The latest issue of Christianity Today has a brilliant cover story that accounts for much of what we see in American churches today. A century and more ago, many Protestant churches adjusted their worship and their ministries to accord with something that at first was quite separate: the revival meeting. (My historical parallel.) Now churches have adjusted their worship and ministries to accord with another separate activity: youth group! But, of course, there is more to it than that. From the article by Thomas E. Bergler [subscription required, but here is the opening]:
The house lights go down. Spinning, multicolored lights sweep the auditorium. A rock band launches into a rousing opening song. “Ignore everyone else, this time is just about you and Jesus,” proclaims the lead singer. The music changes to a slow dance tune, and the people sing about falling in love with Jesus. A guitarist sporting skinny jeans and a soul patch closes the worship set with a prayer, beginning, “Hey God …” The spotlight then falls on the speaker, who tells entertaining stories, cracks a few jokes, and assures everyone that “God is not mad at you. He loves you unconditionally.”
After worship, some members of the church sign up for the next mission trip, while others decide to join a small group where they can receive support on their faith journey. If you ask the people here why they go to church or what they value about their faith, they’ll say something like, “Having faith helps me deal with my problems.”
Fifty or sixty years ago, these now-commonplace elements of American church life were regularly found in youth groups but rarely in worship services and adult activities. What happened? Beginning in the 1930s and ’40s, Christian teenagers and youth leaders staged a quiet revolution in American church life that led to what can properly be called the juvenilization of American Christianity. Juvenilization is the process by which the religious beliefs, practices, and developmental characteristics of adolescents become accepted as appropriate for adults. It began with the praiseworthy goal of adapting the faith to appeal to the young, which in fact revitalized American Christianity. But it has sometimes ended with both youth and adults embracing immature versions of the faith.
Bergler goes on to document how that happened, including the larger cultural trend of American adults in general becoming more like adolescents. The cover story (who can identify who is pictured on the cover?) includes some responses by a megachurch pastor, a researcher, and a cultural critic (David Zahl of Mockingbird.com), all of whom say that Bergler’s thesis is basically right (though Zahl, being a Lutheran fellow-traveler, issues some caveats about definitions of spiritual “maturity”).
The article is adapted from Bergler’s new book on the subject: The Juvenilization of American Christianity. It is a ground-breaking analysis, one of those explanations that accounts for virtually all of the phenomena and that seems so obvious, once you hear it, though you had never thought of it before.