Not too long ago I read Thomas Bergler’s new book The Juvenilization of American Christianity. Judging the book by its cover, I was expecting a sustained and perhaps convincing salvo against the state of the faith today. What I found was a historical argument a little less compelling, albeit still motivated by its central theme: “Juvenilization is the process by which the religious beliefs, practices, and developmental characteristics of adolescents become accepted as appropriate for all ages” (4).
To prove his case, Bergler takes a historian’s look at mainline Protestantism (sadly, focusing only on the Methodist church), the black church experience (where I’m not that he proves his case that convincingly), Roman Catholicism, and evangelicalism. In reading the text, one comes to suspect that the main target of his book are evangelicals, where it seems that juvenilization has both persisted and grown.
Within evangelicalism, he says, it has been the influence of youth ministries that has contributed to adolescent perspectives on the faith: something that was “more emotionally vibrant and socially relevant” yet “could be superficial and did not necessarily lead to a mature adult commitment to the church” (210). As someone who teaches youth ministry classes, I am well aware of the dangers involved, yet wonder if it is indeed all “my” fault that things have turned sideways.
To my mind, there needs to be a greater awareness that it is not just American Christianity that has been juvenilized, but indeed all of American society. In other words, this is not just a church issue. Voices from various corners have for a little while now been speaking to us about prolonged adolescence and our failure to grow up, not to mention the overwhelming influence adolescent culture has on our broader society. Perhaps, in this calculus, it would have been very hard for churches NOT to be juvenilized if they were trying to reach their existing culture.
Just as early Christianity was affected powerfully by the cultures around it, should we not expect to be as well? In light of this, then, we ought to ask if there is something morally wrong with prolonged adolescence, or is this just the “new normal?” Can we minister in a world where people live with their parents until they are 30? Do the Scriptures condemn it, or is our distaste for it simply a sign of our own presuppositions?
While Bergler attempts to be evenhanded about the developments that motivated his book (“juvenilization has renewed Christianity, it has also undermined Christian maturity,” 224), the perceived dangers of juvenilization seem to outweigh its benefits. In response he reflects on spiritual growth matters and the like. Though the line between “societal immaturity” (whatever that means) and spiritual immaturity is a hazy one, it is nevertheless a thing we should think about carefully. All of this is laudable–indeed, I have no qualms with him about the biblically-mandated need for spiritual maturity–but we need as well to remember that if juvenilization is such a danger, it is one believers should take time to think about in the society at large as well. Where does the church need to admit that ours is a “youth world” now and let it be what it is, and where does it need to work within our American culture to help transform it?