Too frequently, Christian childhood or youth fails to connect with Christian adulthood. New adults, raised in church, form their adult identities outside of 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.
A Flawed Myth for Adulthood
We can be sad about the trends, but we shouldn’t be surprised. Quietly, we have come to believe an extrabiblical, unnecessary adulthood myth, acting as if it’s 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’s nothing magical about 18. Leaving home is not necessary for formation. Chaste celibacy can be an incredible sign of maturity, and so on. Conclusion? 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 in most of our ministries and strategies, we assume the flawed myth. On one hand, we wait until 18 to begin calling youth “adults,” choosing in the meantime to help them “enjoy youth while they can” before they “enter the real world.” On the other, 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 together, youth end up receiving 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 from the movies and stories and friends they encounter.
Rejecting the Flawed Myth
In this transition, we end up seeing youth depart from the habits and beliefs of the communities of their childhood. So how do we repair the disconnect? How do we clearly offer youth the incomparable glory of Christian maturity?
For starters, we can reject the flawed myth. We can reject the assumption that adulthood only starts when you leave home. 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.
And Building a True One: Inviting youth into Christian adulthood
But it won’t be enough to reject the current adulthood myth; We need to surpass it. Through our patterns of youth ministry, we need to turn from merely preserving Christian behaviors toward the riskier, more beautiful work of inviting youth into Christian adulthood. We need to show them what it adulthood 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 rite of passage this summer at Biola University)
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. And we need to start it now. We need to take the risk to help our youth grow up, unfolding the freedom and responsibility of adulthood before them before they go to find it unsupported, on their own.
Peter David Gross is Executive Director of Wheatstone Ministries and creator of the Discussion for Transformation training programs. He’s also lead designer and a keynote speaker for The Academy’s summer conferences on Christian adulthood. A proud alumnus of Biola University and its Torrey Honors Institute, he lives and works in Fullerton, CA.