It’s Not Just Your Imagination: Extended Adolescence Is a Thing

Extended Adolescence

You know that sense you have that teenagers are taking longer to become adults? A new study suggests it really is happening, and it means the traditional church model of “youth ministries” needs to be reexamined.

In an article for the scientific journal The Lancet, researchers argue adolescence should be reclassified from the traditional ages of 10-19-years-old to 10-24, using everything from census statistics to cerebral development to make their case. Yahoo Lifestyle interviewed Eugene Beresin, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School who said “There’s no rationale for [adolescence ending at 18] other than high school ends at that age. You graduate from high school and you ‘grow up.’”

Traditionally “extended adolescence” is bemoaned by pastors, parents, and even senators, and it’s difficult to say how much of this trend is simply a response to cultural norms, specifically children living longer with their parents due to the price of college or choice paralysis over their future. Some even argue that extended adolescence is a good thing, as it gives the brain more time to develop healthy responses to the stresses of adult life.

“The greatest growth in the brain is between 14 and 26,” Bersesin says. “During that period of time, the brain is driven largely by emotion and impulse. Feelings feel more intense and powerful—this is why adolescents tend to do things based on impulse.”

However, as it concerns the church, the question is less “why?” or “is this good?” but more “what do we do now?” Here are three questions leaders of churches should be asking in light of this research.

Do we need an “extended adolescence” ministry?

In the 2,000-year history of the church, the youth ministry model is the ecclesiastical new kid on the block. The YMCA was formed in the mid-19th Century as a Christian-based attempt to reach young men, and it wasn’t until the 1950-60s that “youth groups” first began appearing in churches. The point is that while the youth ministry model may be good, it also is a specific church response to a specific cultural time, place and need.

All of that is to say, does your church need to have a ministry dedicated to discipling students after high school? This isn’t a “college ministry” particularly, in that many of these students may only be sporadically attending a local community college and are often living with their parents.

What are our obligations to the extended adolescence group?

Which leads to the second question: What does this age group need? The answer to this question will be specific to a church’s context, and the prompting of the Holy Spirit; however, there are two common trends for this age group that I’ve seen across the country.

    1. Lack of direction. Our culture has done a disservice telling students they can do “whatever they want.” This well-intentioned phrase has created a paralysis among the average 19-year-old who has no idea what she wants, but feels she has one shot at making the right choice because of how prohibitively expensive college is.
    2. Apathy. For many 18-24-year-olds, their life after high school consists of going to a community college, taking classes they don’t care about, hanging out with friends who also live at home, and maybe working a low-paying job a few hours a week. What this turns into is a lot of hours watching Netflix and slowly getting numbed to their day-to-day life. This accelerates their lack of direction, as they find it harder and harder to envision a life they’re passionate about.

As churches see more of these students sticking around their churches, the question becomes “how can we help these students find a God-centered path toward the future he has for them?”

How do we help parents navigate this new reality?

Extended adolescence also creates a difficult path for parents to navigate. On one hand, the idea of their kid staying close by a little longer is exciting, but on the other hand they worry their child isn’t moving on with his or her life. Should they let them stay in the house indefinitely? Do they charge rent? How do they progressively treat them like an adult while at the same time functionally existing in the same rhythm they’ve had for years?

Previous articleWhen Kids Make Early Decisions for Christ
Next articleRachael Denhollander’s Courage to Show Us a Way Forward
Joshua Pease
Josh Pease is a writer & speaker living in Colorado with his wife and two kids. His e-book, The God Who Wasn't There , is available for purchase on Amazon.

Get the ChurchLeaders Daily Sent to Your Inbox