hopped”. Many came to realize that there were churches that were more vibrant than their own. Freed from “church routines”, many Christians found new communities where their faith could flourish.
Sadly, there were also Christians who stopped attending church altogether. Faced with the pandemic’s daily struggles, many found the Sunday service and church activities irrelevant. Without church routines, many also felt free.
Churches have responded in two ways. The churches that are struggling are treading water, waiting for the pandemic to disappear so they can “go back to normal.” Unfortunately, this group will only become increasingly obsolete. The growing churches are the group adapting to the new reality by contextualizing or recontextualizing the gospel in response to change.
Why contextualize the gospel
When people think of contextualization, they think that it is only relevant to the mission field. For instance, they may ask, “How does one contextualize the gospel to the Thai culture?” But every culture and society changes, and globalization and the spread of trends through the Internet and social media have exponentially increased the rate of change. Hence, the process of contextualization is not limited to crossing geographic boundaries, but also temporal and generational boundaries.
For example, millennials (or Gen Y) and Gen Z primarily communicate visually and orally via narrative, unlike the merdeka (or boomer) and pioneer (or builders) generations. Are pastors and church leaders thinking as missionaries to translate the gospel in a way that communicates to them? I remember one speaker at SBC’s combined chapel who, for the entire sermon, preached without any visual aids. I asked students afterwards what they thought of the sermon. Most of them didn’t even remember what the topic was.
Contextualization is foundational to God’s mission. From Genesis to Revelation, God is constantly on the move to where people are going and recharacterizing his relationship with them. From the garden of Eden into the world, from Ur to Israel, from a monocultural nation to a multicultural people, and from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth, the Bible is replete with examples of contextualization and recontextualization. Consider why the Old Testament is written in Hebrew and Aramaic but the New Testament in Greek, and why the Israelites know God as Yahweh (“LORD” in English Bibles) but Christians call him the kurios (“Lord” in Greek). Even God was willing to contextualize his name. Theologian Stephen B. Bevans thus concludes in an article on “Contextual Theology”:
All theology is contextual. … This is how the Scriptures came to be written; this is how the doctrinal tradition was formed; this is how theologians theologize today. Theology has always been done this way.3
How to contextualize the gospel
So, how can churches contextualize the gospel to ensure they will be around by the end of the 21st century? Perhaps the best way is through the process called “critical contextualization” proposed by missiologist Paul Hiebert.4 It involves having a dialogue between cultures to arrive at both an orthodox and translated form of the gospel—the passing of faith to faith (Rom 1:16–17). Hiebert applies his process not only in the African context in the use of drums for the worship service, but as well in the context of the modern contemporary worship service between adults and youth.
Growing churches that do not have greying congregations are those making efforts to incorporate the next generation into leadership and ministry. One church at West Coast Road has committed to ensuring that half their deacon board are below the age of 30, and their young adults are given ownership to make changes that are relevant and understandable as culture changes.
Another example comes from my classmate at Asbury Theological Seminary, the Rev. Dr. Koh Nam Seng (a “contextualizer” since his teens) who shared that a Christmas outreach skit at Glory Presbyterian Church was written and developed entirely by the youth—and they weren’t tasked with the event; they volunteered. He couldn’t wait to show me their hybrid production on his mobile phone.
Heed the wake-up call to God’s mission
The pandemic is God’s wake-up call to churches around the world that his mission is about change and transformation. We must follow God’s example to constantly contextualize—and recontextualize—the gospel to revitalize churches and missions across cultures and as cultures change.
At issue is whether we are trying to make future generations into our cultural image, resisting change like certain church leaders of Jesus’ time, or whether we are helping them be disciples in their own culture and times as the Incarnational Christ. As motivational speaker Garrison Wynn reminds us, “We need to remember that the next generation are not living in our times; we are living in theirs.” And we want theirs to be lived for God, don’t we?
Issue 270 at https://www.sbc.edu.sg/resources/sbc-heartbeat/
Originally published on www.sbc.edu.sg. Republished with permission.