Thursday, November 30, 2023

Youth Problems Part 2: Life in Suspended Animation

I grew up a Trekkie.

You remember that word? It was a nerd word. A “trekkie” was a person who loved the television show Star Trek. My daily ritual was to get home and plop myself down in front of the telly and catch whatever rerun was on that day. I think I saw most episodes of the original show a half dozen times or more.

I remember one episode called Space Seed, in which the crew of the Starship Enterprise discovers a ship loaded with sleeping men and women. They’re all in what’s called suspended animation: alive, but asleep and on life support, so that they can endure a lengthy trip through space. The crew revives one named Khan, and he turns out to be a kind of wild superman they’re unable to control. He’s more than a little agitated that he and his people have become the rejects of planet Earth.

Khan You Feel It?

Anyway, this idea of suspended animation reminds me of how our society treats its young adults. They start to come alive as adults after puberty, but through our society’s social, educational and economic arrangements, we oblige them to exist in a kind of suspended state until they are in their late twenties or even the early thirties.

Sociologists Côté and Allahar call them the “Generation on Hold”. They can’t be independent, can’t establish their careers, can’t settle down, can’t prove their worth to society, can’t get married, can’t have children and so on, because they are still in school or apprenticeship and because they’re bound by economic necessities and social expectations. But biologically and emotionally they are adults.

Unfortunately for them, unlike the space-travelers in suspended animation, they are very much awake.

Double Toil and Trouble

Last week in this space, I was talking about a comment I read from Christian psychologist Glynn Harrison. He talked about a “double jeopardy of shame” to which our young Christian men and women are susceptible. I hope you read that post, because without it what I’m about to say might seem a bit arbitrary. I’ll wait right here while you go back and take a look at it.

Now, those who did will probably recall that Harrison argues that today’s young adults find themselves the object of suspicion and rejection both in the world and in the church: that in the world, they are alienated by their moral and spiritual standards, and in the church they are subjected to standards and expectations they find very difficult to maintain in view of the prolonged period of pseudo-adolescence that is imposed by the social and economic demands of our day.

They’re in no-man’s land when it comes to the church, and they’re in limbo when it comes to adulthood in the secular world. And this pattern can begin in the late teens, and last until perhaps age thirty.

Double Jeopardy 2: The ‘S’ Word

Now, needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway) one huge problem here is sexual restraint. The world has a pattern that basically makes it impossible for a young person to find any legitimate way to deal with his or her sexuality during the developmental time in which the need for establishing intimate relations with a partner is most intense.

Biologically, a young man has a God-given incentive to seek out and initiate a relational bond with a young woman; and during that same time, a young woman is at her most fertile stage of development. But the way practical matters of education, economics and security are currently arranged, the young pair has strong disincentives to form a committed partnership to deal with their needs in a godly and biologically-ideal way. Moreover, all around them, at university or work, are attractive potential partners who have far fewer reservations about acting on their sexual needs, and a culture that ridicules the very idea of restraint and maximizes access to temptation.

No wonder then that our young people spend these years in a relationally-turbulent sort of way, often making bad decisions. It was never God’s intention that the legitimate physical needs of young men and women should be repressed in this way, and the Word warns us that it is unwise to imagine such denials of God’s order will be successful. We are warned not to push those biological limits: but the world requires our young people to do just that, or else capitulate to sex and relation-building wholly on its terms.

The upshot is that our young people are exposed to another kind of double jeopardy: they can be tormented by suppressing their legitimate intimacy needs well beyond the natural time, and thus feel guilty and ashamed of their body’s needs, or of their godly desire for intimate partnership; or else they can give in and express those needs in uncommitted sexual relationships, after which guilt and heartbreak will automatically follow, and their confidence of worth for service and worship may well be permanently destroyed.

Saving Our Teens

Now, given all that we’ve said, both in this post and in yesterday’s, the obvious question is this: What are the churches doing to deal with the double jeopardy situation of our youth?

The most common current response seems to be to establish groups for teens, and if they can, for “college and careers” groups as well. But it’s pretty standard that the church loses many of these young members when they go off to university or work, if not before. That’s how our current society arranges things.

The problem with many teen groups is that they are insufficiently attentive to making young people independent. Being “laid on”, over-supervised or even prepared programs, they continue to arrange young people’s spiritual activities long after those young people should be initiating and directing their own welfare. The more we worry about our teens, the more gloss we put on these programs: but these programs are part of the problem, because they put young people in the role of passive recipients far more than they provide for initiative, self-direction and leadership.

Meanwhile, these developing spiritual minds are not trained in setting their own spiritual priorities and direction, are not habituated to the discipline of personal study on a daily basis, do not have the equipping to discern the scriptures independently, are weak in ability to defend the faith, and remain inexpert in making personal applications to real-life situations. For many, Christianity remains a social activity or a largely passive, aesthetic practice; and when their secular lifestyle becomes more demanding than their limited spiritual expertise can handle, things break down. Or they just leave.

The situation for college-and-careers folks is even grimmer. Living in a new city and removed from their spiritual programs, many of these young folks do not establish a meaningful link with a local congregation. They just drift off and disappear. Even if they did stay involved in church throughout their teen years (which they often did not) the lure of secular career or of unsaved partners finishes off their underdeveloped faith, and leads to decisions that make any return to church a problem in the future.

An Outgrown Faith

In point of fact, what is happening is that they have outgrown our programs. Their personal lives and secular lives have developed, but their spiritual lives haven’t kept pace.

Now, part of this is our fault. We made them an offer they felt they had to refuse. We asked very little of them when they were young — just that they show up and participate in the programs we ran for them. We did not push their parents to teach them reading and praying habits. We did not make them grapple with doctrine. We did not stress them with a duty to witness or the burdens of serving. We didn’t induce them to lead or initiate. Rather, in our anxiety to keep them on track, we simply modeled a certain mistrust of their judgment in the way we over-provided for them.

We didn’t want them to make mistakes, so we raised them in a protective environment in which they never had much chance to develop spiritual fiber of their own. We weren’t actually as attentive as we needed to be to the natural patterns of their growing and maturing process. We assumed that because the world doesn’t let them out of its apprenticeship program until their late twenties, we shouldn’t either.

And they left us. No surprise. They outgrew us.

The Church’s Big Offer

And what did we really offer them for the future anyway?

“See you when you’re 30,” says the church. “After you’re educated, married, situated and economically stable, we’re expecting you to step up. Come regularly. Bring your kids. Pony up some dough. Join our committees. Do our work. And when you’ve done it for a bit, we’ll maybe let you become something we call a ‘deacon’ or an ‘elder’ …”

Oh really?

Well, you’ll pardon me if I decline.

The Big Message

This is the pattern that I think we have now. Reversing it will take some doing. We will have to pioneer some solutions here, and having never seen a new pattern work, I can’t exactly tell you what it would look like. But I think we’re safe to start with a few pointers.

First, some obvious things we have to change:

  • We can’t let being a young Christian in a secular society continue to be a double jeopardy, lose-lose situation.
  • We can’t let our teenagers and young adults come to see themselves as big children, as nuisances, as useless drones in suspended animation, or as balls of hormones and random impulses about to explode into flame.
  • We cannot tell them that all the energy, creativity and enthusiasm in their burgeoning souls is suspect.
  • We cannot tell them to find meaning in rituals and performances that staid adulthood itself can barely tolerate.
  • We can’t tell them to aspire to nothing, to do nothing, to wait for nothing.
  • We can’t tell them that the world has nothing pretty in it, or that what it offers is all bad. Rather, we need to help them deal with the fact that evil is sometimes attractive, and is even sometimes a distortion or misdirection of a very refined or even spiritual impulse. We need to help them locate alternatives.

Secondly, some things we’ve got to start:

  • We need to start earlier. Developmentally speaking, if a child is not starting to serve, witness and initiate by age 10, something is going wrong.
  • We need to encourage them to define and take hold of their own Christian lives. We need to invite them to serve (yes, they will sometimes mess things up; get over it), teach and lead, in progressively harder and more challenging ways.
  • We have to allow them to define the next generation of Christian life and faithfulness for themselves. If we want in on the process, we need to start caring about them as people — not as mere attendees in a prepared program.
  • We need to learn to listen and negotiate: not to capitulate to every youthful folly, but to make thoughtful, caring, principled responses to particular needs and interests that appear in their day.
  • We need to ask ourselves whether there are any alternatives to placing our young people in relational suspended animation between the ages of puberty and early middle-age. The current pattern of the world is maximizing their stress and temptation to degrees that the Lord clearly never intended.
  • We need to attend to the cardinal need of young people to locate the right sort of life partner and to establish the right sort of early family. If, because of current social dynamics, we can’t hasten their ascent to adulthood, we can at least help them find hope at the end, so they can better withstand the temptation to settle for second-rate solutions.

Starting Anew

Unless we show our young people that there is a “win” on the Christian side, we cannot expect to do anything but keep losing them to the world. That “win” has to come by experiencing the Christian life as fuller, richer, purer, more vibrant, more meaningful and more challenging than the alternatives.

Fortunately, that is the essence of what the Christian life already is — or should have been all along. We just need to figure out how to make that a reality to them.

It starts with us. Are we living the more intense, fulfilling, meaningful, committed, holy and service-filled life that we want to offer to them? If not, then we need to deal with ourselves first. But we still need to get on with imagining and offering that to young people.

We need to listen. Middle or late age is not always the pole position for seeing what challenges and opportunities are facing a Christian young person in the world today. We have a lot to learn from hearing young people describe their experience and struggles. We need to establish relationships with them that make that possible and unthreatening to their growing independence.

Finally, we need to DO differently. Most of our traditional approaches to raising Christian young people have been failing for some time now. I think it’s time we faced the fact that we need to let the conventional ways go, and start anew.


  1. In case you did not know but the newest Star Trek releases can be found on CBS AllAccess here (right now one week free viewing):$null$null$cbs%20all%20a%20ccess&msclkid=5f32fe3da00d14ddde07a0bacbcd1be2&gclid=CLyZmY_ezOgCFd4DiAkdIbQFeQ&gclsrc=ds&_ivgu=6b1f9bc4-f631-454e-ab8f-ab6d5ac7d446

  2. This is why building an inheritance for our children's children, both spiritually and physically, is so important. Teenagers or adolescents just don't have the skills or resources to do these things. Fathers need to supply their children with employable skills (homemaking skills for daughters), lead their families in worship and set up their children for marriage. I'll let the reader decide to which extent they "set up" their kids for marriage.