The Juvenilization of American Christianity

2012-09-21
A Column by Dr. Tom Bergler, Professor of Ministry & Missions
Tom Bergler BookPop worship music. Falling in love with Jesus. Spiritual searching and church switching. Seeker sensitive church marketing. Sixty years ago, these now commonplace elements of American church life were rare. What happened? Beginning in the 1930s and 1940s, Christian teenagers and youth leaders staged a quiet revolution in American church life that can properly be called 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.

In the 1920s when people were asked “why do you go to church?” they tended to say “habit.” But by the 1970s the most common answer had changed to “enjoyment.” By personalizing Christianity and creatively blending it with elements of popular culture ranging from rock music to political protests, youth ministries helped ensure the ongoing vitality of Christianity in America. But these same ministries also sometimes pandered to the consumerism, self-centeredness and even outright immaturity of American believers.

Juvenilization began when a new, more powerful youth culture emerged in the 1940s, the same decade that saw the birth of the term “teenager.” In their desire to appeal to teenagers, Christian youth leaders began offering more entertaining versions of the Christian faith. It worked. Millions of young people met Jesus and devoted their lives to him. But the juvenilized Christian faith they embraced had sometimes subtly changed to become more self-centered, emotionally driven and intellectually empty. One young member of Youth for Christ described Jesus as just like Elvis, only better, “I’ve found something else that has given me more of a thrill than a hundred Presleys ever could. It’s a new friendship with the most wonderful Person I’ve ever met, a Man who has given me happiness and thrills and something worth living for.” No one stopped to ask what might be lost when a relationship with Jesus was equated with an emotional attachment to a teen idol.

By themselves these changes might not have been enough to juvenilize the church. We could imagine teenagers growing out of their adolescent ways of relating to God. But that did not happen for post 1960s generations because adulthood itself changed. Before the 1960s, most people became adults in their late teens or early 20s by getting married, getting a job or having children. Today, these life events are so delayed that psychologists have named a new life stage to describe people in their 20s: emerging adulthood.

It is not just the journey to adulthood that has changed, so has the destination. Traits that have traditionally been associated with adulthood such as responsibility, self-denial and serving others are now optional. Like adolescents, many adults indulge in an unending identity search and feel free to delay certain parts of adulthood indefinitely. I have encountered Christians in their 40s or even their 50s who are uncomfortable with the idea of growing up and becoming an adult. We’re all adolescents now. Not surprisingly, churches have started looking a lot like youth groups.

What’s the big deal? Isn’t staying young better than becoming old and stagnant? I’m glad that young people injected some youthfulness into American churches. I believe in youth ministry and I am proud to be training high quality youth ministers at Huntington University. The problem is that juvenilized Christians are in danger of completely giving up on spiritual maturity. Early in my career at Huntington University, I asked a group of students in my Understanding the Christian Faith class, “What does a mature Christian look like?” They didn’t like the question and resisted answering it. “I don’t think we ever arrive in our spiritual growth.” “We’re not supposed to judge others.” “No one is perfect in this life.” Sadly, these students from good families and churches did not believe that Christian maturity was either attainable or desirable.

Thankfully, Huntington University is a good place for emerging adults to grow toward spiritual maturity. Across the campus, faculty, staff and students are helping one another grow up into Christ through mentoring, mission trips, classroom discussions, chapel experiences and daily life encounters. Let me describe a few things I have been doing to help students catch a vision for spiritual maturity.

In Understanding the Christian Faith class, I teach students that, according to the author of the book of Hebrews, spiritual maturity is to be expected in the life of every Christian after a reasonable period of growth (Hebrews 5:11-6:2). Students write a spiritual autobiography, take a personality test and do a fruit of the Spirit self-assessment. They learn about spiritual disciplines and their role in the process of spiritual growth. They use that information to choose a spiritual discipline that is tailored to their personality, spiritual growth need and stage in life and practice that spiritual discipline for six weeks. For many, this is one of the first times in their lives that they experience a way of connecting with God that consistently works for them.

In my Discipling Ministries class, students read a summary of what the New Testament teaches about spiritual maturity. Then they learn a method for helping people find a vision for spiritual growth, say “yes” to God’s vision for them and take steps to allow God to transform their lives. Students put this method into practice by inviting a friend to walk through it with them. In these peer mentoring relationships, Huntington University students are growing together toward spiritual maturity.

I also take time to mentor students and to invite them to join me in an outreach ministry I lead with needy families in the city of Huntington. Through the years I have been privileged to see two of these young people earn the Servant Leadership Award from the Joe Mertz Center for Volunteer Service. But it is not about awards. It is about learning the value of consistently investing in the life of a child or teenager over several years.

If I could call on adults to do one thing in response to my book, it would be to find a younger person and begin to help him or her grow toward spiritual maturity in Christ. Not only is it the right thing to do and commanded in Scripture (Ephesians 4:15-16), it is also one of the best ways for us to grow as adults.

Dr. Tom Bergler's newest book, “The Juvenilization of American Christianity,” (Eerdmans, 2012), was featured on the cover of the June 2012 Christianity Today.
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