The Juvenilization of American Christianity, Part I

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?

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3 comments on “The Juvenilization of American Christianity, Part I

  1. wcosnett says:

    I haven’t read this book, so I’m just responding to the actual post. I had a couple of thoughts.

    First, I think it’s important to keep in mind that when people talk about the “extended adolescence” that occurs today, it’s doesn’t mean that people are extending their childhood, or forgoing adult responsibility. What it means is that what were once the societal markers for adulthood are occurring later in life. These markers being owning a home, starting a career, getting married, and having children. There was a time when it was not uncommon for someone to accomplish these “tasks” soon after high school. Nowadays an individual starting a career, getting married, buying their first home, and having children before they turn twenty is incredibly rare. There has been a lot of talk, which I tend to agree with, about the problematic nature of talking about adolescence and using biological markers to measure its beginning, but measuring its end with societal and economic markers.

    Economic factors have also had an effect. Many times when people talk about children moving back home after college, living with their parents into their thirties, and the picture leaps to mind of deadbeat slackers eating pizza and watching movies in the basement, unwilling to get a real job. Often this children are unable to find work, and contribute to the household any way they can. It’s also increasingly common for aging parents to move in with their children because they can no longer afford to live on their own, so the grown children are now supporting the older generation. Does this mean that the retired seniors are extending their adolescence?

    Which still leaves people who choose not to marry, choose not to have children, are unable to have children, who decide that buying a house isn’t a good investment anymore. So I don’t agree that “extended adolescence” necessarily translates to “societal immaturity”.

    Second, for the religious matter, I can see the argument about the successful practices of youth ministry being extended into adult Christian practices and the issues that can cause. Youth ministry originally came about because of the recognition that youth had specific needs that were different from adults. I can see that being a problem if those practices and attitudes are simply transferred, whole cloth, to the worship and practices of the church as a whole without any translation or adaptation. We ask less from youth, because they have less to give. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a youth group that has a stewardship campaign. We teach them about stewardship, but we recognize that they are not able to support the church in that way right now. We teach them to help them make the right choices. We focus on programs so that they want to come. Many churches focus almost elusively on what they can provide the youth. Many judge the success of their ministry by how many youth are attending events. Many feel they need to have fun games or crazy parties as the sugar pill within which they can slip the bitter medicine of the Bible. These are problematic attitudes to have towards youth, and are magnified when extended to all of the churches ministries.

    The problem I see is not one I would characterize as the juvenilization of Christianity, but more the comodification of it The message is “Come to this church because we can provide these programs and these experiences for you. Entertaining worship, moral education for your young ones, fun programs for your youth. Baptisms, weddings, and funerals. Pastoral care and counseling. Family events. Give to this church so we can continue to provide these programs to you.” The relationship that is set up is that of producer of content and consumer of content. This can extend into worship as well. The congregation stops being a participator in worship, and becomes a spectator. I’m looking at you, church that has a coffee bar in the back so people can hang out and talk during the service if they become slightly bored.

    So, I realize this is now really long, and a little rambling, but probably my main point is that I think using the terms “Adolescent”, “Juvenile”, and “youth” to describe the phenomenon miss the point. Even if the problem is Youth Ministry techniques are being used in churches that are inappropriate, then they probably weren’t that appropriate when they were used in the youth ministry, so the flaw is the practices themselves, not where they originated.

    • Wow. Thanks for this lengthy and thought-out response. The “commodification of Christianity” is an interesting line of thought here.

      Regarding the idea of adolescence, though: I understand that there may be problems with talking about adolescence beginning biologically and ending socially/economically, but would you be more comfortable with the social (or, more likely, psycho-social) being the marker on both ends?

      It is a sticky thing, I agree, to define the “end” of adolescence. In my introductory youth ministry class this semester, I asked my students if they were still adolescent or adult (their ages range, I think, from about 19 to 22). There was some confusion over what exactly marked the dividing line between the two, and in truth it can be hard to define. Markers like marriage, home ownership, children can, in our society, be indicators of growing adulthood, but it is quite possible to be rather adolescent and still possess these markers (read here the issues of casual divorce, the housing crisis, and deadbeat and careless parents). Talking about the end of adolescence is in some ways like trying to define what “mature” is…much more qualitative than quantitative, and subject to change from culture to culture. Anthropology might be a help here, I think.

  2. […] Upshaw blogged about “The juvenilization of Islam.” Joshua R. Ziefle also posted parts one and two of his review of the book to his […]

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