Mythbusting

*A month ago I spent the weekend with Drew Buell and the high school ministry of Emmanuel Baptist Church at their fall retreat. The theme for the weekend was Mythbusters1 and I spoke five times on the myth of adolescence. In an unprecedented and perhaps never to be repeated display of vanity, the video for each session can now be viewed online.


  1. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday I busted myths, on Monday Calvin busted mutton.

A Vision for Young People

Here’s a great start to a new series on a gospel vision for the rising generation of young people. From someone who’s in the thick of parenting and pastoring youth:

living for the glory of Christ is not on hold until you are eighteen or twenty-one. There is a way for six-year-olds to make much of Christ and a way for ten-year-olds to make much of Christ and a way for sixteen-year-olds to make much of Christ. And there is a way for parents and church leaders and all of us to create a matrix of relationships and teachings and expectations and blessings that awaken young people from the emptiness and aimlessness of our popular youth culture and give them a vision for Christ-exalting significance throughout their pre-teen and teen years.

Teenagers Are Irresponsible

Series | Lies Every Teen Believes

The second lie teenagers believe is that they are, intrinsically, irresponsible. “Research” shows their brains have not yet fully developed so they can’t be expected to act appropriately. They are not ready to answer for their actions. Experts define adolescence as an extended season for experimentation and prolonged preparation. The teen years are for development and responsibility must be deferred.

Inevitably, the teenagers is a disappointment, whose combination of adult capacities and juvenile irresponsibility sows personal heartbreak and social chaos.” (Hine, 8)

*Our government doesn’t hold teens responsible. We’ve created an entirely different legal system to segregate younger lawbreakers from older ones. We’ve written new laws with lower standards because we don’t think they are able to make right decisions and behave appropriately. Many parents, teachers, and youth ministries have done basically the same thing by postponing opportunities to fail, as well as by protecting young people from the consequences of wrongdoing. We’ve gift-wrapped the excuse for them.

Shifting blame and shirking responsibility is as old as sin. Adam did it first when he sidestepped culpability in the garden–and he wasn’t even a teenager (Genesis 3:12). “It’s not my fault; it’s her fault.” And then he went even further and said “It’s the woman You gave me.” Adam was shameless enough to claim his sin was God’s fault.

Teenagers walk a similar path of unreasoning when they disavow responsibility. “I’m just a teenager.” Who does that blame? It implicitly points the finger at God. It’s almost as if they said, “God is in control of how old I am, and since He has me in this stage of life as an adolescent, He can’t hold me responsible.” They also take that to mean no one else can either.

But here is the crucial question: when a teenager disobeys God, is it a lesser offense in God’s sight? Is the penalty for adolescent sin more along the lines of purgatory rather than eternal death? No. God’s law opens no loopholes for teenagers. His standard remains perfection for all His creatures, including those who are still growing. We may be slow to hold teens responsible morally and spiritually; God is not. Church leaders, especially those of us who are parents or youth pastors, do young people no favors by failing to prepare them for God’s judgment.

An Addendum on ADD

One of the compelling issues in the adolescence, ADD, and ADHD phenomena is the possibility of genetic or hormonal causation. We are told that if it can be scientifically determined that certain actions or attitudes are inherent in a person’s physical make-up, then we are obligated to consider their behavior normal and should remove moral responsibility from the discussion. After all, if they can’t help it, we shouldn’t expect it.

One of my points in the original post is that most of the deviant behavior diagnosed by doctors in adolescents has nothing to do with biology or endocrinology. Instead it is entirely related to hamartiology–the study of sin. And though I tried to state my case carefully, acknowledging the possibility of certain physical conditions that affect one’s conduct, a few additional or clarifying thoughts came to mind.

First, the Bible indefatigably reveals that sin is the dominant human problem, that sin originates from within our own hearts, that sin has a commanding influence on our behavior, and that we are morally responsible to God for our sin. Scripture holds us accountable, not others, our circumstances, our upbringing, our DNA, or anything other than the passions of our flesh. Since teenagers are human (some may still be waiting for medical confirmation on that one), their supreme trouble is sin.

But second, even if someday doctors do discover a biological basis for inattentiveness, laziness, rebellion, etc., that will not change our accountability before God.

I think there is a striking similarity between this subject and the argument for normalizing homosexuality. My wife has made this point in personal conversations for many years, and earlier this month Albert Mohler published a foundational article at his blog on the connection between moral responsibility and biological causation. As scientists look for “genetic or hormonal cause for sexual orientation,” see if some of Mohler’s take-away points don’t apply equally to the “genetic or hormonal cause for teenage disobedience” discussion. He encourages “Christians who are committed to think in genuinely Christian terms” to “think carefully about these points:”

1. There is, as of now, no incontrovertible or widely accepted proof that any biological basis for sexual orientation exists.

3. Given the consequences of the Fall and the effects of human sin, we should not be surprised that such a causation or link is found. After all, the genetic structure, along with every other aspect of creation, shows the pernicious effects of the Fall and of God’s judgment.

4. The biblical condemnation of all homosexual behaviors would not be compromised or mitigated in the least by such a discovery. The discovery of a biological factor would not change the Bible’s moral verdict on homosexual behavior.

9. We must stop confusing the issue of moral responsibility and moral choice. We are all responsible for our sexual orientation, but that does not mean that we freely and consciously choose that orientation. … We do not always (or even generally) choose our temptations. Nevertheless, we are absolutely responsible for what we do with sinful temptations, whatever our so-called sexual orientation.

10. Christians must be very careful not to claim that science can never prove a biological basis for sexual orientation. We can and must insist that no scientific finding can change the basic sinfulness of all homosexual behavior.

So Christians who identify sin as the problem and the sinner as responsible do not need to fear the future discoveries of science and medicine. Even if biological factors are found in sexual orientation, teenage rebellion, or any other kind of temptation for that matter, personal culpability for sin is not removed. The Bible exhorts us to rebuke sin as sin–even in teenagers–and urge them to repentance and to consider themselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

UPDATE [7:53AM March 15]: The original post by Mohler is still making waves, upsetting both conservatives and liberals as seen in this article at The Christian Post (HT: Challies). Again, Mohler is not saying that there is a biological cause for homosexuality, he says if a connection is eventually pinpointed, it still won’t change the person’s moral responsibility to God for breaking His law.

Teenagers Are Incompetent

Series | Lies Every Teen Believes

Today we’ll address the first of the six lies of adolescence. Remember, by the name “adolescence” we are not simply referring to the biological changes that take place in a person over a small period of time (i.e., puberty). In our culture the word is more than a convenient catalog of the days, months, and years of being a teen. Adolescence refers to a mindset, and now an entire sub-culture, that has been established by certain lies that need to be laid bare.

1. Teenagers are incompetent.

*The first lie of adolescence says teens are not quite competent, in some ways not really complete humans. Thomas Hine said, “The concept of the teenager rests…on the idea of the adolescent as a not quite competent person, beset by stress and hormones” (The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager, p.4). Someone who is “incompetent” is a person who fails to have or show the necessary skills to do something. This lie presumes that teenagers don’t yet have the necessary skills for life. The church version of the lie maintains teens do not have the wisdom or ability for spiritual life.

To be sure, growth and maturity is a process. There is no reason to expect teens will have the wisdom and competence that they will when they are 30, 50, or 70. But the lie of adolescence implies that because teens are not as mature as they will be someday, it is okay for them to remain childish. Many parents defend their child’s incompetence like it is a right while others even insist that it is unreasonable to expect them to grow up!

This low expectation has far reaching consequences. Because we believe the lie that teenagers are incompetent we don’t expect them to be responsible, so we don’t give them responsibility, and the downward spiral is perpetuated. We’re not surprised when they fail. We anticipate their excuses. And now even medical doctors are dispensing excuses for their incompetence.

For example, one diagnosis of teenage incompetence comes in the form of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). ADHD is a behavioral disorder found mostly in boys that renders them incapable of paying attention for any significant length of time. Those with ADHD are easily distracted and physically incapable of sitting still. Currently, ADHD is understood to be “a persistent and chronic syndrome for which no medical cure is available.”

There have been some very excellent advances in medicine and technology in our day. Of course, some of those advances have enabled us to become really good at packaging our bologna. ADHD may just be old bologna in new packaging. When I was growing up, failing to pay attention was called rude, and 1 Corinthians 13:5 exposes rudeness as a lack of love. Getting low grades in school didn’t mean that you had a disorder, it typically meant that you were sluggard. Proverbs 6:6-11 clearly designates laziness as a moral problem, not a medical disorder.

I am not denying that there are legitimate disabilities that make it difficult for some people to learn and that may even make it hard for some people to sit still. In fact, I don’t love sitting still for long periods of time. Maybe I have adult ADHD (which of course is now a sanctioned diagnosis from medical professionals). But isn’t it obvious what happened? The kids diagnosed with ADHD grew up and, low and behold, it didn’t go away. But the reason their inability to pay attention didn’t go away is because it’s not an adolescent problem, it’s a heart problem.

For the majority of young people, hyperactive behavior, unwillingness to pay attention, habitual forgetfulness, etc., is just plain selfish. Selfishness says that my plans and what I want to do with my time are more important than what you want me to do. Not paying attention to someone else has more to do with focusing on yourself (cf. Philippians 2:3-5). That is selfishness and pride, not a disorder. Selfishness is a sin.

The lie of certain adolescent incompetence paints a pathetic picture of teens. But to believe that every teen is incompetent ignores thousands of years of capable and accomplished young adults. Consider David the shepherd boy as he defeated the giant, Daniel the exile who stood up to the Babylonian king, Mary the young mother of the Messiah, and even Jesus Himself as a young man in the temple confounding the wisdom of the Scribes. The Bible specifically exhorts young people, “Don’t let anyone despise your youth, but be an example of the believer” (1 Timothy 4:12). Scripture assumes teens are capable of spiritual competence with the Spirit’s help.

Of course, saying that teens are incompetent not only casts an ugly shadow on teens but it also calls God’s competence into question. Is adolescent incompetence so powerful God cannot overcome it? Or does He just not care about teenagers to begin with? We must press to this final point of trusting God at His Word and looking for His grace in our young people. Buying into the cultural lie that adolescents cannot be spiritually empowered to live wisely merely reveals a deeper problem, namely a belief that God cannot or will not use our teens for His own glory.

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.

A Definition for Adolescence

Series | Lies Every Teen Believes

Adolescence has achieved objective status as an obvious stage in human development in our culture. It is probably un-American and maybe even un-Christian, depending on what circles you’re in, to dispute it. And though this attitude toward teenagers is not surprising from the world since the secular culture is always looking for ways to excuse behavior, it is inexcusable that so many in the church have adopted the same mindset.

Webster defines adolescence as, “the state or process of growing up; the period of life from puberty to maturity terminating legally at the age of majority.” It categorizes the time period beginning at puberty and ending in adulthood, typically designated somewhere between the ages of twelve and twenty. Of course the high-end number continues to climb and entire books now suggest that the end of adolescence is closer to 25.

Growing up is a process. It would be foolish to suggest that a person should or could skip straight from 12 to 20. But there is more to the term adolescence than simply as a handy label to catalog the days, months, and years of a teenager.

The entire idea of adolescence is built on a mindset. A mindset is “a fixed mental attitude or disposition that predetermines a person’s responses to and interpretations of situations.” Parents assume that their teenager will have a certain mindset, and teenagers typically believe what adults tell them they will act like.

So what are some of the characteristics of this mindset? Though not organized in bullet form, Thomas Hine helps describe this mindset in his book The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager.

  • A teenager is incompetent. “The concept of the teenager rests in turn on the idea of the adolescent as a not quite competent person, beset by stress and hormones.” (p.4)
  • A teenager is irresponsible. The period of adolescence is a time for experimentation and prolonged preparation. It is a deferring of responsibility. “Inevitably, the teenagers is a disappointment, whose combination of adult capacities and juvenile irresponsibility sows personal heartbreak and social chaos.” (p.8)
  • A teenager is in a perpetual identity crisis. Every adolescent is always in a constant struggle to find self-esteem. “Who am I?” “Why do I have pimples?” “Why don’t other people like me?” “Why don’t I fit in?” Their struggle is one just to survive by adapting to ever changing situations.
  • A teenager is a problem waiting to happen. There is a kind of mystique surrounding teenagers that “encourages adults to see teenagers (and young people themselves) not as individuals but as potential problems.” (p.11) In addition, adolescence assumes that what teenagers do doesn’t really count.
  • A teenager will be rebellious. Rebellion is not a question of if, but when. An adolescent always wants to break out of the cocoon and get out from under the umbrella of parental authority. They will naturally want to challenge their teachers if not the law. They have no desire for accountability from anyone, including the church.*
  • A teenager is at the mercy of their hormones. There is a bias against teenagers, “expressed in the two-word term that serves as the vernacular explanation for almost everything teenagers do: Raging Hormones” (p.29).

The greatest danger of these descriptions of the adolescent mindset is that they are presented to as timeless, universal, and inevitable. The culture, and many in the church, have swallowed these definitions hook, lies, and sinker. This is precisely the way Hollywood portrays teens on television and in movies. This is exactly what popular music assumes life is like for teens.

And the result is that teenagers cannot be held responsible for what they do. An adolescent cannot possibly be expected to function like a reasonable, normal human being, they are just victims of their hormones.

Some have seen through the smoke of excuses, even non-believers.

[W]hile endocrinology (the study of glands and hormones of the body and their related disorders) is a field where fundamental discoveries are made regularly, there is not yet any biochemical explanation for surliness (uncontrolled anger), self-absorption, or rebelliousness. (ibid., p.30)

But sadly, the facts seem to have far less power than what people believe is true. Parents, teachers, church leaders, and teens themselves believe the lies.

An Introduction to the Myth of Adolescence

Series | Lies Every Teen Believes

“The facts are simple,” says Charles K. Johnson, president of the International Flat Earth Research Society. “The earth is flat.”

As you stand in his front yard, it is hard to argue the point. From among the Joshua trees, creosote bushes, and tumbleweeds surrounding his southern California hillside home, you have a spectacular view of the Mojave Desert. It looks as flat as a pool table. Nearly 20 miles to the west lies the small city of Lancaster; you can see right over it. Beyond Lancaster, 20 more miles as the cue-ball roles, the Tehachapi Mountains rise up from the desert floor. Los Angeles is not too far to the south.

Near Lancaster, you see the Rockwell International plant where the Space Shuttle was built. To the north, beyond the next hill, lies Edwards Air Force Base, where the shuttle was tested. There, also, the Shuttle will land when it returns from orbiting the earth. (At least, that’s NASA’s story.)

“You can’t orbit a flat earth,” says Mr. Johnson. “The Space Shuttle is a joke–and a very ludicrous joke.”

His soft voice carries conviction, for Charles Johnson is on the level. He believes that the main purpose of the space program is to prop up a dying myth–the myth that the earth is a globe.

The preceding excerpt is from an article titled: “The Flat-out Truth” printed in Science Digest, July 1980. The man mentioned in the article, Charles Johnson, died March 19, 2001, having fought the lonely and futile battle to, in his mind, “restore the world to sanity.”

A Google search for “flat earth” reveals a somewhat surprising reality that there are still many people today, even in the 21st century, who believe our earth is flat. There are even entire organizations devoted to fight the idea that the planet we live on is a globe.

But there is a simple problem: the earth is not flat. It is a lie that the earth is flat and that lie has generated a flat earth myth. A “myth” is just a traditional story accepted as history. A myth serves to explain the worldview of a people. And the story of a flat earth is quite literally a worldview; a made-up view of the world; an imaginary story passed from generation to generation.

In addition, I have come to find that there is a bigger myth, a bigger “story” than the story that our earth is flat. The bigger myth is the myth that asserts everyone used to think the earth was flat.

Now I admit, I didn’t always pay great attention in school. But until doing some research one Saturday night I’m sure I remember reading and discussing in school the whole account from 1492 where everyone thought Columbus was crazy for sailing off into the ocean because they all thought the earth was flat. I’m positive my teachers regaled me with the great drama on the high sea as sailors readied themselves to mutiny against the great Captain Columbus, fearful that after so many days without finding land they were sure to sail right off the edge of the world.

That story is all wrong. I read some fascinating research by a gentleman named Jeff Russell, a professor of history at the University of California in Santa Barbara. He says in his book, Inventing the Flat Earth, that throughout history and up to the time of Columbus, “nearly unanimous scholarly opinion pronounced the earth spherical.” Russell claims there is nothing in the documents from the time of Columbus or in early accounts of his life that suggests any debate about the roundness of the earth.

He attributes the myth about flat-earth popularity to the creator of another story, the story of Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving. Irving wrote a fictitious account of Columbus’s defending a round earth against misinformed priests and university professors.

The book was titled The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus and was published in 1828. It was a mixture of fact and fiction with Irving himself admitting he was “apt to indulge in the imagination.” Its theme was the thrilling victory of a lone believer in a spherical earth over a united front of Bible-quoting, superstitious ignoramuses, convinced the Earth was flat. Irving invented the picture of a young Columbus, a “simple mariner,” appearing before hooded theologians at the council of Salamanca, all of whom supposedly believed–according to Irving–that the earth was flat like a dinner plate.

There was, in fact, a meeting at Salamanca in 1491, but Irving’s account was pure fiction. He “let his imagination go completely…the whole story is misleading and mischievous nonsense.” The well-known argument at the Council of Salamanca was a question of the distance between Europe and Japan that Columbus presented and therefore had nothing to do with the shape of the earth. Needless to say Irving took some “dramatic license” to make the story more exciting.

But if the majority opinion was not that the earth was flat, how did the fictional version become the non-fiction truth taught in schools and schoolbooks as of the early 1860’s?

Russell says the flat-earth mythology flourished mostly between 1870 and 1920, and grew in a environment with an emerging acceptance of evolution. He says the flat-earth myth was an ideal way to dismiss the ideas of religion in the name of modern science.

The fundamental reason for promoting the lie about a flat earth was to defend Darwinism and provide ammunition against the creationists. The argument was simple and powerful: “Look how stupid these Christians are. They are always getting in the way of science and progress. These people who deny evolution today are exactly the same sort of people as the idiots who denied that the earth was round. How stupid can you be?”

So not only is the earth not flat, it has never been the popular view that it was! We might say the liberal media of the 1800s spun the truth to make Christians look stupid for teaching a flat earth and make evolutionists look smart. But the idea of a flat world is a lie. And the idea that everyone thought the earth was flat is an even bigger lie.

But this is not a series on the geometry of the earth. The major lesson from flat-earth beliefs is how well-spun myths mislead and how easily they blind one to contrary evidence. Embedded lies are major obstacles to the truth.

And there is a parallel myth running rampant in the church today; dangerous lies propagated by parents, spread by many youth pastors, defended by educators, and swallowed by young people themselves. The presuppositions of our generation about teenagers have become a story–a way we talk about life, and this story is a myth called adolescence.

The lies depict teenagers as helplessly incompetent, irresponsible, and in a perpetual identity crisis. Young people are portrayed only as problems waiting to happen, they are guaranteed to be rebellious, and always at the mercy of their hormones. Belief in these lies has become so commonplace that hardly anyone questions the reality or legitimacy of adolescence, resulting in an inability or unwillingness to hold teenagers responsible for what they do. This has produced widespread confusion among adolescents themselves and frustration for authorities.

Let me be clear as clear as possible, the popular idea of adolescence is not true and it is painfully unbiblical. Adolescence is not a fact–just like the earth is not flat. It is equally wrong to think that everyone has always recognized adolescence as a fact–just as everyone has not always believed that the earth is flat.