Adolescence as Training Ground, not Holding Pattern

Last night I taught on Adolescence: Training Ground or Holding Pattern? with our high school students. I wanted to take a little time to elaborate some more on this and provide an essay as a resource for parents, pastors, and student ministry leaders.

Context

For most of recorded history, there have been two stages of development: childhood & adulthood. Childhood was marked by dependence on parents or the community, where the basic needs of the child were met by others, growth through education (whether academic or trade), and a life largely marked within the family structure. Adulthood was the point where the person would embark on a life marked by responsibility, provision, the beginning of a family, economic independence from parents, and the pursuit of a vocation or the maintenance of the home. The transition to adulthood often accompanied a ritual or ceremony to mark the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood.

Beginning in the late 19th and early 20th century the pressure against child labor was intense enough that education became compulsory up through the 12th grade. Up until that point education was largely the property of the privileged, and for many a life of hard work began anywhere from 9-13 years old. This extension of education (which is a good thing!) brought with it the creation of a whole new category: adolescence. In the 1950s the creation of an entire subculture brought this demographic to prominence (with heroes like James Dean, whole music genres geared towards it like rock n’ roll, and the development of a new word – teenager, to describe it). Through this, the goal was still the same: become an adult, take on responsibility, and grow up. Ronald Koteskey notes that adolescence is marked as the period between puberty and adulthood.[1]

Unfortunately, what is being observed is the reverse of this original intention. Instead of adolescence being a middle period for development into adulthood, it is quickly becoming the extension of childhood. The Atlantic reported that 65% of young adults age 18-34 still live with their parents, and that 21% of college graduates still live at home.[2][3] Movies likeFailure to Launch demonstrate the Boomerang Effect to its hilarious absurdity, but as in all satire, there is a dose of reality. In a sermon on rejecting adolescence, Mark Driscoll offers a lengthy satire about the state of young adults, calling them “boys who can shave” and pointing out the difference between men and “guys.”[4] The average age of a video game player is 30, and 68% of gamers are over 18 (36% are over 36 years old).[5] Marriage is put off until a bucket list has been completed.[6]

The point is this: there is a crisis of adulthood. A generation is being raised with diminished expectations, and the results are frightening. Instead of growing up, young men and women are encouraged to delay adulthood and extend childhood by continuing to be marked by factors shared by people half their age. Ross Douthat, a columnist for the New York Times, comments that the late age of marriage happening today (average 27 for women, 29 for men) is a lament on a society that will soon see the majority of births happening to non-married or single-parent homes. His concern is that the delay of marriage for financial and career benefits will eventually have long-term concerns.[7]

So how does this relate to the Gospel, student ministry, and the implications for Christian life?

adolescence-3

What Does Scripture Say?

Lamentations 3:27 (ESV) – It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth

1 Corinthians 13:11 (ESV) – When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.

1 Timothy 4:12 (ESV) – Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.

1 John 4:12-14 (ESV) – I am writing to you, little children… I am writing to you, fathers… I am writing to you, young men… I write to you, children… I write to you, fathers… I write to you, young men.

Robert Epstein points out age 20 as an age marker for adulthood – Exodus 30:14, Leviticus 27:3-5, Numbers 26:4, 1 Chronicles 23:24, 2 Chronicles 25:5

Three Principles:

1)  Your age is not a barrier to your spiritual maturity and progress – There is not a magic age where you are able to take your spiritual life seriously and growing deeper. You can do that now as a teenager! Dig deeper into the Word, do Bible studies, work hard on the spiritual disciplines, and set the example to people twice your age. As a student pastor, I have had many students who have set an example for me.

2)  The goal of growing up is to grow up – Novel concept I know, but Paul makes it clear that there is a point where adulthood happens and childhood is left behind. The Rebelution is a ministry started by two teenagers to rebel against the low expectations in our day, and to embrace what it means to grow up.[8]

3)  Responsibility is a good thing – So many teenagers avoid responsibility, employment, taking on duties at home, and learning wisdom like it’s Black Death. Scripture sees adulthood and all the responsibility that comes with it as a good thing!

 

Holding Pattern vs. Training Ground

A holding pattern accomplishes nothing, you’ve probably been on one before if you fly often. You do laps around the airport waiting for clearance. Time is wasted, gas is burned, and no amount of peanuts can take away the boredom. Holding patterns do not have an immediate goal nor do they have a plan of action, just inertia.

Training ground is different. It means practicing 20 hours for a 48 minute football game, running the same plays in different scenarios to be ready for Friday. It means spending hours in a flight simulator before radioing the tower for takeoff. It means having a learner’s permit for 6 months and parallel parking in the street before driving alone for the first time. It’s taking target practice before hunting.

The table below shows contrasts between a holding pattern in adolescence and a training ground along 7 areas. The 7 are responsibility, relationships, home, money, faith, service, and career/goals.

 

Categories

Holding Pattern

Training Ground

Responsibility

Avoids responsibility to focus on XBox

Gradual increase in responsibility

Relationships

Serial dating, no commitment, player

Looks for what a godly spouse is

Home

“Mom, I need a snack”

Cooks, Cleans, Laundry, etc.

Money

Impulse purchases, always broke

Earns, Saves, Gives, Wisely spends

Faith

“I’ll be more serious about my faith later”

Passionately pursues Christ

Service

Selfishness

Small missions now, Big missions later

Career/Goals

Still wants to be an astronaut

Identifies gifts, calling, burden, passion

Responsibility – I’m not encouraging 14 year olds to drop out of school, get married, and start working a career. But their life should be marked by an increase in responsibility. It is a life that satisfies what Jesus said in Luke 16:10 where he said “one who is faithful with little will be faithful with much.” Instead of embracing a life where the major responsibility is organizing a Call of Duty game or commissioner of the fantasy football league, a life marked by responsibility is one where a young man/woman becomes trusted with more and more, until they are able to be released on their own.

Relationships – A great book I’d recommend to parents, pastors, and student ministry leaders is Sex, Dating, and Relationships that lays out the biblical categories of Neighbor, Family, and Marriage as boundaries for understanding relationships. The young man/woman who sees their adolescent years as a training ground begins by asking the big question “what do I want in a spouse?” They do not waste time chasing dates, by serial dating, or by being a player. They embrace purity, they pursue godly character, and they pray for a spouse as a gift from God. A holding pattern mindset fits in the hook-up culture, sees relationships as accessories to be changed often, and does not pursue purity.

Home – My preschooler is too short to reach in the cabinets, but he is able to open the fridge and get a fruit snack or his milk cup if he wants. Sadly, that’s more effort than a lot of young men/women exert at home. He also has chores and helps my wife with laundry, cleaning, cooking, and has to pick up his toys every day. Embracing a training ground mentality seeks to learn and master things around the house. Guys, my advice to you is simple: learn to cook a variety of foods, to do your laundry, to iron, and to clean. It will make your wife later (and your mother now) very happy. It’s cute when a 2 year old looks and says “I need a snack” but when it’s a 17 year old, it’s annoying.

Money – In 2001 the average teenager spent $104 per week, and their consumer spending as a whole was $172 billion.[9] Marketing focuses on teenagers to get their money, whether it’s via the App Store or the impulse rack at a store. The holding pattern adolescent never knows what to do with money because they’ve spent it all. They have no concept of saving money, much less giving or investing it. The training ground recognizes that as a Christian, they have a duty to be good stewards. That means spending wisely, saving money, and giving generously. The habits of giving money as a 15 year old babysitter will continue as a 35 year old account executive.

Faith – These years are an incredible opportunity to display faith in Christ, not delay it until growing up. For many students, they choose the holding pattern approach and see their adolescent years as an opportunity to engage in sin, to focus on fun/games, and to see their youth ministry years as a pizza-eating, laser-tag-playing, Minute To Win It Games without any real substance, challenge, or opportunity. Instead Paul calls for Timothy to set an example in faith, purity, love, and speech/conduct. I challenge our students all the time to be the example-setter for people twice their age, and to take advantage of the opportunities they have now to exercise their faith through worship services, missions, small groups, leadership development, intentional relationship-building, and more.

Service – One of the distinguishing marks of the Millennial generation is selfishness, where TIME magazine reports that young men/women are 52% more likely to buy something simply to pamper themselves,[10] and are more likely to pursue goals centered on money, fame, and image.[11] Instead of embracing this mindset of selfishness, the Gospel calls for us to labor to the ends of the earth for the sake of Christ. Seeing these years as training ground shows that this is an opportunity to do little acts of service/missions now, which will result later in bigger missions. Start small serving in a food closet in your community, prove your faithfulness, and then before you graduate college spend time in another context (foreign country, different region of USA) serving others.

Career/Goals – If someone said they wanted to be an astronaut but they were not good at math or science and did not like to exercise or study, we’d probably encourage them to a different career path. Or like the people who try out for American Idol but cannot carry a tune in a bucket, often times young men/women are pursuing childhood dreams without putting forth the adult effort. Part of seeing adolescence as training ground involves identifying your unique gift set, your sense of “calling” (seeing all honest work as calling, not just “spiritual” careers like missions/ministry), what burdens you, and what your passions are. I remember really wanting to be a doctor as a teenager, until I saw a surgery. I realized I could not handle blood and guts, so being a doctor was a bad idea. Identify what makes you tick, what your abilities are, what you’re capable of, and begin to target a career path that sets you up to succeed as both an adult employee but also as a missionary in your career context.

 

Youth pastors, my challenge to you in closing is simple: Reject adolescence as extended childhood, and embrace high expectations for your students. Do not just be satisfied that they show up, play the games, fill in the blanks, and come to your events. Be satisfied when they are plugging into the life of the church, living on mission, self-feeding the Word in private and public worship, and are committed to living out a Christian worldview.

Parents, here is my challenge to you: Expect your teenager/young adult to grow up. Give them additional responsibility around the house as they prove their faithfulness. Set the bar high for them. If possible, push them towards part-time employment. Have serious talks with them about their legacy, what they want to be known for personally & professionally. Encourage them to take risk, to step out on faith, and to passionately pursue Christ.


[3]TIME went further, placing the figure at 85%, largely connecting it to the recession and the weak job market for college graduates. http://newsfeed.time.com/2011/05/10/survey-85-of-new-college-grads-moving-back-in-with-mom-and-dad/.

[6]Ezra Klein remarks that marriage has gone from cornerstone to capstone. What he means by this is that marriage is delayed until financial security, career advancement, travel, education, etc. is achieved. Marriage in essence becomes the icing on the cake rather than the starting point of adulthood. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/03/25/nine-facts-about-marriage-and-childbirth-in-the-united-states/.

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