“In our church, the older generation speaks Mandarin, and the newer generation thinks, speaks, and dreams in English. The issue of language comes up in all aspects of church life,” Thomas Liew, Youth Pastor at Renewal Christian Church, shared with me.
“What language do we use when preaching? What songs should we sing? Should we insert bilingual slides?”
Against the backdrop of largely English-speaking Singapore, Chinese churches are facing the risk of being lost in translation. Although all of Renewal’s services are only in Mandarin, Pastor Thomas, 29, has spent years grappling with how to reach his church’s English-speaking youth.
A Chinese family church that began 29 years ago, Renewal welcomes over 600 members at its St George and Jurong locations today.
Representing the second and even third generations of its members are some 80 regular young people of the Renewal Youth Ministry (RYM).
“As a Chinese church, we do see a huge potential for ministering to Chinese nationals, Malaysians and other Chinese-speaking residents. However, because our own youth mostly speak English, there is a difficulty in developing outreach to these groups,” said Pastor Thomas.
Worship sets at RYM’s weekly Saturday services include a mix of English and Chinese songs by ministries such as Hillsong, Stream of Praise (赞美之泉) and originals written by Renewal itself. Announcements and sermons also follow this loose bilingual structure.
“The youth tell us, ‘When we evangelise, our friends mostly speak English. Would they want to attend my church?’,” Pastor Thomas lamented. Some youth members have decided to switch to English churches for reasons such as this.
“While we do not oppose when members feel called to English congregations, we do want to guard against a consumerist mindset in the decision-making process.
“This means that decisions should not be made based on ‘What do I prefer?’, but rather, ‘Where can I best fulfil my kingdom calling?’ Our counsel is always given based on what is best for the holistic growth of the person.”
As the daughter of Renewal’s Associate Pastor, Priscilla Yong, 25, understands the second-generation experience.
“Most of the youth (in RYM) are second-generation Christians. The challenge is for them to call Christianity a faith of their own and not one inherited from their parents,” said the RYM cell group leader.
Priscilla believes her bonds with the Renewal community she grew up with is the main reason for her staying all these years.
“I have a group of close friends whom I grew up with, and it’s difficult to leave for an unknown environment. Some may say it is their parents who forced them to be here (at Renewal), but really, no one can force you to do anything.”
Despite the language barrier, Priscilla is convinced that Chinese churches in Singapore have an important Kingdom purpose.
“God has something for the youth of Chinese churches to do, and I want to be a part of it though it may be difficult.”
“I am still figuring out how I can continue to contribute in church. It is extremely challenging to bring my own English-speaking friends to a church that doesn’t really speak their language,” she said.
16-year-old Gabriel Law grew up with a large family – the RYM member has two older brothers aged 18 and 19, and a younger brother aged 11. Along with their parents, the entire family is active in various ministries at Renewal.
“I feel RYM members choose to stay in Renewal because everyone is very comfortable with each other. Despite being in many different cell groups, I can see that everyone ‘clicks’ well together, which makes us like a big family in general,” he said.
To Gabriel, the ministry’s bold attitude to launch new projects and initiatives keeps life in RYM dynamic and enjoyable.
“Personally, I continue staying in Renewal because I feel that many people are open to trying new things and projects. The leaders are open to answering questions relating to many different topics about life.”
At the core of the Renewal is its identity as a family church. Pastor Thomas believes these ties keep the next generation from switching to other churches.
“The youth stay for the friends and the community that they have grown up in. Other reasons include the opportunities to serve in the worship team and to organise events.”
Though their numbers may be small, the youth ministry has undertaken various creative projects as part of their outreach efforts.
In addition to the annual youth camp, RYM has staged the original production “The Score”, along with a sequel, exploring the pressures faced by young people in a fictional, dystopian world.
The ministry has also volunteered to help the seniors’ dialect ministry with house visits.
“We try as much as possible to grant autonomy to individuals with ideas for projects such as ARTas, our annual art event for youth,” he said.
The free annual art festival has been RYM’s largest outreach event since its inception in 2016. Held in conjunction with Youth Day celebrations, ARTas is a day-long event featuring young emerging artists from various disciplines, gathered from a public open call.
Following two successful iterations, the RYM members who make up the ARTas organising committee even took on an offshoot event last December, turning the church’s sheltered car park space into a public barter market for art and various preloved items.
Some 300 guests are expected at ARTas 2018, happening 30 June. From 1PM to 6PM, guests can enjoy performances by local singer-songwriters Vivien Yap, Stephycube, Irwin Zephyr Tan, and more.
Also available are free workshops in calligraphy, embossing, and water dyeing, as guided by young artists Jaime Chua and Barnabas Chua.
While ARTas is pitched as an event open to all, the organising committee hopes that it will continue being their way of sharing God’s love with the community.
“With this year’s ‘work-in-progress’ theme in mind, we hope all who visit ARTas 2018 will feel like they are able to explore,” said Michelle Liew from the ARTas 2018 organising committee.
“I hope art will be that channel that allows both Christians and non-Christians to ask questions and find answers.”