Why Do We Expect Our Youth To Take a Decision About Faith Into Adulthood?

Originally published in 1996.

A question was asked by a youth pastor, not to me directly but to a group.  It was “Why does it seem that Christianity, or the church, has no power to keep youth, or most people, for that matter, in relationship with God?  How many of us have seen kids who have a genuine conversion and relationship to God, on fire with excitement and enthusiasm, seem to slip away and go back to the old ways?”

Who reading this can relate to this question?  All hands raised right?  Both hands too, right?  I know I also have my feet in the air.


There were a lot of answers.  Some of the answers were to uphold the youth more in prayer; we work so hard to get youth to feel that high, that we never really teach them how to stay there; we haven’t taught them how to make God the center of their lives because He is in our lives already, the teens don’t know where to begin; discipleship is missing; spending too much time on issues and not enough on teaching life lessons; not providing enough mentoring; and lack of follow up.

I came up with a different answer. Youth are making many decisions now that they do not intend to take into adulthood.  I know youth who spend countless hours perfecting their skateboarding tricks.  But they don’t intend to make a living out of skateboarding.  At my school alone there is a black student who died 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 made in a non-permanent state.  I know many youth who are already regretting their piece of art.  At least the piercings close up.

There is no way they expect to take that look into adulthood.  How did you look in high school?  Nothing like you do now, right?  Have you used your looks from high school as a humorous example in one of your messages?  (This question does not count for hair loss.)

This is why the laws of the land protect minors.  There is an understanding that they are experiencing growing up and any bad decisions made in that process do not have to follow them into adulthood.

So why do we expect our youth to take a decision about their faith into adulthood?  I know all about the passion of our work which may answer the why quite obviously.  It is the core of our work, but… Why do we expect our youth to take a decision about their faith made in adolescence into adulthood?

Before you start worrying about me and think I have fallen off of my Wild Frontier, please 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 mirrored from the faith of others around that person.  Adolescence is full of mirroring already whether it is from other adults, other youth or magazines and other media images.  It is also true with their faith.  They mirror their faith off of us.  Let me explain a step further.

In adolescence something new happens in the learning process–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 they 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 coping skills to deal with it.  Youth see us face unbearable situations and yet we cope.  So their faith is mirrored to ours who have “made it.”  That is us and countless others. (Yeah!)

Another great work worth studying in Faith Development is Stephen D. Jones’ Faith Shaping tasks.  One of the tasks after Experiencing, Categorizing, Choosing, Claiming, Deepening, is Task #6, Separating.  This is the painful stage for us.  I have lived through it too often.  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.

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.  However, we remember the painful ones.

The open question then arises, when does one reach adulthood?  For many reasons it comes earlier than 18 and for many reasons it comes after 18.  I was recently at a paintball tournament and saw many, many grown men with blue and green and whatever hair.  Of course, it was probably washable so they could go back to work on Monday.

Take a look again at the honest answers some youth pastors gave.  They all focus on themselves and/or youth ministry.  Only if I did this more or if I did this that way and on and on are the questions we torture ourselves with.  Like our families and our health are not sacrificed enough in the name of youth.  Not one of the youth pastors took into consideration that possibly this is a way that faith grows and grows into a healthy faith.

Our jobs as youth workers is to plant and water and to do that well (2 Corinthians 3:6-7 again).  We 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 say at these points I know God is real and was real in my life.  That is a lot for us to do and the youth ministry business we should be about doing.

The question being raised may seem contradictory from someone who makes a living talking about the Wild Frontier lifestyle.  Shouldn’t I be providing answers for how the church can have more power to keep these youth?

The answer I lay out for you is to set the challenge, even the extreme challenge, to the youth. Your goal is to provide the firmest foundation possible, the best mirror possible, and memorable spiritual markers so that this separation stage does not mean rebellion and sin and pain.  Parents play a much larger role in this, but you have your part.  Do that part well.