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Malaysian Christian millennials want empathetic, relational and collaborative leadership, new study finds

A new study by Barna Group, World Vision Malaysia and Alpha Malaysia uncovers how Malaysian millennials see leadership, evangelism, and social justice today.

Authoritarian leadership is out, according to Malaysian millennials today. In a study released on 22 April 2022, only one in four millennials (of different faiths or no faith) seeks to model an authoritarian leadership style. 

So what are millennials looking for? In the study, titled ‘The Connected Generation: Engaging Millennials in Leadership, Evangelism and Social Justice’, Christian millennials in Malaysia named empathy as their top trait while those of other faiths/no faith identified open-mindedness as their preferred characteristic. 

Source: Pg 12, The Connected Generation: Engaging Millennials in Leadership, Evangelism and Social Justice

Millennials are not emerging, they are currently leaders in our church, community and society. Churches need to know what makes them tick. 

Millennials are an interesting bunch. Aged 18-35, millennials are known to enjoy diversity, live and breathe technology and are driven to create social impact. They value experiences, relationships and knowledge. 

This generation of empathetic, driven and creative people are not up and coming. They’re already here, and churches need to know what makes them tick. On 23 April, the findings of this study on millennials were presented at Faith for the Future 3.0 (FFTF), an event where local leaders shared their thoughts on evangelism, leadership and social justice. 

50% of Malaysian Christian millennials want to take up leadership roles in their churches

As the emergent generation, millennials are keen to step up and start leading. In fact, many already are. Of the Christians surveyed in the study, 48% see themselves as leaders in their faith or church community. 

Half of the respondents also want to serve. The top three areas of interest were worship (39%), youth ministry (37%) and social concern (30%). Interestingly, the least popular areas among those surveyed were church leader/lay leader (15%), preaching (13%) and becoming an elder/board member (5%). 

There are also gender patterns in serving areas, with female millennials indicating greater interest in social concerns, hosting and children’s ministry over their male counterparts. “On the flip side, male millennials are seen having more interest to lead as a Bible study leader, church leader or be a lay leader and preacher,” the report reads.

Source: Pg. 7, The Connected Generation: Engaging Millennials in Leadership, Evangelism and Social Justice

However, only a third of respondents see the church prioritising leadership development 

While 51% of respondents felt they have been given solid chances to serve in their faith communities and churches, a sobering 36% agreed with the statement, “My church prioritises developing young adults into leaders’. 

However, most regard their pastor or church leaders as foremost authorities and ‘credible sources’ on world issues today. The findings suggest that while there is a healthy respect for church leaders, there may be a gap in mentorship and equipping of the next generation to take over the reins. 

At FFTF, this observation was unpacked during the final session chaired by Rev. Abel Cheah (Alpha Asia Pacific Leadership Development Director and Curate, Holy Trinity Bukit Bintang), where Pr. Sabrina Low (Cornerstone Community Church Borneo Lead Pastor), Pr. Andy Yeoh (Acts Church Associate Pastor and Coordinator of Acts Teens) and Pr. Dr Chew Weng Chee (SIBKL Senior Pastor) discussed leadership growth and pains, as well as ways to build strong and authentic leaders. 

Pr Sabrina Low and Pr Andy Yeoh share their thoughts on millennial leadership.

Look at Joshua and Moses, Timothy and Paul – there was great power in generational alignment 

Throughout the discussion, one point was clear: there is great power in drawing the strengths of every generation. Pr. Andy and Pr. Sabrina shared their invaluable experiences of having a mentor from an older generation, and how their mentor’s wisdom, insights and counsel have shaped them to be who they are today.

“It all starts with a relationship. Timothy had a Paul, Andy had an Albert. I saw Jesus in him, a pastor in action not just on Sundays, but someone who really loved Jesus and cared about us. The Church needs to communicate that we’re building leaders not just for service within the church, but out of it as well.”

Pr Andy Yeoh

While mentorship has been shown to be crucial in developing strong leaders, only 25% of Christians surveyed said they had an adult mentor at church aside from their pastor. Pr Sabrina reiterated the importance of convergence between generations. 

“My senior pastor (Pr Yang Tuck Yoong of Cornerstone Community Church, Singapore) and his wife, Pr Daphne, are an important part of my life up until today… I’m now doing the exact same thing, replicating this relational approach with our church members and young leaders.”

Pr Sabrina Low 

So how can the Malaysian Church ensure sustainable leadership for the future? 

When it comes to millennial leadership, Pr. Chew shared three nuggets of wisdom gleaned from his time as SIBKL’s senior pastor. The urban church in Petaling Jaya has a considerable number of young pastors, with 60% of the pastoral team being millennials. 

Pr Chew believes Boomer and Gen X leaders must build connections and walk the talk.

His advice for Boomer and Gen X church leaders in Malaysia is to first build connections, by staying up-to-date on the latest apps and technology (he just learned how to use MURAL) and understanding their jargon. 

The second is to walk the talk, living authentic lives as leaders.

“If there’s one thing about millennials, it’s that they can spot a fake from a mile away. Live an honest life and build a culture of affirmation. It sets a positive tone and bridges the generational gap.” 

Pr. Dr Chew Weng Chee

The third piece of advice is for millennials and Gen Zs when engaging with Gen X and Boomer communities in church.

“Older people only need two things. The first is respect. Always respect them in the way you speak to and engage with them. Secondly, never make an older folk feel useless. As long as they feel useful and contributing, they will be [satisfied].”

Pr. Dr. Chew Weng Chee

“Millennials, the future belongs to you. In everything, look to Jesus.” – Pr. Chew 

Research and experience have shown this to be true. When it comes to Christian millennials in Malaysia, a relationship is key. They want authentic, empathetic leaders who care about social transformation and people development. They also want the opportunity to become leaders themselves. 

There is great potential to be tapped amongst millennials in the areas of church leadership and growth. In his closing remarks, Pr Chew acknowledged the failings of his generation and sought forgiveness if Malaysian Christian millennials have had “bad role models” in the past. 

“Millennials, the future belongs to you. The challenges you face are far more teruk (difficult) than what we faced. If you’ve had bad role models, remember that even the best of men are but men at best. We are all sinners. So look to Jesus, only Jesus.”

Pr. dr. chew weng chee

The Connected Generation in Malaysia: Engaging Millennials in Leadership, Evangelism & Social Justice was a study conducted involving 1,845 millennials in Malaysia of different or no faiths. The full report will be available for download in the near future. For more information, head over to Faith for the Future or Alpha Malaysia Research.

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