Kin Yip Louie Reaches Out to Young People in Hong Kong
Hong Kong is an iconic city bridging Western and Eastern culture. For 150 years it was under British rule, which sheltered it from the upheaval of China’s Communist revolution in the 1950s. In 1997, when the British ceded Hong Kong’s territory back to China, it was designated as a nearly autonomous region.
Amid this rich history of international influences, the Christian church in Hong Kong is small. Kin Yip Louie, a professor at China Graduate School of Theology, estimates that church-going Christians represent about 5 percent of the population—perhaps 350,000 of the city’s more than 7 million residents.
At the same time, many people in Hong Kong know about Christianity and even may have accepted Christ during childhood, Louie says. “Unlike the United States, we have government-subsidized Christian public schools. So many young people, somewhere in their lives, have heard or even responded to the message of the gospel, but as adults, they leave the faith.”
As a teenager, Louie became convinced of atheism after reading Bertrand Russell’s book Why I Am Not A Christian. He remembers writing an essay for his Christian school’s newspaper detailing his own reasons for rejecting Christianity. “I didn’t view [the essay] as a bold step in distinguishing myself from my friends and fellow students,” he recalls. “I just needed to clear my mind by writing. My conclusion was that Christianity is nothing more than a nice story.”
Louie’s experience reflects the city’s prevailing attitude toward faith and spirituality—indifference.
“People aren’t explicitly anti-religion. Many occasionally go to the temple to seek the blessing of the Buddha, or visit the church on Christmas day,” he says. “Secular values seem more prevalent, though they aren’t explicitly championed either. Hong Kong may be more like parts of Western Europe in that sense. Secularism is not a very militant or explicit force—people just believe whatever they like.”
Louie eventually accepted Christ during his college years. Now, through his teaching and other ministries, he is encouraging Hong Kong’s young people to follow a similar path.
The church's generation gap
Today’s young adults in Hong Kong are the first generation to grow up in a semi-autonomous “Special Administrative Region” instead of a British-dependent territory. They are eager to have a say in their society’s future, and they typically are more interested in political change than in spiritual pursuits.
Louie believes young people are more committed than their parents to the principles of democracy—and more willing to take action to support those ideals. In 2016, two of Hong Kong’s newly elected legislators—members of the “Youngspiration” party—shocked many in the city’s mostly conservative society when they made pro-independence statements at their swearing-in.
“It’s becoming difficult in our churches for pastors to facilitate communication between the two generations,” Louie observes. “Unfortunately, the majority of churches are choosing not to engage young people on the issues they care about. If you want to talk about these issues, you can’t do it openly in church, because it may aggravate people. You have to stay with your own cohort.”
It’s a sign, he says, that the church is not addressing the concerns of the next generation.
In Louie’s view, churches often don’t discuss practical issues that are relevant to young people because the pastor—usually coming from a traditional background—doesn’t know how to talk about them. “Many pastors and older congregants regard the pastor as an authority in the faith in a way that a younger person doesn’t relate to,” he explains. “The younger crowd tends to be skeptical of authority. They want open discussion and the pastor’s voice to be one of many.”
Louie is cautious of completely scrapping a traditional church hierarchy to appease younger believers. “I’m very glad they are looking for answers. At the same time, it wouldn’t be helpful for anyone to denounce the older generation completely,” he says. “Each generation will have their own problems; there’s no such thing as a perfect church.”
The ideal approach is to bring the generations together, and Louie is encouraging church leaders to reach out to younger people. Creating opportunities for healthy dialogue could help the younger generation reconnect with the church and turn to Christ for answers. “In some ways I think we are competing for the soul of our young people,” he says.
Intergenerational dialogue also can inspire older believers to put their faith into practice in tangible ways. Christians ought to be engaged in the public square “because politics influence people’s lives,” Louie says. “For us, it should not be about gaining power for ourselves. But if you love your neighbor, you should seek to help your neighbor, and one of the ways we can do that is through involvement in society.”
If the older generation doesn’t come to recognize that calling as essential to the life of the church, Louie believes the next generation will continue to walk away from a faith community they see as irrelevant and ineffectual.
Connecting faith and culture
To counter that trend, China Graduate School of Theology is working to engage young people on the issues that matter most to them. For instance, a recent series of talks on the intersection of politics and faith drew many positive responses.
The seminary also created the Center for Faith and Public Values Research, which explores how believers should be involved in the public sphere. This area of focus is reinforcing the school’s influence with local Chinese churches.
“We have a respected reputation as a very scholarly institution, so we try to leverage that as we reach out to churches in Hong Kong,” Louie says. “We organize public lectures on current events, and we offer a course of theological study geared toward laypeople who want to learn more about their faith.” The school also offers small-group Bible study programs.
In addition to his classes covering church history, theology, and doctrine, Louie teaches courses on faith and culture. He also writes regularly for a Chinese audience, often addressing faith and politics. “My main interest is in how faith relates to the larger society—in questions like, ‘How is Christian doctrine different from the way secular people look at things? What is different for the Christian about freedom, death, and life?”
Louie’s focus on faith and culture provides a natural avenue for discipleship. Young people exposed to the gospel early on need help drawing connections between their budding faith and their world, he says. “We’ve put a lot of focus on evangelism, but we don’t pay a lot of attention to what happens after they raise their hand.”
By showing young Christians the relevance of Scripture to everyday life, Louie hopes some of them will avoid rejecting faith and leaving the church, as he did. But he also hopes they continue to engage with the broader society.
“While we want to encourage new believers to keep reading their Bibles, and to go to prayer meetings, we don’t want them to withdraw entirely,” he says. “We have to equip Christians to enter the secular world. They need to understand that their work is a form of service to the Lord, even if it’s not specifically church work.”
Louie knows the church in Hong Kong has a lot of catching up to do. “In the past, our churches have not spent enough time preparing our young people. We need to work quickly to equip them, now.”