Article May 16, 2018

Maturity in an increasingly juvenilized society

The soon-to-be-married couple sat in front of us all in our living room while we showered them with words of blessing and challenge. Of course, their college friends were there—many of whom will stand with them on their wedding day. Both sets of the engaged couple’s parents were present. The parents are still married to each other—a rarity today.

It was an intergenerational gathering. Some were younger. Some were older. Some were not married. Some were married with kids. Some were grandparents. Everyone recognized and embraced the new chapter that was coming for our friends to walk in wisdom as they entered into marriage.

The expectation of growing into adulthood

Experience is teaching me that the purpose of youth is to prepare for adulthood. I am surrounded by youth. I work on a college campus. At home, my wife and I have five growing boys under our roof. Right now, they may act their shoe size, but in a few years, I will expect them to act their age. Children and college-aged students don’t stay that age forever, nor should they. We would say that something is terribly wrong if a grown man were to act like a student or a child. We expect our young people to grow up, and to grow up well.

When he was on the earth, Jesus grew up. He grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man (Luke 2:52). Peter said, “Like newborn infants, long for pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation” (1 Pet. 2:2). He also said, “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18).

The apostle Paul challenged the Corinthian church, “Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature” (1 Cor. 4:20). He said that God gave gifts of leadership to the church “to equip the saints . . . until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood.” He told them to “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph. 4:12-14, 15). Paul labored, proclaiming Christ in order to “present everyone mature in Christ.” And Epaphras struggled for the Colossians in prayer because he wanted them to “stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God” (Col. 1:28; 4:12). In life, maturation is the expectation.

The juvenilization of “grown-ups”

Several years ago, Thomas E. Bergler, professor of ministry and missions at Huntingdon University, wrote The Juvenilization of American Christianity. He argues that well-meaning efforts to reach young people have unintentionally contributed to a crisis of spiritual immaturity. In this and his subsequent book, From Here to Maturity: Overcoming the Juvenilization of American Christianity, he focuses on the life of the evangelical church. It seems to me that his accurate assessment of evangelical churches could be broadened to apply to the juvenilization of American society. Juvenilization is “the process by which religious beliefs, practices and developmental characteristics of adolescents become accepted as appropriate for adults.”

Responsibility, self-denial, and service to others might be seen as old-fashioned ideals by some, but our desire to lead young people into adulthood must include these necessary building blocks. In the early part of the 20th century, people entered adulthood in their teens or early 20s as they got married, got a job, and began having children. Today, adulthood is often delayed as young people refuse to make decisions, often remain single by choice, and often move back in with their parents.

Immerse in an intergenerational context

One of the best things young people can do is value age and immerse themselves in an intergenerational context where they will rub shoulders regularly with those who have more experience and have walked before them.

One of the best things young people can do is value age and immerse themselves in an intergenerational context where they will rub shoulders regularly with those who have more experience and have walked before them. When Rehoboam became king, he pursued the folly of youth and spoke harshly to his followers rather than serving them and speaking good words to them (1 Kings 12). Rehoboam was foolish because he abandoned the counsel of the older men around him. Flannery O’Connor was right, “Conviction without experience makes for harshness.”

When it comes to parenting, we certainly do not do it all right, but my wife and I are glad that our boys are growing up in an intergenerational church. Each week, they see kids, teenagers, and young adults like us gathering in the Sanctuary. But they also see the elderly blind man shuffling in to take his pew behind the gray-haired women who have been a part of the church for years.  

My boys may not be experiencing excitement that comes from a single-generation group of Christians on Sunday morning, but there is no doubt that they are being immersed in a community of godly wisdom. I’m thankful my kids know octogenarian believers. In a day when many are interested in more young people coming to church, this middle-aged dad is thankful for the warm-hearted, Christ-centered, gray heads who gather regularly under our steeple.

Old age may not be popular in our world of cosmetic surgeries, Botox, Viagra, wrinkle cream, and photoshopped images, but we are meant to age. It’s a part of the process. With apologies to Cher, we can’t turn back time. We can’t slow down the proverbial clock. We can tuck and pad and stretch and cover, but we must remember that all men are like grass. That is why the Psalmist says, “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psa. 90:12).

Wisdom and youth are not mutually exclusive, but I think Ralph Waldo Emerson was on to something when he said, “The best tunes are played on the oldest fiddles.” As I have watched, it appears to me that those who spend their energies pursuing youth often seem to lack wisdom and have lives that sound strangely out of tune. Although wisdom doesn’t necessarily come with age, it often will if a Christian spends a lifetime pursuing it (Prov. 2:1-2, 5). Now that I’m older, I realize that if I went back to my younger days and was given the choice between youth and wisdom, I’d choose wisdom and a life that’s in tune. I hope my kids do too.