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The Adulthood Myth: How Social Conformity Impedes Christian Adulthood

Peter David Gross

How should the Church approach "growing up?"

Executive Director of Wheatstone Ministries / Editor of The Examined Life and Wheatstone Writes
March 26, 2015

Too frequently, Christian childhood or youth fails to connect with Christian adulthood. New adults, raised in church, form their adult identities outside of church or without reference to church. But it shouldn’t be like that. Christian adulthood is the best, the truest, and the most beautiful way to be human. No other adulthood can compare. Yet Christian youth seem not to see it. They move on, calling Christianity naive, small-minded, or childish as they go.

A Flawed Myth for Adulthood

We can be sad, but we should not be surprised. Quietly, we have come to believe an extrabiblical, recent, and unnecessary adulthood myth, and we act as if it is true. You turn 18 or 21, it says, you leave the house, you pay for yourself, you acquire stuff, you experience romance, and boom: you are an adult! But there is nothing magical about 18, leaving home is not necessary for formation, adulthood can coexist with material need, chaste celibacy can be an incredible sign of maturity, and so on. The myth is flawed. Material in nature and inappropriately exclusive, it has almost no reference to the “growing up in Christ” to which Christians are called.

Yet almost all our youth ministries, Christian education systems, and youth parenting strategies assume the flawed myth. On one hand, we wait until 18 to call youth to adulthood, choosing in the meantime to help them “enjoy youth while they can” before they “enter the real world.” On the other, imprudently, we expect and encourage youth to leave their community when they turn 18 in pursuit of college or marriage or career.

Either of these behaviors, by themselves, could work out fine. Neither is bad. But the two together effectively ensure that we unreflectively delegate the guidance of our youth during adulthood transitions to unknown others. Youth receive the call to adulthood from someone new, from outside the community that nurtured them—if they receive it at all. More likely than not, they learn what adulthood is and how to gain it only implicitly, from the movies and stories and friends they encounter.

Rejecting the Flawed Myth

Why are we surprised, then, when the transition to adulthood for so many youth is also a departure from the tastes, habits, and beliefs of the communities of their childhood? How do we repair the disconnect and combat the myth, clearly offering youth the incomparable glory of Christian maturity?

We need not behave as we do. Though we probably can’t change the legal framework and hiring policies that, for now, make a departure from home around age 18 nearly necessary, we can reject the assumption that childhood extends until that departure. We can reject the assumption that adulthood is primarily marked by the acquisition of things, by economic stability, and by romance. We can reject our own pessimism about the beauty of Christian adulthood, and about teenagers’ ability to attain it.

Building a True Myth: Inviting youth into Christian adulthood

But it won’t be enough to reject the current adulthood myth. We need to surpass it, building a clear and current mythos for entering Christian adulthood. Through our patterns of youth ministry, Christian education, and parenting, we need to turn from merely preserving Christian behaviors or permitting youthful play toward the riskier, more beautiful work of inviting youth into Christian adulthood. We need to show them what it is in all its glory, and give them a path to pursue it in the context of their home communities. In short, we need to turn from enforcing the mere duties of childhood, and make disciples.

At a personal scale, this looks like patient mentoring, training, and empowerment of youth. (See psychologist Kaye Cook’s “Growing Up Now” for some of that effort’s current challenges and characteristics.) On a national scale, it means a new network of resources, new training for church and school staff, new focuses for preaching, and new events to help youth place their adult identities in Christ (like Wheatstone’s innovative summer conferences at Biola and HBU).

If we want to turn our youth ministry, Christian education, and parenting toward Christian adulthood, we have work to do.

But the work is worth it. We want a new generation that is full of Christ’s virtue in intellect and heart, but that virtue doesn’t come from a switch that flicks on when our bodies reach a developmental stage.Virtues take practice. Courage, justice, chastity, wisdom, hope, faith, and love need nurturing.

Will we take risks to facilitate those virtues’ development in our youth while they are with us, unfolding the freedom and responsibility that such facilitation implies, or will we persist in leaving them to begin that free development only after they go?