Our Adolescent Culture

BreakPoint | John Stonestreet | June 3, 2009

What Diana West is suggesting in The Death of the Grown-Up: How America’s Arrested Development Threatens Western Civilization will undoubtedly sound ridiculous to thousands of youth pastors, family therapists, and advertising gurus whose livelihoods depend on entertaining, counseling, and selling to teenagers.

Nevertheless, West argues that adolescence didn’t always exist. In fact, it is a quite recent phenomenon. The word “teenager” wasn’t really used until 1941, after all. In virtually every other culture in the history of the world prior to late 20th century Western culture, kids became adults. Not so anymore. They now become teenagers, or, to put it in more sociologically acceptable terms, they become adolescents.

What happened to bring about this new stage in human development? The sexual revolution and political upheavals of the ‘60s are, of course, the most obvious suspects. However, West suggests a number of other things, some earlier than the ‘60s: a generation of disconnected fathers trying to deal with what they experienced during WWII, factories which once produced necessities for war began producing non-necessities for consumption, new marketing engines selling these goods to people who didn’t realize they wanted them, Chubby Checker’s Twist, Elvis’ hips, the Beatles’ hair, automobiles—perhaps more than one—in every home, the growth of Hollywood, and the recognition by the marketing engines of the fortune to be made from this brand new segment of the population.

Today, of course, adolescence is considered a fixed stage of development. We expect students will lose their minds from ages 13 to 18. “Kids will be kids,” we say. Only we aren’t referring to kids anymore, we’re talking about 15-year-olds. In other cultures, “teenagers” were marrying, farming, fighting wars, writing books, and in one case, bearing the Messiah.

One of the complications of adolescence is that this fixed stage of development is not very fixed. Its grip has forcefully expanded beyond teenagers, and in both directions. On the front end, we have “pre-teens” or “tweens,” whose financial potential marketers quickly spotted. On the back end, whereas 18 was once considered the end of adolescence, it is now considered the middle. The National Academy of Sciences now defines adolescence as the stage from the onset of puberty (around 11 or 12) to age 30.

But there’s more. The reach of adolescence is even greater than this. Adolescence has become, and this must not be missed, the goal of our culture. Somewhere along the way, we ceased to be a culture where kids aspire to be adults and became a culture where adults aspire to be kids.


Still, there is good news. Cultures like ours have a leadership vacuum. Therefore, there is a terrific opportunity for influence from those who produce the leaders, especially if they produce leaders who can think beyond the current cultural shallowness.

How can we do this? I suggest we go after the students themselves, from those intolerant of adolescence to those who seem most susceptible to it.

First, we need to challenge students, rather than coddle them. We aim too low with teenagers. Students do not need more entertainment, whether from the television, the IPod, or the youth group. They need and want to be challenged. We see this every year at our Summit student leadership conferences. At Summit, students endure over 70 hours of lecture and instruction on worldviews, apologetics, culture, and character, and they love it. They thrive when they realize that their faith need not be silly or superficial.

Second, students need a thorough education in worldviews and apologetics. There are three components of this type of education. First, students need to know what they believe. Too many see Christianity as merely a private faith rather than as a robust view of reality that offers a tried and true map for life. Christianity is not a narcissistic self-help system, but truth about all of reality. Second, students need to know what others believe. Non-biblical worldviews are battling for their hearts and minds, as well as for our culture. An isolated faith is an immature faith and often a scared faith. Third, Christians must know why they believe what they believe. Too many Christians cannot answer, and are even afraid of, challenging questions about God, Jesus, the Bible, morality, or truth. When they learn that their faith can be defended, they get excited about defending it.

Third, students need to know that Christianity is not just about what we are against, but what we are for. Proverbs says that without vision, the people “cast off restraint.” One of the main reasons that students are casualties of immorality is that they lack vision. While they may know what they are not supposed to do, they fail to understand what meaning, purpose, and impact following Christ offers. Christian students often get the impression that we are merely saved from, and not to. They miss the “re” part of the salvation words that sprinkle the Scriptures: renew, regenerate, reconcile, redeem, etc. They miss that Christ not only came to save us from death, he came to save us to life–and abundant life at that!

Finally, we need to confront students with, rather than isolate them from, the major cultural battles of our day. Historically, Christians have sought to understand and respond to cultural crises. They understood that these crises were the battlefields for competing worldviews.

Unfortunately, many Christians today are oblivious, apathetic or avoidant of issues like embryo-destructive research, euthanasia, emerging technologies, the arts, film, fashion, legislation, human trafficking, politics, and international relations. In the Garden on the evening before His death, Christ prayed these astounding words for his followers: “Father, do not take them from the world, but protect them from the evil one” (John 17:15). Our prayer and preparation for our students should be no different.

The Church’s approach to students must never embrace adolescence as normal. “Meeting them where they are” is no excuse for leaving them where they are. Students are designed with the capacity, and thus the calling, to think deeply and broadly about their faith and their culture, as well as to champion the Gospel by confronting evil, injustice, and lies. By appealing to God’s design for humanity, rather than this cultural fabrication of adolescence, we may find our ministries more relevant to students than the culture itself.

This article originally appeared in BreakPoint WorldView Magazine, June 2009.

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