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

“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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