The Faith Task of Responding in the Age of Delayed Adolescence

Originally published March 15, 2009.

Most of us work with teens meaning that once they graduate high school they leave the youth ministry and supposedly join the adult world.  Or at least the adult world of college and singles.  However there has been a growing trend of what is termed delayed adolescence.  The coined word for this new life stage is Youthood.   Chap Clark, for Fuller Youth Institute, did a great job of surmising this new life stage, “By the 1960s the end of adolescence was still generally accepted to be around age 18 to 19, for young people left high school and pretty much decided who they were and what they were going to do with their lives. While the social revolution of the late ’60s and early ’70s was fueled by the dreams of a newly emerging young adult force willing to take responsibility to right the wrongs of former generations, it further lengthened adolescence. For those who could afford it, college moved from being the preparation phase for young adults to halfway houses for old high schoolers. ‘What are you going to study?’ was a question that actually made sense in the early 1970s—but it’s met by blank stares today! In contemporary society, graduate school is often a place to ‘find oneself,’ and numerous studies attempt to understand the historically unheard of phenomenon of 30-somethings who have Ph.D.s living at home or waiting tables who have yet to ‘discover what they want to do.’” (Chap Clark, “Youth Ministry in the Age of Delayed Adulthood” )

At first glance this new life stage appears to be one of continued wandering or delayed adolescence in all of the negative sense.  Yet this new life stage is spurring a new sense of activism and a new sense of world responsibility.  There are several good reasons for this.  This age has a good amount of discretionary spending money.  Yes, even in this economy.  Of course, many are still living at home in their delayed adolescence.   This generation’s internet savviness gives them new tools to reach the entire world.  Their youthful spirits with the status of not being minors is a big plus.  Someone who is over 18 can do a heck of a lot more in this world.  Here is another good reason that is contributing to this new sense of responsibility.  This generation grew up “safe.”  Whether it was in safe suburbs or with safety monitors around them or with parents driving them everywhere or parents rescuing them from uncomfortable situations, etc.  Then there is the consumerism and materialism of their adolescence.  In reaction to this safe-bubble, young people are feeling a need to be exposed to pain.  That need is driving them to new ideas and new methods to change their world.  The last reason is simply that our Christian young adults are in the Faith Shaping task of responding or searching for that life calling of serving Jesus in every area of their lives, not just Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights.  Could this be why more and more college students are choosing to spend their spring breaks doing service projects?  It has always been twentysomethings that have caused revolutions of all sorts in our culture (see any documentary on the year 1968 for an example).  These reasons (maybe more) have given twentysomethings their own powerful and far-reaching venue to lead change.  They feel responsible to be involved in and to literally change their world.

We all experienced this visually with the Inauguration of our 44th President.  The message of “Change” truly resonated in this generation in Youthhood.  President Obama spoke the message and in the language of this generation.  Have you read about his breakthrough use of texting and other means of technology to get the message out?  Many have latched on with all of their hopes.

Many older culture watchers are calling the Obama Inauguration as this generation’s Woodstock.  Many traveled across the United States, with some great road stories, to gather for this occasion.  Many slept on friend’s floors or rented beds they found on Craigslist (use of technology again) to claim that they were there.  They all froze together on the National Mall waiting together to make lifelong memories.  This was a generational touchstone event.


Young adults who want to change their world is a good world to live in.  However from taking a look at the top ten advocacy groups on Facebook, you can learn what world changes matter to this age group:

1. Reduce the Drinking Age to 18! – 82,009 groups

2. Legalize Same-Sex Marriage – 81,516 groups

3. Americans for Alternative Energy – 72,333 groups

4. Support a Woman’s Right to Choose – 69,911 groups

5. Support Stem Cell Research – 58,305 groups

6. Abolish Abstinence Only Sex Education – 52,847 groups

7. Government + Religion = Disaster – 49,102 groups

8. AIDS / HIV research – 26,819 groups

9. Equal Rights for Gays – 24,912 groups

10. Pro-Life – 22,699 groups


Not so many of those are moral issues the Church stands on.  This creates a dilemma for today’s young Christians who desire to grow into a faith that will respond with one’s life (the Faith Shaping Task of Responding) with a peer culture that also wants to change the world but the changes are far from Biblical righteousness.

The Barna Group has figured that less than one-half percent of adults ages 18 to 23 have a biblical worldview.  Less than one-half percent!  In another Barna Group report, George Barna concluded, “We are witnessing the development and acceptance of a new moral code in America.   Mosaics have had little exposure to traditional moral teaching and limited accountability for such behavior. The moral code began to disintegrate when the generation before them–the Baby Busters –pushed the limits that had been challenged by their parents–the Baby Boomers. The result is that without much fanfare or visible leadership, the U.S. has created a moral system based on convenience, feelings, and selfishness.

“The consistent deterioration of the Bible as the source of moral truth has led to a nation where people have become independent judges of right and wrong, basing their choices on feelings and circumstances. It is not likely that America will return to a more traditional moral code until the nation experiences significant pain from its moral choices.”  (George Barna, “Young Adults and Liberals Struggle with Morality,” The Barna Group, August 25, 2008)

You know this because everything gay is now common place in the youth culture.  Teens are not seeing this issue as black-and-white because in their world it is not.  The Bible is not a source of moral truth on it to them.  The moral truth on it is what they experience.  And I have yet to see a youth ministry expert produce curriculum on this tender subject probably due to fear of culture backlash.  I know I personally don’t want to touch it in such a limited format as written curriculum.

But alas.  All is not so dire for our youth and young adults who want to respond with their faith.  There are many, and I seriously mean many, who are responding to their faith and responding to the Bible with a new zeal and new passion.  You can watch some of these testimonies in the documentary, The Ordinary Radicals. You can read about them in the book, The New Friars: The Emerging Movement Serving the World’s Poor.   Or read the blog, The Rebelution by the Harris twins.  There is something truly bubbling here.

One significant thing about these new radicals and new friars and new young leaders is they don’t act mainstream.  Their zeal has led them to a zealous Biblical interpretation which is motivating them to change their world.  The Bible is becoming a moral truth to them.  They don’t want to be mainstream and they do challenge mainstream thinking of everything.  This includes mainstream church thinking which can make us older folks uncomfortable.  (What is also interesting is that mainstream media is becoming a bit enamored with these young people, particularly Shane Claiborne and the folks at The Simple Way and Brett and Alex Harris.)

It has yet to be seen if this generation of zealots will become “comfortable and materialistic” once they get married and take on other real life responsibilities.  It has happened to previous generations.  But maybe due to the lengthy time of delayed adolescence, they will take these life practices, based solely on the Bible as moral truth, into the rest of their lives.  Now that could change the world which is their simple goal.

I am hopeful for true change in our churches and in our culture even if it makes me, as part of that older generation, uncomfortable.  This generation is not responding to my “conclusions” but are responding and leading change from what they are discovering in God’s word.