You know the guy. He somehow managed to graduate college, but he still lives with his parents. And he doesn't plan to move out anytime soon. Or maybe he has a decent job. He lives with some buddies in the city. But he blows most of his money on video games and his latest efforts to bring a girl back to his place.
That guy was the subject of an article in the winter volume of City Journal, published by the Manhattan Institute. Kay S. Hymowitz writes about this developing phenomenon in her article, "Child-Man in the Promised Land." Hymowitz is not the first writer to observe this new developmental stage for young men between adolescence and adulthood. David Brooks termed this period the "Odyssey Years" in a New York Times column. The evidence of this trend affects our culture in significant waysdelayed marriage, delayed childbirth, career instability.
"Dating gives way to Facebook and hooking up," Brooks writes. "Marriage gives way to cohabitation. Church attendance gives way to spiritual longing. Newspaper reading gives way to blogging." It's not that young people today just want to slack off and don't care about each other, Brooks cautions. "It's a phase in which some social institutions flourishknitting circles, Teach for Americawhile otherschurches, political partieshave trouble establishing ties."
Indeed, this new phase of social development portends major shifts in church life. Spoken or not, many churches have practiced an evangelistic strategy that doesn't expect to reach young men until they return with wife and kid in tow. If this was ever a wise strategy, surely now it is bound to fail. Hymowitz points out that in 1970, 69 percent of 25-year-old and 85 percent of 30-year-old white men were married. By 2000 those numbers had dropped to 33 percent and 58 percent. Between 2000 and 2006 alone, the median age of marriage for men climbed nearly one year, from 26.8 to 27.5. Can our churches afford to wait at least 12 years, between ages 18 and 30, for men to return? Maybe this is a better question: Are young men doomed to self-centered pursuits so long as they haven't tied the knot?
"For whatever reason, adolescence appears to be the young man's default state, proving what anthropologists have discovered in cultures everywhere: it is marriage and children that turns boys into men," Hymowitz writes. "Now that the SYM [single young male] can put off family into the hazily distant future, he canand willtry to stay a child-man."
Certainly this challenge requires a missionary response from our churches. If these men will not come and join our worship services, we must go and seek them. This imperative seems to inspire the current "missional" rage among evangelicals. Evangelistic appeals grounded in felt needs won't do the trick with these men. What good is this approach when we see no evidence that these young men feel the need to change? And if we adjust our beliefs and behaviors in order to attract these men, we run the risk of peddling the gospel and precluding God-given transformation.
No, there must be something different and demanding about the gospel if we expect these men to abandon their self-concerned lives. Thankfully, that's exactly the gospel we proclaim, Jesus Christ and him crucified. Jesus himself set the standard for discipleship. "If anyone would come after me," he said, "let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Matt. 16:24-25). Jesus calls his followers to entrust their anxieties to him and devote themselves fully to serving God and his kingdom. These are difficult words, but we cannot survive the wrath of God unless we heed them. Seeking first the kingdom means nothing less than abandoning ourselves for the refuge of God's grace.
Understanding this fact is the only hope for reaching a lost generation of young men. You see, everyone wars against the sinful tendency to shirk responsibility and accountability. As Hymowitz said, if you can, you willunless you know the gospel freedom, that is. These men aren't so different from everyone else. They need the gospel to liberate them from themselves, so that they will seek first the kingdom, not the latest Will Ferrell movie. If we expect to see these men in our churches, perhaps we should begin by looking at ourselves to see whether we model the discipleship we profess. We do these men no favors if we transfer them from the kingdom of video games into the kingdom of conspicuous consumerism.
There is one more problem. Discussing the problem of men in the church necessarily stirs up questions about gender roles. Perhaps no theological debate in the church today incites such personal, emotion-wrought responses. That's because your views on male headship and egalitarian leadership are not incidental to Christian practice. Let me say this. There is a historical tendency for the church to become engulfed in a theological debate even as the culture whistles past. Today's church desperately needs biblical teaching on gender roles. But what will it gain the kingdom if one side wins the debate but we all forfeit the culture?
As much as we may wish it so, there is no apparent end in sight to the church's gender wars. In the meantime, you might look around for young men in your church. If you don't see them, where will you find them? When you find them, what will you tell them about this Jesus? Now that's a man who accomplished a great deal by his early 30s without getting married.
Verse for the Fortnight
"So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart."
2 Timothy 2:22
Collin Hansen is a CT editor-at-large and author of Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists.
Copyright © 2008 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Previous Theology in the News columns are available on our site.