A faith stuck in adolescence
In the 1940s experts predicted the decline of religious belief in America, and had the survey data to back up their predictions. At the end of the Second World War leaders—religious and political—became increasing concerned that the nation faced two threats that could destroy all that America stood for. From without the Communists threatened to seduce young people into their cause, and from within a decadent popular culture threatened to subvert faith and virtue. The defeat of the Nazis had proven that young people could be on the cutting edge of change, learning to lead, and willing to risk their lives for what was right. In a movement that spanned the diverse spectrum of Christian churches religious leaders launched an emphasis on youth ministry never before seen in the history of the faith. The emphasis was wildly successful, in most cases, but produced an unexpected and unintended result: the juvenilization of American Christianity, a condition that remains with us in these opening decades of the 21st century.
This is the thesis that Thomas Bergler advances in The Juvenilization of American Christianity:
Juvenilization is the process by which the religious beliefs, practices, and developmental characteristics of adolescents become accepted as appropriate for Christians of all ages. It begins with the praiseworthy goal of adapting the faith to appeal to the young. But it sometimes ends badly, with both youth and adults embracing immature versions of the faith… Adolescents have good developmental reasons for at least sometimes thinking and acting in an immature fashion. But it is harder to explain why adults feel free to neglect the character traits of Christian maturity. Of course, we must also celebrate the fact that some very good things have come from injecting more ‘youth’ into American Christianity. And it is important to recognize that not everything that a culture labels as ‘adult’ is necessarily a good reflection of Christian maturity. Still, unchecked juvenilization does tend to undermine Christian maturity over time. Only by learning from the victories and defeats of the past can we hope to achieve spiritual maturity in our individual lives and in the corporate lives of our churches. And only intergenerational communities of people devoted to mature Christianity can build seawalls high enough to hold back the tide of juvenilization that has now risen high enough to threaten all of us.
A juvenile faith is characterized by an assortment of traits. There is an emphasis on one’s personal relationship with God, so that if an expression of faith does not make a believer sufficiently happy, they will shop for another. Older or traditional forms of faith are deemed inauthentic, or too dogmatic, and the rituals and institutions of the faith should be entertaining or at least consistently interesting. Being spiritual is more important than being religious. A search for truth is usually more central than a body of settled doctrine, and it is assumed believers need to choose beliefs and practices that make sense to them. Religious teaching should help people live more effectively, and the idea of Christian maturity sounds suspicious compared to personal growth. Successful churches and ministries adapt to popular cultural styles and provide lots of opportunities that are stimulating but not restrictive.
After introducing his thesis, Bergler traces the growth of youth movements and ministries over succeeding decades. In separate treatments he traces this development within a mainline church (Methodist), the black church and community, in the Roman Catholic Church, and the evangelical community (which usually involved parachurch organizations). His research is detailed and meticulous, revealed in the fascinating history Bergler unfolds. Having grown to adulthood during this period, I learned a great deal about what was transpiring around me over the years, and to which I was mostly oblivious. This history may be too detailed for most lay Christians, but would be worth careful reading for anyone involved in church leadership. His thesis on the other hand, is something every believer should be willing to consider. If it is true that working to make the faith appealing to adolescents slowly transformed the landscape of the church so that it remains frozen in spiritual immaturity, all who want to grow to maturity in Christ should be concerned. Bergler includes a brief section near the end of the book on the “taming of juvenilization,” which though thoughtful is inadequate, obviously only the beginning of the work and reflection that needs to be done.
Bergler’s warning should be heeded. It may not be the final word on all that’s wrong with the American church, but his analysis is too compelling to ignore.