Culture At Large

On never growing up, extended adolescence, and the church

Andy Rau

When I first moved to west Michigan several years ago, I didn't imagine that it would take me long at all to find a church home--theology-wise, I'm pretty Reformed, and let's just say there's no shortage of Reformed churches hereabouts.

But I was wrong; it took me a good while to find a church home. I was in my mid-twenties, and one thing I found as I attended different churches was that there seemed to be very few people in my age range involved in the church. There were plenty of people high-school-age and younger, and plenty of people in their late-thirties and older. It was discouraging--it felt like every aspect of church life was aimed at people who had nothing in common with my life. Where were all the twentysomethings? In my (admittedly very informal) survey, I saw very few of them sitting in the church pews, and even fewer involved in church activities like choir or Bible studies.

Now, your congregation might be quite different, filled with enthusiastic twentysomethings. But I immediately thought of my church-hunting experience when I came across this blog post at Rebelution arguing that our cultural addiction to 'fun' is preventing young people from maturing into responsible, socially-involved adults. From the post:

At the root of many of our culture’s problems, including our generation’s problem with growing up is this idea of fun. You can’t get away from it. It’s hammered into our heads through by every kind of media; it’s even enforced by “understanding” and respectable adults who have also bought into the lies of our culture. We live like the Nike slogan: Just Do It. We have tons of fun while we’re young.

A bit of Googling and reading through the news confirms that this tendency to extend our adolescence into what used to be considered our "adult years" is a very real phenomenon, and one that cannot help but impact our society as a whole. USA Today ran a piece on extended adolescence last year, finding that people are simply putting off "growing up" much longer than past generations did. An earlier and much more extensive essay by Frank Furedi looks at the situation in more detail. People are putting off career, marriage, and community involvement. (There's definitely a hint of "older generation griping about the younger" going on here... but there are also hard numbers that indicate that behaviors and attitudes are indeed changing.)

Notably, neither of those last two articles talk much about the role of religion in the lives of these "extended adolescents." But if people are avoiding "adult" activities like careers and marriage, then I cannot imagine they aren't doing the same thing with church involvement--after all, being involved in church committees, groups, and the like is pretty "adult," and it isn't always very fun.

So what's happening to the extended adolescents in the church? Looking around the web, I see a lot of religion statistics and websites devoted to youth ministry, but not much about how to get the unmarried, Gamecube-playing, movie-watching 28-year-old involved in the church. If the articles above are to be believed, this is a demographic that would benefit from the social involvement that comes from being a part of communal worship. Is this happening, or are these people slipping through the cracks? If they're not participating in the church, is that their fault for wanting to avoid responsibility, the church's fault for not bothering to reach out to them, or a combination of both?

And what do we do about it? That's always the question, isn't it? What about your church--are the twentysomethings actively involved, or floating quietly on the fringes of church life?

(Just to clarify, I would definitely classify myself as an "extended adolescent" in many ways, one who has just in recent years begun to get involved in church and other activities that I wish I had gotten started with years ago. There's a Gamecube next to my TV, and I fire it up regularly. I'm not out to point fingers at young people who aren't conforming to my personal ideal of adulthood.)

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, News & Politics, Social Trends