The Birth of Adolescence

Series | Lies Every Teen Believes

In 1904, G. Stanley Hall published a book titled, Adolescence: It’s Relations to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion and Education. Regardless of our opinion on his title, this is the first documented writing on adolescence. Let that sink in. The first time someone delineated adolescence as its own stage of development was 1904. Similarly, the term “teenager” was first published in the magazine Popular Science, but not until 1941.

The thesis of Hall’s book and his assumption about adolescence is that everyone between the ages of thirteen and eighteen is in a constant state of turmoil. Life is stormy for every teenager, a constant series of crisis and violent reactions. And this presupposition was based on his belief in evolution. The backbone of his argument was the evolutionary process, where through a sequence of events an organism passes by degrees to a different stage. Thomas Hine summarized Hall’s argument as,

The development of the individual mirrors the evolution of the species as a whole. He saw the adolescent as a savage, prone to violent, disruptive, impulsive behavior. The good news was that, just as humanity evolved to a higher form, adolescents will grow out of their savagery….[T]he optimism inherent in the notion that adolescence is something you’ll eventually grow out of does survive. (p.36)

So first, the idea of adolescence is based on the faulty assumptions of evolution. And second, the idea itself has only been around for 100 years!

Of course, Thomas Edison didn’t get his patent for the light bulb until 1889. I say that because I recognize just because something is relatively new in history doesn’t automatically make it invalid or unacceptable. New and helpful discoveries are frequently made. But it is also important to recognize that adolescence is not a timeless category, it is a modern invention and in this case, being “new” is not in favor of it’s being true.

But the biggest problem is not that adolescence is a new idea, it is that the idea of adolescence is unbiblical. The purpose of this entire series is to expose the origin of the lies of adolescence while also providing a more positive biblical approach with examples of young people from the Old and New Testaments. It will also address the impact of adolescence on youth ministry and offer more specific counsel to youth pastors.

Before we do that I need to share a few qualifiers. First, please understand that I have no intention to attack particular individuals, churches, or parachurches. But I do have a strong desire to assault false ideologies. An ideology is an orientation, a bent that characterizes the thinking of a group of people. And adolescence is just that. It is a social invention, an artificial concept, a lie. It is a myth that wrongly dominates the mindsets in our families, our schools, our society, and our churches and it must be challenged with truth.

Second, there is no denial that growth is a process. I happily acknowledge that the changes in a person’s life, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual, are progressive and gradual. Incremental maturity is seen in small stages or steps that are followed by still more stages and steps.

But even though normal growth is gradual, gradual growth is still growth! Rome wasn’t built in a day, and a child doesn’t become an adult overnight, but that is not the same thing as giving a person a free pass from pursuing maturity and responsibility because that person is a teenager.

I also make no denial that most teenagers act like…teenagers. The world and the church are filled with 12-20 year olds with adolescent mindsets. What I deny is that this is how it has always been and how it must be. I believe we have created this context and it only continues because we keep giving it credence. Ideas have consequences and the consequences of believing the lies of adolescence are no myth, they are very real. We in the church must work to change our collective thinking as God’s community before we will see any change.

Let me also say that I am thankful for God’s patience with me, and a rejection of adolescence is not equal to an approval of intolerance for or impatience with those who are in the growing process. My challenge is to those who argue that adolescence grants them the right to stay stagnant and prolong immaturity and irresponsibility as long as possible.

There is no doubt that the influence of our culture is profound, persistent, and real, but it is largely an act of human imagination. No matter what else you come away with from this series, the purpose of every pastor (and every parent too) is to present every man complete in Christ. The NRSV translates Colossians 1:28, “to present every man mature in Christ.” Whatever age you are, wherever you are on the road of maturity, the goal is always increasing maturity in Christ. Teenagers are no exception.

So, the earth is not flat, and most people have never thought it was. You know what else? Teenagers are not incapable of responsibility or maturity, and most people have never thought they were. To believe otherwise is to believe the lies.