Hurt: The Impact of Lengthening Adolescence

This post is part of a series I’m writing as I read the book, Hurt: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers by Chap Clark. You can view the entire series here.

youth group studentsWhat Chap writes about the lengthening of adolescence has really struck a chord with me.

So what exactly is adolescence? According to Chap, it is a drive for uniqueness or separateness, a quest for personal autonomy or self-assertion, and a desire for community, belonging, and interdependence.

“Adolescence, then, is a psychosocial, independent search for a unique identity or separateness, with the end goals being a certain knowledge of who one is in relation to others, a willingness to take responsibility for who one is becoming, and a realized commitment to live with others in community” (p. 28).

As I discussed in my last post about the book, this process of adolescence in our society is lengthening. What used to be a 2-4 year journey that concluded with entrance into adulthood around age 16 (as was the case around 1900) has turned into a process that begins with children as young as ten and does not finish until college or even the “young adult” years.

In other words, our students are “kids” longer and becoming adults later.

This development has huge implications for youth pastors. Youth ministry used to serve as part of the bridge from childhood to adulthood. We used to take in adolescents and graduate them basically as full-fledged adults.

Now, the youth ministry years (for round numbers sake, lets call them ages 12-18) are only a “piece of the pie” of adolescence. Young people are starting this pivotal adolescent journey before they enter youth group, and they aren’t finishing it until sometime many years later.

Youth ministries aren’t really producing Christian adults anymore because the “norm” is for adolescence to last much longer than it used to.

This brings up dozens of questions:

  • How do youth pastors respond to this cultural and societal shift?
  • Do today’s youth  ministry resources effectively prepare us for these new challenges?
  • Do our youth ministries meet the needs of this lengthening adolescence?
  • Do we understand what it even means to minister to students in “mid-adolescence”?
  • Should the Church’s view of “young people” now expand beyond just children and teens/youth? Does this make college ministry a “must have” for effective churches? Should youth pastors begin to view college ministry as part of their responsibility to young people, or is that for another “department”?

Consider a time years ago when adolescence was shorter, children’s ministry did not go beyond Sunday school and teens’ entrance into adulthood was celebrated by all even without a special “youth service.” Then there came children’s ministry, which is now a staple in most churches. Then there was youth ministry, which is becoming more and more of a necessity for churches. Now there is a growing number of college ministries in churches.

Are these budding church programs meeting the needs of an expanding adolescence? Or are these programs actually contributing to the lengthening of adolescence? If they are, is that a bad thing?

Hopefully there are answers waiting for me in the next couple of chapters.

In his book, Chap does share three specific reasons why the study of “mid-adolescence” is so important, and I believe these begin to answer some of my above questions. I’ll write about those tomorrow.

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7 Responses to “Hurt: The Impact of Lengthening Adolescence”

  • Joyce Alla says:

    Really interesting concept. This makes perfect sense. I estimate that adolescents lasts until after college these days!

  • Lex says:

    I’m going to have to read this book, I think.

    The concept is discussed a bit in Do Hard Things, too, and has been one I’ve been thinking about. My big question, and maybe you answered it already, is SHOULD we adapt youth ministry to fit the changing definition of adolescence in our society?

    On the one hand, we need to be able to speak to people’s lives, and denying their reality isn’t helpful.

    On the other hand, is this “extended adolescence” biblical? Is it healthy? If not, should we be trying to figure out how to teach people to grow up, instead of trying to figure out how to extend our youth ministries?

  • Yes Lex that is the question!!! And it’s a tough one.

    On one hand, this is a macro cultural trend. It’s huge. Do we stand a chance of turning the tide for the students in our group?

    I say yes.

    So should we? Absolutely. I don’t know if it’s “sinful” for adolescence to last so long, but it sure doesn’t seem wise. We’re babying them for way to long.

    The next question is “how?”…

  • Stephanie Welch says:

    Interesting discussion here, Nate. One thought that crossed my mind is this – perhaps what is referred to as “the lengthening of adolescence” is occurring partly as a result of the shortening of childhood, as little ones are now pushed to grow up too soon. As we consider how to handle the problems of the teen years, I think it’s critical to look back at where it all began – in how we are raising our little children. If children are not taught responsibility in their earliest years, protected by a loving family, invested in by their parents, and given a firm unchangeable moral foundation (mostly lacking in much of the church today), then we can hardly expect them to go into their teens adequately prepared to move into that stage of life responsibly. It makes sense then for “growing up” to take much longer when most teens have been left to raise themselves.

    This generation has been largely robbed of a solid home with two loving parents giving them real moral values that don’t change. What a paradox – the entire culture teaches kids that “it’s all about you” (which is so wrong, and part of the problem) and yet at the same time robs those kids of the very ideas and values they need to fully grow up into responsible, fulfilled adults who understand how to live. Previous generations were much more responsible far earlier because they were raised being taught basic principles that equipped them from the beginning.

    Sorry for the very lengthy comment – perhaps this was already brought up, and I didn’t get to read this entire post in detail, but I wanted to share that thought. I am obviously very ill-equipped to address this huge issue, but hopefully my thoughts made sense.

  • Nate,
    This is a great discussion. I am liking the site as well. I think students are hanging onto adolescence because they often times don’t see the point in growing up. I think mentoring and bringing in a biblical view of why we are here in the first place could help dispel some of the lies that teens may be hearing regarding their purpose and significance. I don’t have all the answers but I do think there is a great danger in youth ministry perpetuating the Peter Pan way of ministry. Thanks for inviting people to this conversation…

  • Hey Amy, thanks for sharing. Couldn’t agree more. I look forward to connecting with you!