Christian Smith wrote the book Souls in Transition. It is a study of what he calls ‘emerging adults’ who are the 18-29 year olds in North America. He has noticed that, unlike previous generations, they live an extended adolescence. This group are aware that, at some time, they will probably become mature and adult, get married and buy a house. But for now it is important to keep the options open and postpone settling down. They need to keep nimble and not put down roots.

In his book Smith has noticed that this group have certain characteristics:

  • They want to have fun
  • Manage the transitions of boyfriends; girlfriends and career
  • Try not to screw up the future
  • Still believe in the promise of mass consumerism
  • Have little sense of civic consciousness with almost all of them politically disengaged
  • Do not engage the world beyond their fingertips.
  • Have no objective, shared reality and so are imprisoned in their subjective selves
  • Are confused around which paths to follow, and so have a crisis around knowledge and values

Therefore, a need to succeed personally is all important. Without personal success there is no life. They need to feel that everything is going well personally because there is nothing of much value apart from personal success. When the only thing that matters is personal success you eventually transition into the old man who still remains the adolescent boy. I think this extended adolescence can go a little further than 29 and cracks on through to early middle age.

Who is this ‘boy’ who must die? He is the rootless, uncommitted, self-focused, consumer who wants to avoid and disengage. He is the boy who only cares about the world just beyond his fingertips. He is the boy who is content with personal success, while the world goes on its ten thousand journeys to hell and he can barely raise a finger. He is the boy who has never become a man.

John the Baptist, Jesus, Stephen the first martyr of the church, Paul the Apostle and my own journey are the inspiration for what I want to explain next.

What do you need to come to terms with on this journey from the ‘boy’ to the ‘man’? How do we get out of extended, or even eternal adolescence, and move on to fulfilling the reason why we have been born?

The Wildness of God: His love and power cannot be controlled

The boy says, ‘I must control’. The man says, ‘I am learning to live out of control’. 

If you are dominated by the question ‘am I safe?’ and ‘am I right?’, you will remain forever the boy. But these are the questions dominating many men’s lives. Is it no wonder that we are boring our women to death? God is wild in his love for you and he is more than content to exercise his power to prove it. The woman you marry, or have married, has the right to require you to ask bigger questions than ‘am I safe?’ and ‘am I right?’ We need to step out of our need to control and learn afresh the wildness and love of God. But there is usually one block in the way.

Richard Rohr talks about a deficit in men which he calls ‘father hunger’. This develops into a ‘father wound’ when not addressed. He tells the story of leading a retreat in Peru in 1977 and a nun who worked with prisoners told him she encouraged the prisoners to send their mothers Mother’s Day cards. She kept bringing in boxes and boxes of cards to be sent to mama but never had enough. For Father’s Day she was ready with a box of cards but they remained in her office. Not one prisoner asked for the Father’s Day Card. She could not even give them away. There was a ‘father wound’. The ‘father wound’ is cut when men have never ‘seen themselves as sons of men who admired them’ (Richard Rohr, Wild Man to Wise Man, p.73).

In 1959 I was told that my father had died. I was seven years old. My elder brother and I were sitting in the garden of a children’s home at the time. I am sure it left me with this ‘father hunger’ and a ‘father wound’. But I became a Christian when I was twelve through the help of foster parents. As an early adolescent I was overwhelmed by the story of the love of God for me. Before long I started to realise that I was God’s beloved son and that the words of the Father to the Son at the baptism of Jesus, ‘this is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased’ applied to me. I was and am a son of God. I am made in his image and deeply loved. This deep, shaping truth has formed and sustained me through all of my stupidities, blunderings and excitements.

This love and wildness of God had me church planting at twenty-one, heading off to India when I was twenty-four, choosing a low salary – and sometimes no salary job – throughout my life and starting a new organisation when I was fifty-four. It has been great. Yet God has had me on a journey. I owe so much to the church. I never had a human father substitute but many older men walked with me and loved me in very different ways. I have had so many brothers and sister who have shared their lives with me. However, while sitting in a lecture hall in Regent College in 1995 I realised that through Eugene Peterson and Jim Houston that God was showing me what I needed to be twenty and thirty years on. Through both of these men I learned afresh that God cannot be controlled. He is too big and full of dangerous love – propelling love.

For the boy to become the man we have to learn that we cannot domesticate God.

Accepting Risk: Preparing to Make Mistakes

The boy says, ‘I must not fail because I will look like a fool’. The man says, ‘I will fail but I want to live out the reason why I have been born’.

For the boy to die, and the man to live, you need to embrace the world of mistake. You have to take risks. If you have not had some sort of failure the journey towards the second half of life has yet to begin. St. Gregory of Nyssa said, ‘Sin happens whenever we refuse to keep growing’. Risk, mistake and growth are all mixed in together. But if you just want to be ‘safe’ and ‘right’ you will not make this journey out of the boy and into the man.

‘Many depressed people are people who have never taken any risks, never moved either outside their comfort zone, never faced necessary suffering, and so their unconscious knows that they have never lived – or loved’ says Richard Rohr(Falling Upward, p.135).

John the Baptist was a wild man and the final prophet before Jesus. He did not fully understand all of what is going on around him, but lived boldly and well. Stephen, the first martyr, reached into his heart and told the truth with his face aglow. Both of them accepted the risk of being men who are going to say what needs to be said and do what needs to be done. The invitation offered by these great men is to a life of continual struggle and wrestling. Sometimes we are wrestling with God but always struggling with the world, the flesh and the devil. There is no choice in this because the needs of the world are too great to be otherwise. We have to learn to risk and confront.

For me, church planting at twenty-one was a near disaster. It was as though we read the book of Acts and snapped in two every good principle in church planting. I was single, young, alone, broke and living in the scout hut we had just bought. After a two week Evangelistic campaign on the first Sunday there were four people, three ladies and me. Two of the ladies had a combined age of about 170 and the other was wheeled in by her husband and left at the front. This was a time when I had to put into action every idea, hunch and survival strategy I had known. I had to have a theology working in the real grit of loneliness or choose a new career. I got through the crisis by the skin of my teeth.

If you have not been sustained through your first spiritual crisis – and what a risky business that is – you have not yet begun. We rarely learn well in class or church. It is only in the middle of our real lives that we are formed. As Richard Rohr says, we don’t ‘think ourselves into new ways of living, we live ourselves into new ways of thinking’. At every stage of male development there are risks to take and actions to be done.

To move on from being the boy to becoming the man you will need to courage to take risks.

Decentre yourself: It is not about you

The boy says, ‘I am the centre of the world’. The man says, ‘I am born to serve’.

If we are going to journey from the boy into the man we have to cultivate self-forgetfulness. This is a challenge because everything in contemporary culture is telling you to do the opposite. We live in a culture of flattery. We are continually addressed by advertising that flatters us by placing ourselves at the centre of the world. I can’t walk through Westfield -Europe’s largest shopping centre – and not feel that it is all there for me. It is like walking into a cathedral, but in a cathedral it is God who is the centre. In Westfield it is me. Westfield has all the side-chapels of a cathedral, but they are called Apple, Timberland, and House of Fraser. They are full of busy acolytes who are ready to serve me. I am the centre of their world because they want to sell me stuff.

‘He must increase and I must decrease’ said John the Baptist. Before Stephen was stoned he told a story. It was not a story about himself but rather the story of God. To move from being a boy to a man you have to make the shift from being the one served to the one who serves. But if you get the wild love of God in your heart and head this becomes a joy. You live your life out of thanks and joyful service.

The boy tends to exploit women. The man loves them. The man discovers that you are not the point of your own life but this can come as a bit of a shock, particularly in marriage. It is a great day when you understand that your life is about the flourishing of your wife and children and not about you.

This is the way to true greatness.

For the boy to become the man you realise every day that you are not the point of your own life.

Preparation for Death: The only place to be free

The boy says, ‘I don’t want to talk or think about death’. The man says, ‘I need to face death so I can be free’.

We try not to think about death. We are immature when it comes to it. But I am convinced that facing our own mortality is the only way to grow from the boy into the man. One of the jobs of a Church of England priest is to prepare you for a good death.

I have had three near death experiences that I am aware of. Well, two near death and one very close. The first was my jumping onto the line at Oxford Circus underground station in 1971. I was pulling a blind man off the line while the train raced through on the other platform. In 1977 I had an emergency appendectomy in Nadiad, Gujurat, India and in 1999 a heart attack while speaking at a conference in Hyderabad, again in India. I had a total occlusion in the left arterial descending branch of my heart, otherwise known as ‘the widow maker’. And there is another continual near death experience, that of riding my bike around Hammersmith Broadway. I have thought much about how I will die and have my own thoughts on how I would like it to happen.

Saint Francis said, ‘If you have once faced the great death, the second death can do you no harm’. If we are going to change the world, struggle and suffering have to be entered into. There will be lorry loads of paradoxes and grief around the world before God receives all the glory due to Him. This is right at the core, for you have to be wounded to become a man. In all initiation rites you die before you die, this is what Christian baptism is all about. We die and are raised to a new life.

There are two deaths I am talking about: the death to self and the physical death of your body. Both have to be faced so you can be truly free. This is the freedom to say with the Apostle Paul, ‘I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me’ (Galatians 2:20) and ‘for me to live is Christ, to die is gain’ (Phil 1:2). We can face it because we know it is temporary. By the power of a resurrected life we punch through death into our final transformation.

So, how do you say farewell to the boy? By becoming a fresh and open child of God who lives with God’s loving wildness. A man who accepts the risks, decentres themselves and anticipates death so they can be free. Our affluence delays and confuses all of this, seducing us into believing that we can be alive without anticipating death and the life beyond. The fear of death and all the other fears spawned by it need to be faced so we can be free.

For the boy to die, death needs to be faced so that life can be lived.

Jesus lived through all of this and shows us how it is done. In his wild love he turned over the money tables and whipped corrupt people out of the temple. He struggled in prayer, submitting himself to the will of his Father and therefore living out the reason why he had been born. He decentred himself and knelt at the feet of the disciples to wash their feet and finally he died on the cross, rising again to an endless life.

What a man!

Paul sums much of this up. Here is a description of the possibilities of saying farewell to the boy. This is a man talking. From The Message Paul says, ‘I’ve worked much harder, been jailed more often, beaten up more times than I can count, and at death’s door time after time. I’ve been flogged five times with the Jew’s thirty-nine lashes, beaten by Roman rods three times, pummelled with rocks once. I’ve been shipwrecked three times, and immersed in the open sea for a night and a day. In hard travelling year in and year out, I’ve had to ford rivers, fend off robbers, struggle with friends, struggle with foes. I’ve been at risk in the city, at risk in the country, endangered by the desert sun and sea storm, and betrayed by those who I thought were my brothers. I’ve known drudgery and hard labour, many a long and lonely night without sleep, many a missed meal, blasted by the cold, naked to the weather. And that’s not the half of it, when you throw in the daily pressures and anxieties of all the churches. When someone gets to the end of his rope, I feel the desperation in my bones. When someone is duped into sin, an angry fire burns in my gut’ (2 Corinthians 11) but he says a few verses later that God says, ‘My grace is enough; it’s all you need. My strength comes into its own in your weakness.’ So Paul says, ‘I just let Christ take over! And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become.’ (1 Corinthians 12)

The boy is dead. The man lives.

Viv Thomas

Viv Thomas is the founder of Formation. He is passionate about ‘the spectacular ordinary life’ and seeing people flourish into all that they possibly can be. Viv has a national and international speaking and teaching ministry. He is an Associate International Director for OM International and continues to travel the world seeking to see leaders grow. Leadership, Spirituality and Mission are particular passions. See all posts by Viv →