Delayed Adolescence in the Church

Erik Raymond —  November 26, 2013

Delayed adolescence is a reality in American families. There is no disputing the massive increase in number of young people that choose to live with their parents late into their 20′s and in some cases into their 30′s. Insurance companies have taken notice of this and have extended coverage of “children” well into the mid to late 20′s. There is no surprise then that while adolescence is prolonged the expreriences that correspond with being an adult are decreasing. Marriages are decreasing while video games sales are increasing. The delayed adolescence of the American youth is a fascinating and increasingly troubling trend.

But I am not a sociologist. I am a pastor. My concern is with the attitude and culture of delayed adolescence in the church. More specifically, I am not here thinking primarily about the evangelical culture that tends to awkwardly squirm away from and therefore curiously mute the conversation of male leadership in the church. I am thinking far more broadly than even this, to the philosophy and theological vision of churches that cultivate and promote a delayed doctrinal adolescence in the church.

In the Epistle to the Hebrews we read these somewhat shocking words:

For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.

This is straightforward and blunt. The writer is reminding his readers that they are not doing what needs to be done. They are not developing doctrinally like they should. They should know the foundations and be digging deeper to grow in their understanding and application of truth (wisdom and discernment). Instead they are playing in the theological sandbox.

As a pastor I recognize that this falls on the shoulders of the teaching pastor and elders in a congregation. Instead of serving up doctrinal meals each week, establishing a culture where Christians (men in particular) are expected to put in the work to grow, and facilitating ministry to utilize gospel growth—pastors are burping spiritual babies and continuing to feed them blended pears and soft crackers.

Why do we do this? So often the answer I have been given and have read from pastors is a pragmatic answer. We hear some combination of the following:

Doctrine is difficult for people to understand.

Unbelievers don’t have the ability to understand deep theology. And we want to win them to Jesus.

I have to work within my context.

These pragmatic answers tend to make us emotional and sympathetic toward the mission. However, the mission of God is not opposed to the Bible. God would not call you to do something that he did not support and prepare you for. Doctrine and indeed theology are essential to the development of the church and reaching of the lost. Let me give you some examples.

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions,and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.(2 Tim. 4:1-5)

This is the pastor’s job. In the presence of the judge (Christ Jesus) before God, preach or herald the word of God. This is not optional. It is not up to the pastor’s creative bent or personal desire. His job (if he is faithful 2 Tim. 4.8) then he will preach this word. Not about the word, around the word, from the word…no, he will preach the word.

Now I want you to watch the progression here.

  • v. 2 Preach the Word
  • v. 2 “teaching”
  • v.3 “sound teaching”
  • v.4 “truth” is contrasted to “myths”

The teacher is to teach. This word teaching is also translated “doctrine” in v.3. In other words, preaching, teaching, is to be doctrinal. There is no other way around this.

Well, I suppose there is. If men do not do this then people with itching ears will accumulate teachers who will bring their own doctrine. See everyone has doctrine or teaching. Some of it is just bad and others is good. Those who do not want sound (clean, good, pure) doctrine will clamor for their own stuff. They will get teachers to give it to them.

This is where a lot of our churches are. The pastor is giving the people what he thinks they need. However, his understanding of what they need is what he thinks they can handle or what they seem to want. What is not considered here is what God wants or what the Holy Spirit can handle.

We have a situation today where many evangelical churches are woefully anemic. They are malnourished and the people are eating spiritual Gerbers. Why? Because the pastor is not giving them what they need. Why does he do this? The reasons fly in and are often pragmatic. However, let me add a reason: he doesn’t believe in it. He himself doesn’t love it. It’s not just their problem pastor, it may be yours.

Just as many parents are, in the name of love, aiding and abetting their kid’s delayed adolescence so too many pastors are doing the same for their parishioners.

When we come back to the Bible we see little opportunity to get creative with the game plan. Our job as pastors is to execute the plan derived from the all-wise God. He says give attention to yourself and to your doctrine (1 Tim. 4:16). Why? Because it brings salvation to your hearers! Far from being an optional ingredient to sprinkle upon the tops of the plates of the mature doctrine is the essential ingredient in every meal prepared by the pastor. To neglect theology and doctrine is an abrogation of a pastor’s responsibility.

If pastors want to see their members grow and break the cycle of prolonged spiritual adolescence in churches then we have got to belly up to the table and do what God says. Otherwise it is selfish, unloving and insubordinate to God.

If you are in a church where your pastor is not teaching the Bible but skimming the surface week after week, lovingly point out Heb 5 and 2 Tim 3-4. Show him how you need to be taught and built up (Eph. 4) in order to grow in unity. Demand to be fed like a newborn baby demands milk (1 Pet. 2). If they refuse then go somewhere that will feed you.

I don’t write this lightly. It is with a heavy heart in my country and city where being a-theological is often celebrated rather than confronted. If God is going to bring revival in churches then he is going to do it the way he always has: via preaching of the Word of God.

 

Erik Raymond

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Erik has been writing at Ordinary Pastor since 2006. He lives in Omaha with his wife and kids while pastoring at Emmaus Bible Church. Follow regular updates on Twitter at www.twitter.com/erikraymond

14 responses to Delayed Adolescence in the Church

  1. Erik, this post deals with a real issue and I believe your solution is spot on. Church members must mature spiritually, and so must their pastor.

    An older pastor once remarked, “Your people will never grow beyond their pastor.” And this is so true. Whether they mean to or not, all church leaders tell their people, “Be as I am.” This is why healthy leadership is so necessary.

    My heart goes out to many pastors who have not yet cherished Theology enough to administer (spoon feed) it to their people. Most pastors with this weakness haven’t committed to expository preaching so their preaching deals more superficially with texts, and often in moralistic or legalistic fashions.

    Oh that God would grant me the growth He expects of His people.

  2. Solid article. There is much to be said about the lack of doctrine and meaty theology for churches which leads to stunted growth. The only aspect needing careful caution, however, especially about comparing the social phenomenon of delayed adolescence to theological growth in churches, is to lump everyone who lives with their parents in their 20′s or 30′s as immature and willfully delaying their adult life. This phenomenon is not a mass decision of all young adults to just stay at home. Each case is individualised based on circumstance and need.

    Some do delay by not pursuing a job or grasp adult responsibilities, but there are many who are fighting to look and work for jobs so they can move up and out. Also, social phenomena are made from external circumstances as well. The American economy these days does not provide solid opportunities as in previous years. Incomes have fallen against the rising price of goods, services, and education. So if a Christian young man or woman is still living at home because of times of economic hardship, are they lacking good doctrine and being babied?

    This is not a defense of delayed adolesence, its a careful call to look at why its there and to see its negative and positive aspects. There are many believers who during difficult economic times can look back on their adultolesence period and be thankful for their parents who supported them during hard times, and be grateful. Then there are those who willingly stay at home and are not willing to trust in the Lord for their progression in life.

    On the call for pastors to be doctrinal, its spot on.

  3. Erik, I think you’ve correctly identified the problem. But, if I may – “delayed adolescence”? Wouldn’t it be “delayed adulthood”? Or “extended adolescence”?

  4. Outstanding, Erik!

  5. As a youth pastor, I fight this all the time. I’ll be sharing this great piece!

  6. “If you are in a church where your pastor is not teaching the Bible but skimming the surface week after week, lovingly point out Heb 5 and 2 Tim 3-4. Show him how you need to be taught and built up (Eph. 4) in order to grow in unity. Demand to be fed like a newborn baby demands milk (1 Pet. 2). If they refuse then go somewhere that will feed you.”

    But what if that pastor THINKS he is teaching solid truth? I have had this conversation with the pastor at the church we have been attending. I called him out on some specific things, but he thinks we are misunderstanding. In truth, there are NO churches in the rural community that we live in that consistently preach with the Gospel at the center. (The closest one that we know that has solid teaching is over an hour away.)

    • Joey,

      I was in the same boat. I had to decide if church community was more important than teaching. However, just like anything else, if you want to live in a rural community and get something great then you often have to drive to get it. We made the decision to drive 45 minutes to find a good church about a year ago and I’ve never regretted it.

  7. It’s a real problem. Honestly, I was waiting to read the video game blip… please leave video games out of it. It is not a direct correlation, but merely, in this context, a useful outlet to curb quiet desperation in young men who know better but want to avoid the risks of real life and yet still feel accomplished and respected. There are many other viable outlets to achieve this high. I’m an avid gamer and I’ve been married for 11 years and have 4 kids. Gaming is no longer primarily a hobby of adolescent basement dwellers, but you’d have to be a gamer to know this, yet I concede that it will take some time for the stigma to wear off. That’s the point of my comment, let’s help eliminate the stigma.

  8. william francis brown December 1, 2013 at 6:05 am

    It’s hard to find a church that does not dumb down the message to the lowest common level of ignorance. I want to be challenged but have to do that entirely on my own. The level of biblical literacy is pathetically low, even here in the Bible belt. We live in a time of extreme laziness and sloth. And yes, video games and Facebook are a major culprit along with government “education”.

    • One Sr. Pastor of Vineyard Columbus used to tell all the lay leaders and pastors being trained to plant churches to “put the cookies on the lower shelf.” This despite being trained as a lawyer. The whole idea of evangelical church growth in the last 30 years has been one on convenience not “study to show yourself approved.”

  9. How uncanny on the timing of this post as I preached on this very text (Heb 5:11-6:3) yesterday. What you said here confirms and conforms to what I said in my message. Thanks for a great post!

  10. Erik,

    I have over 70 feet of Christian books so in order to fulfill Hebrews 5:12, churches need to teach more than two verses a week because 31,000 verses divided by 52 (excluding two weeks for vacation) = approximately 596 weeks. 596 divided by 4 = 149 years because the church is no longer teaching the Bible because the church is teaching Biblical principles. I spent the last 15 years trying to learn about the Bible myself and writing articles on it myself and I don’t have the advantage of being paid.

    I had a Christian message board and took it down because no one was interested in a message board with the most doctrine and Bible study.

    I went to a lot of Churches and they don’t have libraries for their members to learn the Bible. One of the churches I went to actually took their library away.

    Do you know what teaching I often hear on the radio? I hear someone reading the Bible so you pay five dollars for a tape of someone reading the Bible because they promised to explain it and they do a very lousy job of doing it.

    My problem is finding accurate teaching and resources and pastors not willing to help explain things after hours. I’ve stopped trying to find people for Bible study because they are unwilling to learn and unable to study the Bible because they read the notes out of their study Bible and don’t know what Strong’s is. They’ve never written anything because they’ve never had to write anything and they couldn’t teach a Bible study if their life depended on it.

    Chuck

  11. “The pastor is giving the people what he thinks they need. However, his understanding of what they need is what he thinks they can handle or what they seem to want. What is not considered here is what God wants or what the Holy Spirit can handle.”

    This is it in an nutshell. Felt/expressed needs of the congregation are being treated as the real nutritional requirement. As a result, God’s people are fed a diet of cotton candy and ice cream.

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