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Legal adulthood may start at age 18, but adulthood today looks quite a bit different from adulthood 30 years ago.
It’s not uncommon today to find a 20-something person living at home with her parents, taking courses online, or doing an internship in the hopes of discovering the career she was made for. Marriage is often delayed until the person finds a career and some sort of independence and stability. Having children is put off even later, as newly-married couples spend time getting to know each other before starting a family.
These cultural shifts and trends have led some social analysts to declare that adolescence has been prolonged until as long as age 29. Other researchers claim that this prolonged adolescence has created a new life stage called “emerging adulthood.” This period of time spans between the ages of 18-29, with importance placed on “self-focused exploration.” Emerging adults are discerning career interests and exploring what things are important for long-term romantic relationships. Though emerging adulthood attempts to create a new category in between adolescence and adulthood, many of the characteristics of adolescence linger through this new stage.
The idea of extended adolescence or emerging adulthood has wedged yet another barrier of resentment between the Boomer generation and Millennials. Some Millennials have seen this concept as a judgment made against them by Boomers who find them to be lazy and immature. I want to acknowledge that there is controversy and hurt around the idea of prolonged adolescence, but I also want to acknowledge certain things that are pretty apparent about cultural and social trends relating to prolonged adolescence because these things have had an impact on the church.
In many congregations, the average age of worshipers is over the age of 50. People often talk about the “missing generation” of 20-40 somethings who seem to have vanished from our churches. I am a 20-40 something pastor, but many of my peers who are emerging adults or extended adolescents are not participating in the life of the church.
But, age isn’t everything. The generation we were raised in isn’t the ultimate definition of who we are. We are not immune to cultural shifts and trends, and they have led to changes in the church.
Even though the average age of our members might suggest otherwise, sometimes I wonder if our churches and denominations are in a stage of extended adolescence. We are increasingly focusing on ourselves as we try to develop a sense of identity and autonomy. We act impulsively without considering the costs for our future as a body or to our relationships. And we are testing boundaries.
Just as no two teens go through adolescence in the same way, no two adolescent churches will have all of the same characteristics. Some characteristics of an adolescent church might be:
1. Overemphasis on self. This comes out in a variety of ways in the adolescent church. One such way is through the over-emphasis on mission statements and vision-casting. Having a mission and vision is important, but an overemphasis on mission statements, mottos, slogans, and defining of core values can lead to a detrimental self-focus. Emil Brunner once said, “The Church exists by mission, just as a fire exists by burning. Where there is no mission, there is no Church.” Mission for Brunner was not a catchy phrase or a slogan that is ingrained in the minds of everyone in the church. Mission for Brunner was the spreading of the Gospel, the living of the good news in the world.
The overemphasis on self, the fierce insistence that we figure ourselves out before we go into the world, is actually leading to the destruction of our sense of self. We cannot exist unless we’re living the good news. The adolescent church is so fixated on itself that it ceases to live, breathe, and move with the Spirit. We’ve become a bit like Narcissus. We see our reflection and are so captivated by it that we will stare at ourselves until we waste away.
2. Boundary testing. In several spheres of life, adolescent churches seem to be asking “how far is too far?” How far can a church go and still be included under the wide umbrella of God’s love? How closely can I resemble the world and still be accepted? How lax and inactive can I be in the life of the church before I’m no longer considered a part of it?
Church leadership has responded to these questions in several different ways. One response has been to create a lengthy morality list so that there is no confusion about what behavior is acceptable. These lists are fiercely defended, and the lives of church members are held under careful scrutiny to make sure that no one steps outside a boundary line. Another response has been a hands-off approach. “If it doesn’t happen at church, I don’t want to know about it.”
3. Fixation on sexuality. One important shift to navigate in adolescence is an awareness of one’s sexuality. This is a giant hormonal, physical, and mental shift for teens to navigate. It’s no wonder many adolescents tend to fixate on sexuality. In the church, we seem so fixated on sexuality that we can’t see, think, or talk about much of anything else. Whether we’re shouting at each other about gender roles, or loudly proclaiming what the Bible “clearly says” about sexuality, we can’t stop thinking about sex.
The problem with fixations is that they blind us to everything else. Our neighbors are starving in the streets. Our children are growing up in a world where they may not feel safe at school. We live in a time where 25% of women will be victims of sexual abuse and violence before the age of 30. Jesus didn’t come into the world so that the church could have shouting matches about sex. Fixations are addictions, and we need to break the cycle.
4. Cliques and popularity. The adolescent church forces itself into rigid and exaggerated roles for the sake of popularity and fitting in. We see hyper-masculine churches that flex their biceps for the world to see. We’ve got the hunter’s church, the artist’s church, the political church. And these cliques are asserting themselves as the true church, the one right way to go, and they do it either in the name of relevance or with the goal of being so against the culture that they appeal to those who don’t fit in anywhere else.
The problem is that the church is a body, and we need each other. Cliques fixate on one or two characteristics and elevate them over every other personality type or group. A body sees the importance of all its members.
The adolescent church seems to be stuck in emerging adulthood, and something needs to happen to launch us into the world. The adolescent church seems to have forgotten that Christ died to save the world rather than to condemn it, judge it, and declare it unpopular. Jesus came to reconcile, to build, to plant, to give life. That’s our mission. That’s our identity. Let’s stop staring at ourselves in the mirror and go out and do something that matters!