Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The Myth of Adolescence

15+ years ago I heard a series of lectures that addressed biblical youth ministries and "the Myth of Adolescence."  This message was quite helpful in shaping my Biblical Philosophy of Ministry in relation to youth and family ministries.  

"Where does most of this come from? Let me begin by highlighting the myth of adolescence. You know the age with which youth ministry deals with is commonly known as 'adolescence,' and our society has been identified as unique in history by calling people between age twelve and age twenty 'adolescents.' Let me give you the history of that, okay?

 In 1904, G. Stanley Hall—this is all on your CD, by the way—G. Stanley Hall published a book called.. .and guys, if you publish a book, please, please don’t do this, okay? Here’s his book, Adolescence: It’s Relations to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion and Education. How do you put that on the spine of… anyway. 1904. This is the first known treatise on adolescence. 1904. The first place to identify that age. In this book, by the way, Hall argues that the stages in a child’s development parallel in mankind’s evolutionary development in history. The thesis of his book and the idea of adolescence is that the period between thirteen and eighteen is a crisis and stormy period of a young person’s life. Hall concluded that these years almost always include extreme inclinations for a person to be very good or very bad.

Has anyone outgrown adolescence? Has anyone in your church outgrown adolescence according to that definition? By the way, it was his book and these expectations that were the basis for segregating school children by age for educational purposes. It was at this point, 1904, that adolescence was—keyword—invented.

 Think about the history of Judaism for a minute though. Since the days in the Pentateuch, the Jews celebrated the passing from childhood to adulthood in the Bar Mitzvah (Son of the Commandments ceremony, hi other words, the Jews have held for centuries, biblically, that at around age twelve, thirteen or so, which is no accident that that’s right around puberty, that a person should be fully accepted in the religious community. By the way, you find Jesus going through a similar ceremony or service in Luke chapter 2, verses 41 to 47. That’s when he began to show His authority.

Well my thesis is the teens to whom we minister are not adolescents. They are adults. They’re young adults, okay, but they are adults nonetheless. Physically, emotionally, volitionally they have the capabilities commensurate to adulthood, yet of all places in the world, who retards their spiritual and emotional growth more than any other institution? The church. The church. I want to show you a passage that should rock your world. First Samuel, chapter 17. First Samuel 17, the story of David and Goliath. In First Samuel 17, look at the context here. You know the story. All of Jesse’s sons are there. Everyone’s chickening out, going over to fight Goliath. He’s coming out and he’s challenged God, he’s challenged the Philistine. This is not “Dave and the Giant Pickle,” this is the real thing. Those of you who don’t know what that is—don’t have kids [Veggi Tales], so… Well, where should we pick it up? Let’s just grab verse 26 for a minute. “David spoke to the men who were standing by him saying, ‘What will be done for this man who kills this Philistine and takes the reproach from Israel? For who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should taunt the armies of the living God?’” This is a young little teenage brat, in everyone else’s mind, is saying, “Who’s going to challenge God?” Well, they start talking about it and saying, “Uhhhhh.”

Let’s pick it up in verse 28, “Now Eliab, his oldest brother heard that he spoke to the men, and Eliab’s anger burned against David and he said, ‘Why have you come down here, and with whom have you left those few sheep in the wilderness? I know your insolence and the wickedness of your heart. You’ve come down in order to see a battle.’” Just like after school when there’s a fight, everyone shows up, that’s what he thought David had done. “But David said, ‘What have I done now? Was it not just a question?’ Then he turned away from him to another and said the same thing, and the people answered him the same.” David’s just going to everyone and kind of grabbing them by the tunic and saying, “Who is this guy? What is he doing? He’s taunting God.” They’re going, “Get away, little boy, run away.”

 Then in verse 31, “When the words which David spoke were heard, they were told to Saul. Saul, who’s scared out of his mind, says, ‘Uh, let me see the junior higher. Let me see this guy.’ So he sends for him. David says to Saul,”—verse 32—’”Let no man’s heart fail on account of him. I, your servant, will go out and fight this Philistine.’”

The next verse to me is one of the most remarkable, insightful, “ah-ha’s” in all of the Bible. Notice the unbelievable, unmistakable, undisguised conflict in verse 33. “Then Saul said to David, ‘You are not able to go out and fight against this Philistine and fight with him because you are only a youth while he’s been a warrior from his youth.” Do you see a problem there? The Philistines had a pretty big idea about what they should do with their young people—put them in the battle. And Saul said, you know, “Well, that’s theirs, but we believe in adolescence. You’re not old enough. You’re not big enough. You’re not wise enough.” So David goes out and he takes that stone and he just—this is one of the great underdog stories of the Bible.

My kids have “Dave and the Giant Pickle,” and after they watched it a few times, I watched it with them and I thought, “That’s enough.” And so we read this whole narrative and my little son Johnny, he’s four years old, and he says, “Dad, he killed him all the way dead, didn’t he?” I said, “Yeah, he did.” He says, “He chopped his head off with a sword, didn’t he?” I said, “Yes, he did.” I have a sword in my office. It’s an unsharpened sword. We came in the next Sunday morning and I was out making copies—Johnny was in my office—and I could hear—it makes a certain sound—a “shing” when it comes off, and he pulled—and he comes out in the office and he’s almost in tears, and John says.. .it never dawned on me that he didn’t think Goliaths were still around today. He says, “Dad,”—he’s almost in tears and he’s dead serious and he says, “If Goliath comes in this office, I will chop his head off.” “I’m on your team, that’s where I am.” So I put him on my shoulder, we ran around the office in my suit, it was great.

The Old Testament is graphic. It’s not “Dave and the Giant Pickle,” it’s David who cut his head off and held it up to the armies and said, “This is the power of God in a young man.”  Well, by creating this mythical state known as adolescence, a teenager is in constant flux between childhood and adulthood, since he’s neither fully accepted as either. Is he a child? Well, no. Is he adult? Well, no. What is he? Adolescent. He’s a teenager. He’s weird. I think it’s a significant part of the problems in our society, contributes greatly to peer pressure, gangs, drugs, alcohol, premarital sex, on and on, but also generates anger at parents and a general anti-establishment attitude because they want to grow up and we don’t let them. The problem is in some context the teen is patronized as a child, but in other he’s expected to act like an adult. And we wonder why they’re so screwed up. We’re doing it to them.

The tragedy is this is most propagated in youth ministry. Trying to keep our feet on both sides of children’s ministry and adult ministry without saying, “This is who we are. This is what we’re going to do.”

You know, a couple of problems with that… problems with believing in adolescence.  First is an adherence to the idea of adolescence. It promotes a low view of teens. Let me give you a list of what God thinks of teenagers, can I? Daniel. It’s pretty easy to figure out. We know in the three Babylonian captivity waves take place, the three waves of the captivity. We know that when he stood before Darius, was condemned, the lions den. We know what date that was. We back that up, look between, there’s Daniel is between thirteen and fifteen years old, in Daniel chapter one, when he stands up to the then-known king of the world and says, “I’m not eating your food, I don’t care what you do to me.” His friends were the same age when they say, “Put us to death before we violate our God.” Now, where did that come from in these junior highers? They were junior highers! Think of the junior highers in your church. Could they say, “We’re going to the fiery furnace before we deny our God?” If the answer is, “No,” then the question is, “Why? Why?” Well the problem lies in two places: parenting and churching. Isaiah and Jeremiah both began prophesying and as a prophetic ministry as teenagers. Joseph, Hezekiah, Ruth, Mary and Joseph—Mary and Joseph are my favorites. They’re going down to register for the census. When did you go register for the census? After your first bar mitzvah. That puts them where? Thirteen or fifteen. Read Mary’s Magnificat in Luke chapter two and see what kind of theology this junior higher had in her brain. Where did she get it? Someone talked to her about it. The synagogue and the home had an influence in her life. If God put such great stock in teens, why don’t we? Why don’t we? Oh, because we believe in adult ministry. We believe the educational system.. .this is the time in their life to be educated. It is. The Puritans called this a "catechism." You know where the idea of Sunday School came from? We’re going to teach you to read by teaching you to read the Bible. So Sunday was a school for learning and you learned by reading the Bible.

Well, this commonly held myth, it promotes a low view of God. Colossians 1:28-29 are my life verses. “And we proclaim Him, admonishing”—listen—”every man and teaching”—what—”every man that we might present”—who—”every man complete in Christ. For this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me.”  Let me ask you this: Do students qualify in the category of “every man?” Or is it like “every man except the students,” we’re going to leave them out. To underestimate students’ spiritual capabilities and capacities with regard to loving and serving Christ is to underestimate God... 

By: Dr. Rick Holland (this article is part of an address Rick gave at a Shepherds' Conference).