By Lee Chung Horn

In the late 60s, San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district became a hotspot for tens of thousands of youths. The Summer of Love repudiated the establishment, and became a movement that influenced future generations.


May 1988. San Francisco. I was inside the U.S. city’s Golden Gate Park, on my own.

I’d finished medical school. I was 27 years old. My world was expanding.

I had read all about flower power, and this was why I found myself, a little way into the park, with a crowd of young people. I was shooting photos, like the one above. The photo has faded with time. Some of the young men had long hair. Some of the young women were dancing. The music made my heart beat faster. I knew how the youth counterculture of the late 1960s criticized consumerism, rejected the American Dream, yearned for individualism, and worked for world peace. I was excited to be in San Francisco.

I knew the young people dancing that day in the park weren’t the original hippies whose power gathered force as the Vietnam War escalated. It’s possible they’d never even heard of Timothy Leary’s “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” They were in the park for a human experience: meet friends, hear the bands, dance, get stoned, make out.

The young people helped me see that generations are, well, different from each other. It impressed me that what the establishment calls the callowness or rebellion of youth may be called other things, too. Like curiosity, or hope.

That day, I remember wondering why nobody I knew in Singapore, my family, my teachers, or my church seemed to care about the U.S.-Vietnam War, or poverty, or corporate greed.

Though I was never an agitator, I was a ‘sympathizer,’ watching on the sidelines. I was powerfully moved by the ideals of America’s disillusioned youth.

I was sympathetic because I was a young man, and openness is quintessential to the experience of youth. Youth is the time in a person’s life where his spirit is most lifted up to the belief that the world could get better, must get better. Young people are like paper. Not too much yet has been written on their lives. They are enormously affected by the world they live in. They aren’t sure yet who they are, and they want to be formed.

Talking about your generation

Last July, when some 75 True Wayans were invited to join visionary groups to discuss the state of their church, we asked them a series of questions about generations, and intergenerational trust.

At its simplest, intergenerational trust is the confidence that one generation has in another generation. Churches are made up of several generations, so intergenerational trust in churches is the belief that one generation has in the other generations.

We gave our participants a set of articles to read before they came. One article addressed religious affiliation in Singapore. In it, findings from a 2020 national census detailed that the number of Singaporeans reporting that they had no religion had gone up. Particularly concerning was the group aged 25 to 34, where more than 1 in 4 said they had no religion.

The number of Christians fell in university graduates, diploma holders, and people with post-secondary education.

Several participants grew anxious when they heard our quick summary. They had not been aware of this trend before. But after a few moments, they quickly realised that this was not only plausible, but consistent with their own perceptions.

We wanted to examine all our generations, how they thought and behaved, whether or not they understood what intergenerational trust was about, and to what degree they were willing to participate in solutions, if there were indeed solutions.

So we asked our participants- late Gen Zs, millennials, Gen Xs, boomers – these questions: Do you know people in church from another generation? Take a look at people who are younger than you in the church. What are their strengths? What are their weaknesses? Now look at people who are older than you in the church. What are their strengths? What are their weaknesses?

A group of women in their 60s and 70s reacted strongly. Some of them had taught Sunday school. Yes, they chorused, we knew many children, but these relationships have been lost.

They had sung songs with their kids, wiped noses, dried tears, loved them. Sadly, these kids have grown up, one cohort after another, and the affection did not survive.

Now teens or young adults, these children don’t seem to care very much about their old teachers anymore. There are no smiles of acknowledgment, it’s as if a relationship had never existed.

The hurt was genuine.

Of course, one might say the courageous aunties were overly sensitive. But what they have expressed so viscerally was their personal experience of a loss of intergenerational affection. Perhaps it isn’t cool for a 19 year-old to say hello to an older woman. The aunties, if they didn’t know it at our meeting, will realise that their wounding leads on to other points of pain: when the children they taught take the reins of the church, if indeed they will, would the aunties trust them with the church?

We asked about strengths and weaknesses. These were extremely sensitive questions but we felt they needed to be asked even if the answers turned out tenuous or vague, and better sooner than later.

“The truth is: everybody in church has an opinion about people younger than they, and older.”

Some participants didn’t grasp what we were after. Simplistically, many participants said: young people are strong in their IT and tech skills. And the weakness of the older folks? Why, it’s their inability to work a computer.

When we explained that the strengths we were interested in were qualities like faithfulness, humility, tenacity, being redeemed through adversity, and self-sacrifice, and that impatience, pride, apathy, unwillingness to receive criticism, a lack of resilience or resolve might be weaknesses, people sat back, nodded and took a few moments. But nobody was very keen to jump in. Everybody saw the questions were prickly, and nobody was keen to sound like a moaner.

The truth is: everybody in church – teen, new mom, young adult, men in their 50s – has an opinion about people younger than they, and older.

The gap

All our church parents and ministry leaders know the great responsibility of teaching the next generation. We know it’s in the Bible. But we also know it’s not easy, and the old ways don’t work anymore.

The project leaders had many conversations when the groups ended. I had one with Koh Ee Wee.

Ee Wee is a new church deacon. He’s in his 50s and I my 60s. We both have young adult children. We work a fair bit with young adults in church. We are familiar with the territory. We know the statement that goes “young people don’t listen, you could offer advice or words, but they will decide for themselves. The world has changed!”

We both knew that this statement was an unhappy complaint about intergenerational trust in modern society. The older person is saying: Young people don’t listen because they don’t trust that I know something that they don’t. I’m upset because I worry they’ll just get into trouble, and I’m not sure that I trust them now.”

Ee Wee says: “Young people in Singapore grow up in circumstances that are vastly different from ours. We old folks are who we are because we grew up in post-war Singapore. All of us studied hard. It was important to us to find jobs quickly. We stayed in our jobs.

“We had to. We knew from the sacrifices our parents made that food doesn’t appear by magic on the table. Somebody has to put it there, and that person might be us.”

We shared our conversation with the other project leaders. Our young people in church didn’t, and don’t grow up the way we did. They grow up in greater comfort. They may be forced by their parents to go into tertiary education, but they don’t, by and large, need to support their parents or siblings financially.  This is not their reality. In our time, we took the bus, but mom was their chauffeur, and now they drive dad’s car.

These discussions touch a screaming nerve, but they’re not statements of judgment. They are not made to assign blame. They’re not even terribly shocking observations because sociologists and politicians have described them over and over again.


Young hearts, young dreams

If we keep abreast of local politics, we might also know that our 4G political leaders have acknowledged a need to work with younger voters. This new generation is rarely disconnected for long from social media, they consume a healthy diet of alternate voices: will they turn against the ruling party? How do we inspire them, earn their trust? What must we do not to lose them? In time to come, will they lead the nation?

In church, we’re not always aware of these realities.

In the visionary groups, we met many young people, too. Each decade was different from the next, and the gulf was widest between the youngest slice and the oldest one. Thankfully, we have many middle layers in between, and we can possibly work through the middle, interstitial layers, where bridges and consortiums may be more easily built.

On San Francisco’s Powell Street, a self-styled preacher shares an unorthodox message about sex. AIDS had just been described in the U.S. but in 1988, when this photo was taken, scientists, doctors and the church were still trying to understand what it was all about.

One young adult in her 20s shared: “We find it quite hard to talk to older adults. For example, we want to ask ‘Can a Christian date a non-Christian?’ But why bother? The answer is just no.”

In her plainspoken way, this young woman identified a no-fly zone. You don’t fly your plane through a no-fly zone. Some topics are taboo, some discussions will crash. Do older adults and leaders see that our reflexive postures reduce the trust of our young people?

Young people don’t have the experience of their seniors. This is a truth. But their lack of experience is not their fault or a failing, and you can’t call it a weakness.

I see in our young people many strengths. This is my list. They are often better educated than their elders. Their parents gave them opportunities because they never had them. So young people are smarter intellectually. They are unafraid to ask questions—if you won’t answer their question, or don’t know how, well, they will go ask somebody else. They will not settle.

We heard several good suggestions from our participants. Could we have more church camps and church retreats? The last retreat was a success. When we get people to meet across the generations in an unforced fashion, trust grows. When people work together, they become confident of each other’s steadfastness. If people find themselves in a crisis where they make sacrifices for each other, the affections and bonds that spring up will not shake.

Still, the suggestions are not easy solutions. It can be very hard to engineer conversations. In church, we have men in their 70s who see no reason to be chatting to a 21 year old student who can’t wait to join his buddies for lunch or a movie. On any given Sunday, people can be hard to push, and many of our strategies have failed in the past.

“If we only know things that are predictable and safe, and don’t realise many people have beliefs or desires that differ greatly from ours, we end up believing the world is uncomplex”

I also think for the sake of building trust, older folks, especially church leaders, need to be better-read. Young people see the holes in our fumbling answers. How will we build trust if we don’t seem to have the foggiest about social justice, creation care, culture wars, or woke? It would help if we’re more familiar with difference and complexity. We need to go out the doors of our church and see and hear and smell the world outside. When we return to our safe sanctuary, we may realise how complex the world has become while we weren’t paying attention. Encountering difference, nuance, and ambiguity is good. If we only know things that are predictable and safe, and don’t realise many people have beliefs or desires that differ greatly from ours, we end up believing the world is uncomplex. This is fatal. We really must plan better, love better, and serve our younger generations better.

When we bring our younger generations into ministry roles, we shore up trust. Nothing spells distrust more powerfully than a closed door. If you’re not sure that the younger person will do a good job, take the time to show him the ropes. If he messes up, it’s good to remember, who doesn’t?

But young people are not homogeneous. Unmarried just-grads, often the most energetic and idealistic group, are interested in bible study, hot-button topics and questions about why prostitution is legal in Singapore. When they enter working life, they are forced into a transition, exchanging cooing professors, long lunches and only four lectures a week for hostile colleagues, demanding supervisors, and 7am alarms. They might appreciate an older Christian who could gently help them re-calibrate.

And here’s something we saw from the visionary groups, young mothers are comforted by the presence of old mothers who know a hug is a bigger help than ten words of advice.

If churches are aware that their people are often held apart by generational differences, they can wisely help members understand the commonality of their human experience. Older generations may be nudged to realize that their younger friends are, in many ways, just like them. Love, sorrow, disappointment, laughter and tears are all common to the human experience, whether you grew up in the 60s or noughties. The human heart is the same.

I would like to get more people talking about intergenerational trust. I would like our boomers to realise that when we were young and navigating the world, we had an easier time. The world that our young people know today is more complex.

I would also like young people to know that friendships with people in the church who are 20 years their senior can be enduring and transformative. Don’t be afraid to go beyond people who are just four or five years older because you will find many adults who love the church and care about you. They want to encourage you to be effective in your service to the church.

Passing the baton

Not everyone is always aware there are batons in churches, and that they are passed from one person to another, one generation to the next. Our flower arrangers do it, so do our librarians and DG leaders.

Intergenerational trust reaches its sharpest point when one ponders leadership, and leadership transfer.

What if our would-be successors are not terribly interested in accepting batons? What if they want to take just half a baton? What if they repudiate our system, asking to change our organisational structure? What if the emerging church wants to get rid of what they feel is stodginess, ossification or worse, irrelevance to the new world?

This may be when seniors dig in. This may be when young people with heads full of steam decide to leave and start their own churches. Will this be the reforming that strengthens the entire church?

I’ve also come to realise that leaders become aware of the baton in different ways. If you’re a new or young leader, you may not think of it very often. If you’re mid-career, you’re refining your serve, and you’re convinced that God still has work for you to do. But if you’re sensitive to your responsibility to the church, not just as a leader today, but also tomorrow when you must pass your mantle, thinking about succession should always begin, well, sooner than later.

One of our young deacons said at our leaders’ retreat. “You’re all talking about passing the baton. But, could I ask that you don’t be in a rush about it?”

He was saying that he understood that the baton was a receptacle of trust. It is weighty, and nobody of his generation wants to drop it. They all want to be worthy. So stay with us longer, he was saying, till we can do it.

Photographs by the author. Lee Chung Horn is a medical doctor and a church elder.


Opinions expressed are those of our authors. This is the last article of our December 2022 issue. All rights reserved. Please send comments to together@trueway.org.sg. Previous issues are available at truewaypc.com/newsletters.

Editor-in-chief Lee Chung Horn. Subeditors Soh Lay Bin, Michelle Cheong, Joyce Peh, Kevin Chua, Jakin Heng, Gracia Lee. Photographers Ang Li Yan, Jonathan Tham, William Neo, Jimmy Ang, Ronnie Koh, Erick Kencana, Jethro Fernandez, Jedidiah Lim. Web design Tony Cheung.