There is a phenomenon in church life and practice which I have been troubled by for some time, but couldn’t put my finger on what it was. Why is that some pastors feel the need to address God in prayer as thought he’s his best mate? (“Hey God! We love you.”) Why do we sing praise to our Lord accompanied by rock/pop style music? What drives the need to make church services “engaging” and “interesting” for people? Why are we told that we must assist people on their “spiritual journey” instead of instructing them in biblical doctrine? One word that encapsulates this is juvenalization.
Thomas E. Bergler is an associate professor of ministry and missions at Huntington University, and is the senior associate editor of The Journal of Youth Ministry. He is well qualified to write on the juvenlization of the church, and he has written an excellent work on it called The Juvenalization of American Christianity (Eerdemans, 2012, 229 pages). “Juvenalization,” writes Bergler, “is the process by which the religious beliefs, practices, and developmental characteristics of adolescents become accepted as appropriate for Christians of all ages.” (p.4)
In other words, we try and adapt our faith to the younger generations with the admirable goal of reaching them with the gospel, and yet we end up embracing an immature Christianity across the board.
Bergler tells a story. The meta-narrative is about immaturity; the American church gradually embraced immaturity as mark of faithful Christianity, in spite of the multiple calls for maturity in the Scriptures. There are smaller narratives which make up Bergler’s study, which focus on four different churches and the cultural shift that occured during the 1950s and 1960s: liberal protestants, Roman Catholics, African-American churches, and evangelicalism.
In short, each of these traditions came out of the first half of the twentieth century seeing young people as the ones who would save and redeem the world. They had to be reached, built up, and equipped to carry out God’s mission. Adults were seen as tired, apathetic, and lacking drive and creativity. The Methodists juvenalized by focusing their young people on social causes, and almost abandoning the institutional church itself. The Catholics built a sturdy ghetto, made up of many parachurch institutions, which kept their young people ensconced in their subculture. However, they failed to provide their young people with a theological/worldview foundation for the Catholic life and faith.
The Afro-American church had a strong subculture, but was gradually worn down by the militant civil rights movement. This started out as a Christian movement, more-or-less, but became a militant youth movement which associated less and less with the church. Finally, the evangelicals built a hugely popular movement around organisations like Youth For Christ (YFC), and around celebrities like Billy Graham. They had an explicitly attractional mode of gaining young people’s attention, and converting them to Christ. And yet, their success in attracting young people led to an aggressive juvenlization of evangelical culture in general.
What was most fascinating about this book was the commentary on the evangelical youth movement. YFC really did pioneer the use of popular music styles at rallies, the use of skits, dance, and items during services and rallies. They were absolutely sure that the culture was neutral, and could therefore be utilised for the cause of bring people to Christ. Yet much of what Bergler describes of the YFC movement is what conservative evangelicalism looks like today. As young people became the focus of churches, they adopted their cultural styles in order to accommodate them. The result? A glorification of immaturity, a dumbing-down of the biblical message, a feelings/emotions-focused faith, and a focus on ‘seeker-sensitive’ methods.
This is a valuable piece of scholarship, well researched, and well written. Bergler has done a service to the church by examining our recent history. Much changed in the wider culture during the 50s and 60s, and the church changed with it (for better or worse). Bergler is sensitive and sympathetic, yet he retains a critical view of much of the cultural activity and thinking during the juvenalization process. This book is well worth the read for ministers and lay-people who wish to understand the past and present state of the church.