Youth are making many other decisions now that they do not intend to take into adulthood. I know youth who spend countless hours perfecting their skateboarding tricks. Or Fortnite skills. But they don’t intend to make a living out of skateboarding. Some do fantasize about making a living out of their video game skills though. At my local high school alone there is a black student who dyed his hair Bozo-the-Clown red. There are Asians with blue hair. I don’t have the room to describe how the white youth are looking. Along with hair color, there are the piercings and tattoos. The tattoo is a permanent decision they are making in a nonpermanent state. I know many youth who are already regretting their piece of art. At least the piercings close up. These youth do not expect to take that look into adulthood. Think back to your own adolescence. How did you look in high school? Nothing like you do now, right? (This question does not count for hair loss.)
Recently I was at an affluent white garage band party. It was a safe place to be on a Saturday night for teens (which I found ironic). There were lots of parents there. Of course, there was also the lead singer’s youth pastor there. This is far from the scene that was happening in the 1970s (I may have been there). So when a teen that night shouts out “It’s illegal to be straight” you hope that this declaration is something she won’t take into adulthood. Life and love is more complicated than that statement.
This is why the laws of the land protect minors. There is an understanding that minors are growing up and any bad decisions made in that process does not have to follow them into adulthood.
So why do we adults expect our teens to take a decision about their faith into adulthood when so many other decisions are not expected to be taken into adulthood?
Before you start worrying about me and think I do not believe in the power of a teen’s faith (which would be missing my entire Bravester heart), let me make my case.
Let’s start with a look at Faith Development, chiefly James Fowler’s stages. At the age of adolescence, the stage is called Synthetic-Conventional which basically means that faith synthesizes values and information and provides a basis for identity and outlook. It is fake-easy. It is not completely that person’s faith because it is mirrored from the faith of others around that person. Adolescence is full of mirroring already whether it is from other adults, other teens or social media. It is also true with their faith. Let me explain a step further.
In adolescence something new happens in the learning development–contradictions and ambiguities. Not everything is the childlike black-and-white anymore. This is part of our development from childhood to rational thinking adults (insert joke here). This causes great confusion in youth because they realize that parents cheat on their taxes and drive too fast (if that is the worst that you do). Even God has contradictions and ambiguities. How can God allow evil to happen? Why didn’t God heal that person? We also have those questions but we have learned wisdom as well as coping skills to deal with it. Youth see us face unbearable ambiguous situations and yet we cope. So their faith is mirrored to ours who have “made it.”
Another great work worth studying in Faith Development is Stephen D. Jones’ Faith Shaping (my favorite). One of the tasks, after Experiencing, Categorizing, Choosing, Claiming, Deepening, is Task #6, Separating. This is the painful stage for us. Faith is set aside for a time to let one’s faith settle into actual ownership. This is the story of the Prodigal Son. It is often the most recognized point in a person’s life of spiritual awareness. Do you remember the separation stage in your life? At whatever age you were at? I am sure you do remember it because it is often memorable. During that stage, God was never more visible to you, right?
As Jones says, “Rather than being surprised by this separating, rather than labeling it apathy or calling into question the earlier religious activity, one needs to recognize it as a legitimate faith task.”
This is a legitimate faith task. To grow into the Individuative-Reflective stage or further (Fowler) or Task #7 Responding (Jones), separation happens. How the separation happens and to what extreme it goes to is up to the foundation laid.
The good news is that separation does not always mean sin and rebellion and pain. It can be something as subtle as doubting some of the creeds of faith. That doubt can cause a search for an answer that takes that person’s faith off of the “mirror” and into a personal knowledge.
Too further complicate things, we have young adults delaying growing up. I clipped this quote back in 2004 that summarizes this well. According to David Morrison, president of Twentysomething Inc., “This is a generation that has grown up in an accelerated culture and forced them to be older before they’re ready. Now that they have their independence, they are going to squeeze every ounce of that sponge before they settle down.” (USA Today, September 30, 2004) That was 2004. How much more so today 15 years later?
These days once a teen hits age 18, the laws that protect minors no longer protect them. But they are still quite far from thinking they are an adult and making adult decisions.
You and your people are to provide a foundation for faith to grow on. We are to provide a mirror for their faith. We are to give them spiritual markers where they can look back when re-evaluating their faith and they can say at these points, “I know God is real and was real in my life.”
Our teens will make an adult faith decision one day. All of the decisions our teens made about faith as teens (these spiritual markers) will help make that grown adult decision.
Your role is to provide and help provide spiritual markers. To talk about these spiritual markers with your teen so they are recognized as spiritual markers. And to not fret too much when their faith decisions are messy and nonsensical. Like so many of their other decisions.