Picture the finishing line of a particularly gruelling race. Perhaps an Ironman challenge, or an ultramarathon, or cycling’s month-long Tour de France. There, a journalist gathers quotes and reactions from the champions, finishers and their entourage.

The soundbites are mostly triumphant, celebratory: I did it; we made it. A select few will be lauded on the podium. History remembers only the winners. 

But consider: who doesn’t make it to the nightly news package? Those who don’t do well enough to medal. Those who trail so far behind that by the time they reach the finishing line, the news vans have long driven off.

Not to mention those who don’t even make it that far — those who drop out of the race with injury, fatigue or just plain resignation.

Looking beyond the 12 churches

The Churches Attracting Young Adults study you have read is a follow-up from 2022’s State of the Church survey.

Unlike the 2022 study, which sought to objectively capture the reality of church health across Singapore, this year’s researchers wanted to go deeper into why some churches are doing better than others, especially among young adults.

Hence, 12 churches known for their growth in this demographic were handpicked for this series of conversations.

This is akin to the interview at the finishing line. Nothing wrong with that; there are so many positive lessons to glean, and best practices to emulate, be it in the realm of preaching, spirituality, evangelism, building community, or engaging the generations.

But what it cannot adequately reflect is the state of the rest of the race pack; the stragglers in the peloton.

Because the reality is that these leading lights notwithstanding, many churches are hurting. Beyond these 12 churches interviewed are hundreds of other churches who are losing numbers, many of whom are young adults and youths.

These are not mere numbers or statistics. They are their sons and daughters; their potential future leaders, Pastors and Elders; their hope for renewal.

The front door is narrowing, the back door widening

For most of these 12 churches, the majority of their growth came from “churched” believers. This is a zero-sum game: +1 here means -1 elsewhere.

Granted, if they were to leave their home church, then better for them to be in a church than not at all.

But that is cold comfort to their home church. They may not have been stolen, but neither were they sent.

The national religious statistics reflect that the overall picture for churches is one of concern. The total population of Christians (including Catholics) may have increased from 18.8% in 2015 to 18.9% in 2020, but narrow that down to just the Protestants and the census shows we have shrunk from 12.1% to 11.9% in that same time – the first fall since such data were captured at the national level.

The State of the Church 2022 showed more churches reporting an outflow of attendees (45%) than an inflow (38%).

the front door to the faith is getting smaller – only one of the 12 churches reporting conversions as their main driver of growth – while the back door of the church is swinging wider open.

So looking beyond the 12 churches, and taking an all-of-Kingdom perspective, the front door to the faith is getting smaller – only one of the 12 churches reporting conversions as their main driver of growth – while the back door of the church is swinging wider open.

This study lists push factors for young adults leaving their home church. To recap:

  • Dissatisfaction with Preaching Ministry
  • Lack of In-Person Community and Relationships During the Pandemic
  • Church Leadership and Culture
  • Natural Evolution and Acceleration
  • Church-wide Issues 

It could read like an ingrate’s list of faults and failings. But I prefer to choose to process the push factors through the lens of God’s mercy.

Mercy is being given another chance; confession and repentance, at the corporate level, means acknowledging and addressing errors that we may have committed that have contributed to this loss of our members.

And who knows, we may get a second chance to draw them back, and build again, better.

Dear church leader, if you see your younger demographic thinning out, your sons and daughters leaving your pews, do not stand at the grave and weep.

Act. Which of the push factors listed above could you do something about? Might it take an act of humility, acknowledging error, and submitting to the Spirit’s guidance towards transformation?

God, give us the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, the courage to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish one from the other.

The State of the Church in Singapore 2023 study, “Churches Attracting Young Adults”, is a follow-up from the State of the Church in Singapore 2022 Study. You can find the full report here.