Where are the Grown-Ups?

A great article on youth ministry from Breakpoint

Our Adolescent Culture
Where Are the Grown-Ups?

“There was a time, literally, when there were no teenagers.”

What Diana West is suggesting in The Death of the Grown-Up: How America’s Arrested Development Threatens Western Civilization will undoubtedly sound ridiculous to thousands of youth pastors, family therapists, and advertising gurus whose livelihoods depend on entertaining, counseling, and selling to teenagers.

Nevertheless, West argues that adolescence didn’t always exist. In fact, it is a quite recent phenomenon. The word “teenager” wasn’t really used until 1941, after all. In virtually every other culture in the history of the world prior to late 20th century Western culture, kids became adults. Not so anymore. They now become teenagers, or, to put it in more sociologically acceptable terms, they become adolescents.

What happened to bring about this new stage in human development? The sexual revolution and political upheavals of the ‘60s are, of course, the most obvious suspects. However, West suggests a number of other things, some earlier than the ‘60s: a generation of disconnected fathers trying to deal with what they experienced during WWII, factories which once produced necessities for war began producing non-necessities for consumption, new marketing engines selling these goods to people who didn’t realize they wanted them, Chubby Checker’s Twist, Elvis’ hips, the Beatles’ hair, automobiles—perhaps more than one—in every home, the growth of Hollywood, and the recognition by the marketing engines of the fortune to be made from this brand new segment of the population.

Today, of course, adolescence is considered a fixed stage of development. We expect students will lose their minds from ages 13 to 18. “Kids will be kids,” we say. Only we aren’t referring to kids anymore, we’re talking about 15-year-olds. In other cultures, “teenagers” were marrying, farming, fighting wars, writing books, and in one case, bearing the Messiah.

One of the complications of adolescence is that this fixed stage of development is not very fixed. Its grip has forcefully expanded beyond teenagers, and in both directions. On the front end, we have “pre-teens” or “tweens,” whose financial potential marketers quickly spotted. On the back end, whereas 18 was once considered the end of adolescence, it is now considered the middle. The National Academy of Sciences now defines adolescence as the stage from the onset of puberty (around 11 or 12) to age 30.

But there’s more. The reach of adolescence is even greater than this. Adolescence has become, and this must not be missed, the goal of our culture. Somewhere along the way, we ceased to be a culture where kids aspire to be adults and became a culture where adults aspire to be kids.

What are the marks of a culture with a dominant adolescent mindset? Not surprisingly, they are precisely what we have come to expect from adolescents themselves.

  1. Demand for immediate gratification. We want what we want now, and we will not wait or work for it. Spiraling credit card debt, addiction to new technologies, bouncing from church to church, abandoning marriages—the list goes on and on.
  2. Absence of longterm thinking about life and the world. Hand-in-hand with a demand for immediate gratification is a distraction from the real issues that actually matter. Ours is a culture largely ignorant of economic theory, political distinctions, or the rules of logic, but one which is fully up to speed on latest from American Idol.
  3. Motivated by feeling rather than truth. This is a key indicator of a volatile person, and an even more significant indicator of a failing culture. Truth is murdered by pooled and polled ignorance.
  4. Wanting grown-up things without growing up. Ironically, despite our addiction to all things adolescent, we still expect to be treated like adults. “Don’t tell me what to do,” we say. “Every opinion matters” and “Treat me with respect,” we add. Of course, fools actually do not deserve respect and their opinions are, at best, a thorough waste of time and, at worst, dangerous.
  5. Expecting bailouts rather than accepting consequences. Not thinking before acting is a trait of adolescence as is making excuses. Bad mortgage decision? The government should help. Sexual immorality? Birth control, abortion, and HPV vaccines. Falling grades? Reduce standards. Poor behavior? Ritalin will do the trick. And once we accept adolescence as normal, we are then forced to excuse poor behavior. “They’ll grow out of it,” we suggest. A quick look around reveals that “they” are not.
  6. Focusing on appearance rather than depth. Seen in everything from fascination with celebrity to the way presidents and churches are chosen, cultures that choose style over substance quickly become silly cultures. Neil Postman proved this in his classic work Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Worse still, silly cultures are easily deceived and destined for tyranny. History proves this.

More could be added here, but the point is that sometimes what is normal, well, shouldn’t be. Adolescence is a recent and foolish invention. And, as noted scholar, Richard Weaver taught us, ideas have consequences. Good ideas have good consequences; bad ideas have bad consequences.

Still, there is good news. Cultures like ours have a leadership vacuum. Therefore, there is a terrific opportunity for influence from those who produce the leaders, especially if they produce leaders who can think beyond the current cultural shallowness.

How can we do this? I suggest we go after the students themselves, from those intolerant of adolescence to those who seem most susceptible to it.

First, we need to challenge students, rather than coddle them. We aim too low with teenagers. Students do not need more entertainment, whether from the television, the IPod, or the youth group. They need and want to be challenged. We see this every year at our Summit student leadership conferences. At Summit, students endure over 70 hours of lecture and instruction on worldviews, apologetics, culture, and character, and they love it. They thrive when they realize that their faith need not be silly or superficial.

Second, students need a thorough education in worldviews and apologetics. There are three components of this type of education. First, students need to know what they believe. Too many see Christianity as merely a private faith rather than as a robust view of reality that offers a tried and true map for life. Christianity is not a narcissistic self-help system, but truth about all of reality. Second, students need to know what others believe. Non-biblical worldviews are battling for their hearts and minds, as well as for our culture. An isolated faith is an immature faith and often a scared faith. Third, Christians must know why they believe what they believe. Too many Christians cannot answer, and are even afraid of, challenging questions about God, Jesus, the Bible, morality, or truth. When they learn that their faith can be defended, they get excited about defending it.

Third, students need to know that Christianity is not just about what we are against, but what we are for. Proverbs says that without vision, the people “cast off restraint.” One of the main reasons that students are casualties of immorality is that they lack vision. While they may know what they are not supposed to do, they fail to understand what meaning, purpose, and impact following Christ offers. Christian students often get the impression that we are merely saved from, and not to. They miss the "re" part of the salvation words that sprinkle the Scriptures: renew, regenerate, reconcile, redeem, etc. They miss that Christ not only came to save us from death, he came to save us to life–and abundant life at that!

Finally, we need to confront students with, rather than isolate them from, the major cultural battles of our day. Historically, Christians have sought to understand and respond to cultural crises. They understood that these crises were the battlefields for competing worldviews.

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Unfortunately, many Christians today are oblivious, apathetic or avoidant of issues like embryo-destructive research, euthanasia, emerging technologies, the arts, film, fashion, legislation, human trafficking, politics, and international relations. In the Garden on the evening before His death, Christ prayed these astounding words for his followers: “Father, do not take them from the world, but protect them from the evil one” (John 17:15). Our prayer and preparation for our students should be no different.

The Church’s approach to students must never embrace adolescence as normal. “Meeting them where they are” is no excuse for leaving them where they are. Students are designed with the capacity, and thus the calling, to think deeply and broadly about their faith and their culture, as well as to champion the Gospel by confronting evil, injustice, and lies. By appealing to God’s design for humanity, rather than this cultural fabrication of adolescence, we may find our ministries more relevant to students than the culture itself.

This article originally appeared in BreakPoint WorldView Magazine, June 2009.

John Stonestreet is executive director of Summit Ministries, a ministry dedicated to training students in worldview analysis and apologetics so that they will defend and champion the Christian worldview. He is co-author of Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview. John holds an M.A. in Christian thought from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and is on the bblical studies faculty at Bryan College (Tenn.). He, his wife Sarah, and three daughters live in Colorado Springs, Colo.


One of Those Days

Today has been one of those days. 

After two consecutive weeks of very poor playing in the Higher Things Fantasy Football League, I benched my QB, Carson Palmer.  Of course, today, he scores like he used to.  And no one expected Ronnie Brown to come out like he did today.  Least of all me.  He was on my bench.  Scored an amazing FORTY-FOUR points for my bench.  Argh.

And then they say in youth ministry that numbers don’t matter and sometimes things just don’t work. It’s true, and it happens.  I had this brilliant idea that on the 3rd Sunday of each month, we’d go to a 3-o’clock showing of a movie in the theaters that has something interesting to say about faith and life, etc. and then we’d come back to my house (I know, me…entertain!) where we’d have supper (I KNOW! Me…cook!) and talk about it over dinner. 

The Metrolux has slim pickings as far as PG-13 movies go right now, so I announced that we’d go to the 3:45 showing of The Women.  I cleaned (which needed doing anyway) and made – from scratch, without use of any recipes – my family’s secret recipes of Sloppy Joes and potato salad.  Big batches even, for all the starving hordes of teenagers who would show up.  I knew the movie choice was a risk, but we’re at the mercy of the theater management on that.  Next month should have better options.

No one showed.  Not one person.  One high school in town had homecoming this weekend, so some kids are tired.  Others have to work.  The guys weren’t interested in a chick-flick – I knew I was pushing my luck there.  Such is life.

I’m not letting it get me down. This is the way things go.  I’ve learned a few lessons.

  1. Pick a better movie, preferably something controversial or popular.  (Pray that better movies are out and have the proper ratings!)
  2. Promoting the event isn’t enough, promote the movie selection as well.
  3. Get a babysitter for Isaac.
  4. Don’t cook quite so much food, and prepare something more easily freezable.

So the sloppy joes are cooling in the crockpot.  I’ll just bag up the meat and freeze it until next month.  I think my two ladies’ Bible studies this week will be enjoying potato salad, and the youth group will have the opportunity to eat it with our pizza on Wednesday night.  (Much to their surprise and delight, I’m sure!) 

It could be worse.  My house is clean (at least the common areas), I have plenty of homemade food to last for days, and now I get to take a nap. 🙂

And I get paid for this!

YOUTH: hey can u summarize the story of the prodigal son for me real quick? its for a
friend. lol

MADRE: hey dad, drop dead. i want my inheritance now./ouch. ok, here you go,
don’t spend it all in one place/(son burns thru it and ends up living off pig

MADRE: (son thinks this stinks, at least i had food at dad’s, maybe if i go back
he won’t kick my butt and i can work for him if he doesn’t want me to be his son

MADRE: son sucks it up and goes home. dad has been waiting and watching for him
to come back and is happy to see him, welcomes him with open arms and has a big
bbq party.

MADRE: the end.

(Yes, that’s even what my phone looks like.  Isn’t it