The Myth of Adolescence
by Tim McKnight
“And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.”—Luke 2:52
In Meet Generation Z, James Emery White laments that today’s teenagers only have an eight-second attention span, which he calls an eight-second filter. He compares this attention span to that of a goldfish—in fact, it is even shorter than that of “Bubbles” the goldfish.1 While White is correct that members of Generation Z have the ability to filter information very quickly, one might interpret his comparison with Bubbles as negative and pejorative toward teenagers and their ability to focus on information and tasks.
While White’s book is helpful at some points in describing this current generation, some might use his comments to promote a misguided notion regarding teenagers’ attention spans that ignores the capacity of students to complete class projects, participate in hour-long classes, sit through movies, or spend hours meticulously editing videos on their YouTube channels. Although I believe his intentions are good—the comments he makes about attention spans appear in his section on reaching teenagers with the gospel—White’s comments might be interpreted as implying that students do not have the capacity to listen or pay attention to the gospel for longer than eight seconds unless it is presented in a flashy way using multimedia.
My experience preaching to members of Generation Z does not support White’s conclusions. I’ve observed, with joy, sixth- through twelfth-graders paying attention to thirty-five-minute sermons I’ve preached at various summer camps. They did not listen because I presented a multimedia display (all I had was my voice and the Bible). They listened because of the power of the Holy Spirit working through the Word being preached. We must be careful in our discussion of the attention spans of Generation Z not to show contempt toward the power of the Holy Spirit, the Word of God, or the place of preaching in the Christian church. We should also avoid treating students like children who, through the influence of media and social media, cannot pay attention; they are young adults who are capable of focusing.
As a matter of fact, history records stirring examples of young people serving the Lord and showing great spiritual maturity, but the church today has not taken seriously the need to equip students theologically. This failure has led to underchallenged and undertrained youth. Many studies demonstrate a further change from past generations: the erosion of theological conviction among college students in evangelical schools.2
Greek scholar David Alan Black allowed the use of the title of his book The Myth of Adolescence to make this point. “What,” Black asks, “do the Scriptures say about adolescence? Absolutely nothing.”3 Moses, Paul, John, and others went from childhood to adulthood. Were they ever teenagers? Yes. But they were never adolescents. Black argues that, biblically, there are three stages to one’s life:
- Childhood/pre-adulthood (ages one to twelve)
- Emerging adulthood (ages twelve to thirty)
- Senior adulthood (age thirty to death)4
Black notes that these stages can be seen in the life of Jesus (Luke 2:41–52; 3:23; and the remainder of the gospel, respectively) and in the persons John describes in his first epistle (“little children,” “young people,” and “fathers”). The transitions are significant: puberty at age twelve, and the move to responsible adulthood at about age thirty. Notice the absence of a separate category of teenage years.
The Old Testament denotes other categories. In the Pentateuch, for example, men twenty and older were fit for war (see Num. 26), and only those twenty and older could give an offering (Exod. 30:14). While these and other distinctives are found in the Old Covenant, Black’s argument stands: the Bible mentions nothing of the separate place of the teen years. Nor does it mention the concomitant expectation of adolescent behavior, which expectation is so prevalent in American culture, including in the church.
Black argues, and I would agree, that there’s no biblical warrant for the concept of adolescence. Yet that concept has led to an entire subculture of youth ministry—well-intentioned but too often poorly founded—as well as the remarkable growth of so-called family ministries in the church.
According to the Bible, the teen era is not a “time-out” between childhood and adulthood. It is not primarily a time of horseplay. . . . The Bible treats teens as responsible adults, and so should we. Paul told Timothy, a young man, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young. Instead, be an example for other believers in your speech, behavior, love, faith, and purity” (1 Tim. 4:12).5
Does this mean youth are to be prohibited from enjoying times of innocent, carefree play? Certainly not. But the idea of suspending life for a multiyear period of silliness is . . . well . . . silliness.
The concept of adolescence has led our culture, both inside and outside the church, to fabricate two myths about youth. First, it encourages teenagers to behave like grade-school children instead of young adults. Second, it perpetuates the notion that the teenage years are, of necessity, a time of rebellion, sarcasm, narcissism, and general evildoing. “Sowing wild oats” has become a popular term for what is expected of youth—including churched youth—during their young adult days. Certainly, the hormonal changes and rapid maturation taking place in adolescence may, if left unchecked, result in such behavior. But that’s my point: we must not let the bar of expectation be set so low.
More and more voices are sounding a challenge to the notion of adolescence. Soon after Columbine, Time magazine featured a back-page article that calls into question the way society as a whole has treated young people in recent generations. Lance Morrow observes,
Humans . . . have turned the long stretch from puberty to autonomy into a suspended state of simultaneous overindulgence and neglect. American adolescence tends to be disconnected from the adult world and from the functioning expectation . . . of entering that world and assuming a responsible place there. The word adolescence means, literally, growing up. No growing up occurs if there is nothing to grow up to. Without the adult connection, adolescence becomes a Neverland, a Mall of Lost Children.6
1James Emery White, Meet Generation Z (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017), 113–14.
2Alvin L. Reid, “From Northampton to Columbine: Understanding the Potential of Young People for the Contemporary Church,” address to the Evangelical Theological Society, Colorado Springs, November 14, 2001.
3David Alan Black, The Myth of Adolescence (Yorba Linda, CA: Davidson, 1998), 19.
4Black, Myth of Adolescence, 6.
5Black, Myth of Adolescence, 22.
6Lance Morrow, “The Boys and Bees: The Shootings Are One More Argument for Abolishing Adolescence,” Time, May 31, 1999, 110.
Timothy McKnight (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is director of the Global Center for Youth Ministry and associate professor of youth ministry and missions at the Clamp Divinity School of Anderson University. He has been a pastor for thirty years, with much of that time in youth ministry.
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