01 Nov Graduating Generations
The old IFES motto of ‘Changing the World, One Student at a Time’ can only hold true, if the convictions established as students endure long and well into the workplace. Just like the student years are formative, there is an increasing need to view the early years of a graduate’s life as crucial and formative in shaping and moulding them as well. In these first few years, habits are formed, and priorities set. Long-term debts are incurred based on the priorities chosen, and these choices lock in their options for the next few decades. As much as the heart is subsequently willing to go where God calls, the flesh and finances are inevitably bound. Five years define a mini-generation, and we miss out on influencing the next 30 years of workplace culture within that tier if we fail to commit resources to those crucial, formative years. While we may agree and affirm the importance of workplace ministry, it is often sobering when we take stock of actual resources committed by churches and ministries towards supporting fresh graduates.
If we consider a ‘graduating generation’ as a noun for just another group of people, we would merely sigh and ruminate about how many graduating generations (and missed opportunities) we have seen in our time in student ministry. But what if we viewed graduating generations of Christians into the workplace as an active task to be undertaken? Perhaps we would be able to catch a vision of countless saplings that may one day grow up to provide much shade for many in the future. In reflecting on the goal of young graduates’ ministry, perhaps there are three calls that remain for us to hear.
A call by God to all workers at all workplaces to find Him where they are
When I first graduated, there was little talk about the theology of work in Singapore and on campus, and we were ill-prepared for finding a larger contextual meaning in relation to work and faith in the workplace. Save a final-year graduating camp, there was no support ministry for fresh graduates after graduation.
Over the years, there has been a growing discovery of literature and online sermons, still largely from the West, about marketplace theology. Local discussion groups have sprouted up and started talking more about the theology of work. As a result, today there is some semblance of understanding in student circles about foundational layers of the theology of work. It is heartening that in some fellowships, people are seeing the continued relevance of their faith as students and subsequently as employees, even forming support groups after graduation on their own initiative. The work is, however, still shallow and unfinished. Beyond the general idea that work is created by God, we struggle for insights on living for God in our workplaces. There are two possible areas we could pay heed to.
Firstly, the ingraining of the theology of work is not deep enough. In student ministry, the theology varies across CFs and is largely dependent on advocates. With the texture of student ministry changing every year with each successive generation of students, it is too easy for this body of thought to fade or be lost. This happened in one of the fellowships in recent years, when a generation of CFers was not exposed to post-graduation issues due to the closing of the ministry responsible for talking about post-graduation issues. Thankfully, the ministry was revived. We should take heed to specially steward these platforms and encourage the students who are helming them. It would be rash to assume that the theology of work has become ‘commonplace’. After all, student ministry is only one mini-generation away from extinction, and so too the nascent ideas that exist within these student bodies.
Secondly, we still live on imported theology and borrowed language. We need applicable insights from local Christians in every profession and season of life over time. We need to layer the theology of what it means to follow God in our local context with relevance and depth. A country often writes its own songs to describe its pains and joys. How sad it is that we find no equivalent ‘songs’ in our marketplace to describe our experiences of encountering the same God of Joseph, Daniel and Esther! These theological insights into reflections on Christian living at workplaces will matter to subsequent generations. Moreover, they prevent any ‘support programmes’ from degenerating into social circles with no theological backbone. Graduates have not lost the ability to write, but there are too few platforms for such purposes to galvanise thought, and perhaps this presents an area of opportunity.
From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.
– Acts 17:26–27, NIV
God calls us to Himself, wherever our work-places might be. May Paul’s words in Acts 17:26–27 be a vision for our graduates entering the workplace. May we find Him while we work, and find Him working, and may our graduates graduate well.
A call to humility and partnership before a task so difficult and tremendous
No doubt there is room for the theology of work to be fleshed out by the lives of successive generations of workers grappling with their faith in their respective workplaces. Yet, the actual work of supporting fresh graduates remains for us to grapple with in the here and now.
Across churches in Singapore, perhaps no single church – big or small – can lay claim to having unlocked the formula for a successful model of young adult ministry. Young adults continue to exit the church after youth ministry, and more languish in the pews after hitting the workplace. They diminish in service, the fire of their youth long gone, drained dry by life. It is in this larger context that we must hear the call to humility when being involved in the work of supporting young graduates. No model is ultimately comprehensive, nor should any critique be levied too easily. We are all still figuring out how best to support young graduates as they join the ever-changing workplace. As this generation is different from ours, so too are their struggles, aspirations and dreams. It is important to not think that we have the better solution, or snigger at others who have tried and seemingly failed, lest God remind us of our pride through our own failures. I’ve encountered some positions which I find useful to highlight here, as a reminder to stay humble when we minister among fresh graduates.
1. We have the answer – We are all experienced, but we are not exhaustive in our experiences. Be it forming communities naturally from existing ones, or calling for commitment to programmes, we want to believe we have the answer. We probably don’t. But the force and rigidity with which we impose our programmes and models sometimes betray our beliefs that we have the answer no one else has.
2. We need to be unique – Duplication is inefficient – so the logic goes – and if someone else is already offering it, I must come up with something wholly different and unique. This is a valid concern regarding duplication, but I do think that it is impossible to be wholly unique. It is unnecessary to try to be unique for the sake of branding. At some point the pursuit of uniqueness will lead to overly niche or oddly contorted ministry efforts. Moreover, if we would stop to reflect, we are already unique by our specific place and position in relation to the young graduate. We may offer similar programmes, but it will never be fully the same. In fact, there are not enough people offering such support ministry options to young graduates, considering the number of Christian graduates a year. Will our pride allow us to offer something similar, if it will meet the needs of the graduates before us?
3. We will only work with some people – This is a difficult point to make, but over the years I have seen well-meaning Christian brothers and sisters scoff at each other. Generally, this position comes from some degree of latent pride: ‘They don’t know what they are doing’; ‘Their way of working is inimical to our ministry DNA’; and so on. Meanwhile, our students graduate without the necessary interlinking support that could have been created by a more concerted partnership. May the years ahead usher in a different spirit!
If evangelism on campus was summed up as ‘students reaching students’, then likewise, we need ‘graduates reaching graduates’. None of us can reach every part of a single person all at once. As much as possible, we need to build diverse groups and partnerships across FES, GCF and interested ministries. We need more resources to reach the graduates under our care.
A call to change and stay unchanging
The dynamism of student ministry spills over into the diverse needs the students have upon graduation, and in truth, no one model stays sufficient for long. In design thinking, the spirit of prototyping, testing, and continual refining is one we need to adopt. Especially since we who stay long in the ministry may run into the danger of starting to calcify in our thoughts and approach. We recycle materials, never encountering God afresh, and never challenging our assumptions iteratively. We who remain in this area of work must be willing to continually experiment and stay nimble. We should not throw out old, reliable materials for the sake of being new, yet be unafraid to let go of previous models when we need to. We should continually come before God to rekindle our passion as we encounter each life before us afresh.
While we have tweaked and played around with different models over the past decade, I’ve found some things don’t change. Key to supporting young graduates is really the ministry of presence. There is no secret elixir to discipleship or building up people. It involves spending time with that person, and listening to them, talking with them, being encouraged, reminded and rebuked by them in turn, and doing life with them. I sometimes fear we only want to ‘help’ the young graduates from a distance, or dish out advice, without committing to spending time with them, actively checking up on them, and being with them. From my perspective, these models will not build deep.
gerund or present participle: generating
1. produce or create
2. produce (energy, especially electricity)
Schools produce graduates, but we have an opportunity to empower graduates through our attention to their formative years. And by empowering their lives we light up the workplace for years to come. In my graduating year I remember visiting a slum one day. It was dark in the covered alleyway. Suddenly a shaft of light punched through a broken tile, and I stood transfixed by that ray of light for a while. The alleyway was dark, but what if someone stood there with a mirror, caught the light with it, and directed the ray of light down the alleyway? And what if someone down the corridor stood with another mirror to reflect more light? What if more people reflected the light from above? The dark alley would be lit up. If the alley is a passageway of time and we all stand at different junctures – placed by God – perhaps we can reflect some light from above in our little corner and dispel the darkness for others who will come after us and walk through such paths. Perhaps young graduate ministries can become receptacles of light that capture, focus and power light in dark places.
A canon layers upon itself, and enduring
Forms a melody most astounding
Perhaps we who continue in young graduate ministry
Will be privileged to hear the music wild and free
That the small stanza though seemingly the same
Layered on becomes a song that refuses to be tamed
And sings of hope and dreams and disappointments laid to rest
And sighs of years lost and yet bids us smile lest
We are lost in the wandering and yearn for friends lost, years past
Will we be privileged to hear the song to the last?
Yet for awhile the song flows on free as a river
Till one Day when we are all gathered in Forever
Written by Gabriel Koh
Gabriel graduated from NUS and currently works in the civil service.