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Mays: Adulthood passage rituals can create stronger faith

March 31, 2017 at 11:48 p.m.

Pat Mays

Life is a series of passages — from womb to a parent's arms, from childishness to childlikeness, from school to work, from independence to commitment, from life to death.

Historically, the Christian church has marked these events with rituals that turn these passages into significant events of faith formation, such as baptism, confirmation, marriage and funerals. More recently, it seems the church has lost the ability to bring meaning to the passage from adolescence to adulthood.

G. Stanley Hall, the pioneering psychologist and educator of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, identified adolescence as a time of "storm and stress" caused primarily by developmental physiology. He indicated the turbulent time in a young person's life lasted about two or three years.

In the following years, famed anthropologist Margaret Mead argued that the "storm and stress" of adolescence does not occur in cultures where there are identifiable transition events from childhood to adulthood. In other words, adolescence is as much, if not more, about culture as it is about biology.

As academic researchers from a variety of fields argued and postulated about adolescence through the 20th century, an interesting thing took place. Adolescence in the American experience began to lengthen. Secondary sexual characteristics began to occur at younger ages, while societal forces pushed adulthood to older ages.

For example, while the average age of puberty dropped from 14-15 to 11-12, the age when someone is considered an adult — as noted by cultural events, such as high school graduation, college graduation, drinking age and marriage — has increased. We are left with a murky adolescent limbo lasting up to 15 years, with no biological or cultural marker that clearly determines when one achieves adult standing.

For those concerned about Christian formation, the long transition of adolescence offers an intriguing opportunity to shape one's faith identity.

Religious rituals, particularly Christian ritual practices, provide both daily and life-stage moments of identity and confirmation of one's faith and commitment to the faith community. Applied to adolescence, such Christian practices can become clear markers for one maturing into adulthood. What is needed, then, is an intentional, structured passage.

My former professor Matthias Zahniser describes the importance of a ceremonial rite of passage for disciple making. The function of a rite of passage and religious pilgrimages is to move an individual from one status in society to another.

The individual is not only changed in the sense that one performs within a new role, but the individual's new role within society is culturally recognized. Additionally, in Christian practice, one's spiritual sense is heightened as one's relationship with God, others, and self is reordered, restored, and renewed.

Others, along with Zahniser, have noted how the most effective youth ministries employ such things as retreats and mission trips to help youth journey toward a mature faith. These spiritually significant events become vibrant touchstones for youth integrating their faith into everyday life. Importantly, these spiritually marking events often give a youth a clear sense of God's call for life.

I have been able to partner with other faculty at LeTourneau University to take what we know about the adolescent journey to adulthood, youth ministry and Christian theology to develop the Passage Institute for Youth and Theology (passageinstitute.org). We sponsor the Passage Fellowship, a year-long discipleship program for high school students to explore God's calling for their lives. We offer the resources of the university's theology faculty to partner with local churches in a program that features a residential campus learning experience, mentorship, and a guided community service project.

By taking a year to journey with youths, we believe these youths will "passage" into adulthood with their faith stronger and more active.

— Pat Mays is a professor of Christian ministries in the School of Theology and Vocation at LeTourneau University. Since 2008, he has served as a guest scholar for Bible translation projects in Nigeria. He also is the director of programming for LeTourneau University's Passage Institute for Youth and Theology, which offers creative discipleship programs for area high school students.

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