Grow Up, Evangelicals (and everyone else, too!)

Grow Up, Evangelicals (and everyone else, too!) June 28, 2012

“We’re all adolescents now,” suggests the subtitle of Thomas Bergler’s essay in this month’s issue of Christianity Today.

“The Juvenilization of American Christianity” is a distillation of Bergler’s book of the same title. It’s a thoughtful critique of a major trend within American evangelicalism (and, as he suggests, American Christianity more broadly) since the Second World War.

In short, American evangelicals responded to the specter of a young generation “lost” to Christianity by radically stripping down and refashioning their message. One of Billy Graham’s assistants once commented that their approach was to try most anything to get the attention of young people and then “hit them between the eyes with the old-fashioned gospel.”

What evangelicals did worked, at least in terms of numbers. Youth for Christ, Young Life, and other evangelical youth ministries captured an audience and helped untold numbers of young men and women discover and nurture personal relationships with Jesus Christ. Without juvenilization, evangelical churches today would be far fewer in number, much smaller, and more empty. As Bergler rightfully contends, however, it was impossible to refashion evangelical culture without substantively changing — and harming — its message:

Evangelical teenagers were coming to describe the Christian life as falling in love with Jesus and experiencing the “thrills” and “happiness” of a romantic relationship with him. Perhaps because they believed so strongly in a personal relationship with Jesus as the center of Christianity, they didn’t question what might be lost when that relationship was equated with an erotic, emotional attraction to a teen idol.

Bergler laments that young evangelicals who come to know Jesus through youth ministries adopt a highly emotional, therapeutic, dumbed-down, and intellectually challenged version of Christianity. The larger problem, though, is that many do not progress from spiritual milk to more solid food, because churches eventually mimicked youth ministries:

Today many Americans of all ages not only accept a Christianized version of adolescent narcissism, they often celebrate it as authentic spirituality. God, faith, and the church all exist to help me with my problems. Religious institutions are bad; only my personal relationship with Jesus matters. If we believe that a mature faith involves more than good feelings, vague beliefs, and living however we want, we must conclude that juvenilization has revitalized American Christianity at the cost of leaving many individuals mired in spiritual immaturity.

Bergler links this development to a trend toward delayed or immature adulthood in American culture more broadly. Also, evangelicals were hardly the only Americans concerned about retaining their young people. Bergler suggests that evangelical efforts were initially far more effective (and adaptive) than either mainline Protestant or Catholic efforts, though he also observes that Catholic youth ministries have mirrored evangelical trends in recent years.

His prescription is not especially designed for evangelical youth ministries. They should appeal to adolescents through on an adolescent level, perhaps with a greater emphasis on Jesus as Lord than as lover or best friend. But churches should not appeal to forty-somethings on an adolescent basis.

From my vantage point (membership in a rather stodgy and traditional Presbyterian church quite immune from juvenilization), Bergler’s is one of the most trenchant critiques of evangelicalism that I’ve read in recent years.

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  • John, thanks for this — Tom’s article is very helpful and thought-provoking. I also thought it left a lot of unanswered questions, questions that perhaps his book helps to answer. For instance, aren’t there many signs of youth-led movements that call for higher levels of commitment and theological sophistication? Might we even describe Crusade this way? Where do all the young American missionaries come from, if they just want to sit around and sing love songs to Jesus? Or the Young, Restless, and Reformed crowd, calling for a more mature, historic theology in the church?

  • ThomasWozniack

    The question that needs to be asked that is skipped over in his article is “What exactly is a “Mature Christian?” He hasn’t defined this term outside of implying that it is the opposite of “juvenilization.” In my opinion he, like most Christians, have no idea what this means. It is a term that is thrown around as a goal to reach but is never really understood (much like the idea of going to “Heaven” when you die. What does this mean?”). Until someone is able to say what a “Mature Christian” happens to look like, I seriously doubt that society will ever see one.

  • johnturner

    Thomas, what’s your definition / description of a “mature Christian?”

    Tommy, good questions. I suppose high levels of commitment and a lack of theological sophistication aren’t mutually exclusive, but your point about college-age ministries is certainly correct. Crusade was often accused of being too dumbed-down and theologically light, but my sense is that a rather unsophisticated veneer covered up a deep commitment to Bible study, evangelism, etc.

    Perhaps the bigger “problem” with parachurch ministries is that they become young people’s church. It’s easier to get young people to come to a Young Life meeting or Cru meeting on campus than it is to get them into churches. And perhaps those churches have become more like the youth ministry meetings as a response to that difficulty?

  • my experience suggests an additional dynamic to the college parachurch–although it was never an officially stated position, in my campus group one could get the feeling that the churches were, in general, too light weight for us — we were the shock troops in evangelism, Bible study, and personal discipleship, and most local churches had no similar venue to pursue those things. So this, anecdotally, would be the reverse of Bergler’s thesis–young people drawn away from churches because they weren’t serious enough!

  • Philip Jenkins

    When I read the Juvenilization article, I thought immediately of a 2008 book by my friend at Penn State, Gary Cross, titled *Men to Boys: The Making of Modern Immaturity.* This addresses very similar themes in the culture at large, though without a religious dimension, and it is excellent background for these debates. The PUBLISHERS WEEKLY review notes that “Cross, a professor of history at Penn State University, seeks the contemporary social puzzle of why men are refusing to grow up and commit to marriage and family. With declining marriage statistics, Cross (The Cute and the Cool) explains that these American boy-men reject the traditional notions of mature masculinity, while opting for vanity and narcissism with a new motto: manhood is play and it never ends. He cites the example of Hugh Hefner’s popular concept of childish male wish fulfillment, an empire built on sexually available women, carnal fantasies and eternal playtime. Feminism, extended adolescence and an aggressive media culture promoting conflicting signals about maleness and fatherhood only add to this immaturity trend. … We must recognize that as adults, and equally as men, we have responsibilities to our partners, families, and communities beyond our own need for experience and pleasure.” The relevance for religion is striking!