They’re Not Grown up Yet: Leaving Adult Decisions for Adulthood

September 17th, 2009

It’s a question we’ve all heard before and pondered in many of our quiet times. “Why does it seem that the church has no power to keep youth, or most people for that matter, in relationship with God?” How many of us have seen kids who have a genuine relationship with God, who are on fire with excitement and enthusiasm, seem to slip away and go back to old behavior patterns?

Some answers I’ve heard are: we need to uphold kids more in prayer; we work so hard to get youth to feel that high, that we never really teach them how to stay there; we haven’t taught them how to make God the center of their lives.

Because God’s in our lives already, the teens don’t know where to begin. Discipleship is missing; we spend too much time on issues and not enough on teaching life lessons, providing enough mentoring, and following up.

Young people are making many decisions now that they don’t intend to take into adulthood. I know teenagers who spend countless hours perfecting their skateboarding tricks, but they don’t intend to make a living out of skateboarding. At my local high school there’s a student who dyed his hair Bozo-the-Clown red. There are other kids with blue hair. Along with hair color, there are the piercings and tattoos. For most, getting tattoos are permanent decisions that were made in a nonpermanent state. I know many students who are already regretting their piece of skin art. At least the piercings close up.

Most of these youth don’t expect to take all of that look into adulthood. Think back to your own adolescence. How did you look in high school? Nothing like you do now, right? I’m sure many of you have used your looks from high school as a humorous example in your messages.

This is why the laws of the land protect minors. There’s an understanding that minors are growing up and any bad decisions made in that process shouldn’t have to follow them into adulthood.

So why do we expect our teens to take a decision about their faith into adulthood when so many other decisions aren’t expected to follow them into adulthood?

James Fowler suggests that we all go through stages of faith development. At the age of adolescence, the stage is called Synthetic-Conventional, which basically means that faith synthesizes values and information and provides a basis for identity and outlook. It’s fake-easy. It’s not completely that person’s faith because it’s mirrored from the faith of others. Adolescence is full of mirroring, whether it’s from other adults, other youth, or magazines and other media images. It’s also true with their faith.

In adolescence, something new happens in the learning process—contradictions and ambiguities. Not everything is the childlike black and white. This is part of our development from childhood to rational thinking adults (insert joke here). This causes great confusion in youth because they realize that parents cheat on their taxes and drive too fast (and often far worse). Even God seems to have contradictions and ambiguities. How can a good God allow evil to happen? Why didn’t God heal that really sick person? We also have those questions, but we’ve learned coping skills to deal with them. Teens see us face unbearable ambiguous situations and yet we cope. So their faith is mirrored to ours who’ve made it.

Another great work worth studying in Faith Development is Stephen D. Jones’ Faith Shaping. One of the tasks after Experiencing, Categorizing, Choosing, Claiming, and Deepening is Task #6, Separating. This is the painful stage for us. Faith is set aside for a time to let one’s faith settle into actual ownership. This is the story of the Prodigal Son. It’s often the most recognized point in a person’s life of spiritual awareness. Do you remember the separation stage in your life? At whatever age you were? Most will, because it’s often memorable. During that stage, God was never more visible to you.

As Jones writes, “Rather than being surprised by this separating, rather than labeling it apathy or calling into question the earlier religious activity, one needs to recognize it as a legitimate faith task.” This is a legitimate faith task. To grow into the Individuative- Reflective stage or further (Fowler) or Task #7 Responding (Jones), separation happens. How the separation happens and to what extreme it goes is up to the foundation laid.

The good news is that separation doesn’t always mean sin, rebellion, or pain. It can be something as subtle as doubting some of the creeds of faith. That doubt can cause a search for an answer that takes that person’s faith off of the mirror and into personal knowledge. I love this quote from Rick Lawrence, editor of Group magazine, “Doubt is a developmental necessity for an owned faith” (Group, Jan/Feb 2005).

To further complicate things, we have this new stage of life, which has been coined “youthhood.” This is the gap between adolescence and adulthood where young adults are delaying growing up. According to David Morrison, president of Twentysomething Inc., “This is a generation that has grown up in an accelerated culture and forced them to be older before they’re ready. Now that they have their independence, they are going to squeeze every ounce of that sponge before they settle down.” (USA Today, Sept. 30, 2004) I was recently at a national professional paintball tournament and saw many, many grown men with blue and green and whatever hair. Of course, it was probably washable so they could go back to work on Monday.

These days once teens hit age 18, the laws that protect minors no longer protect them. But they’re still quite far from thinking they’re adults and making adult decisions. From a survey taken of adults ages 18 to 29, 22% said they didn’t consider themselves an adult until they had their first child. This is the answer which received the largest response (Time, January 24, 2005). Paris Hilton said, “I know that when I have kids and a family, that’s when my real life starts and that’s what real happiness is” (ElleGirl, May 2005). There are a lot of adult decisions that are made prior to having a child, but these aren’t considered adult decisions. How little, then, do they value a decision about faith from their childhood or adolescence?

Youth pastors tend to focus on themselves and/or their youth ministries. “Only if I did this more…” or “If I did this that way…” Such are the questions we torture ourselves with. Like our families and our health aren’t sacrificed enough in the name of youth ministry. But how many of us take into consideration that possibly this is a way that young faith grows into a healthy faith?

Our job as youth workers is to plant and water and to do that well (2 Corinthians 3:6-7). We’re to provide a foundation for faith to grow on. We’re to provide a mirror for their faith. We’re to give them spiritual markers where they can look back when reevaluating their faith and can say at these points, “I know God has been real in my life.” Obviously that’s a lot for us to do, and parents play a much larger role in this. But we absolutely have our part, too—may we do that part well.


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