The Juvenilization of American Christianity

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.

via When Are We Going to Grow Up? The Juvenilization of American Christianity | Christianity Today | A Magazine of Evangelical Conviction.

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.

 

Islamic-friendly Bibles

Many missionary groups in Islamic countries are using Bible translations that avoid offending Muslim sensibilities, getting rid of phrases such as “the Son of God” and “God the Father.”   All in the name of church growth.  And yet Christians in these countries, beleagured as they are, are strenuously objecting to these translations.  Mindy Belz of World Magazine reports:

A team of translators with Frontiers helped produce the disputed translation of Matthew in Turkish, and SIL said some of its consultants helped at certain points in the process. Sabeel Media, a partner organization of SIL, published the translation in August 2011, printing it in book form and posting it online. In the Turkish Matthew, the “alternative form” for “Son of God” is something along the lines of “representative of God,” according to Turkish speakers, and “God the Father” has become “great protector.” A footnote explains the alternate terms: “According to the Jews, ‘God’s Son’ means ‘God’s beloved ruler’ and is equivalent with the title ‘Messiah.’”. . .

The translators emphasize their desire to promote evangelism. Bob Blincoe, the U.S. director of Frontiers, cited in an email lack of growth as one reason for the translation: “The big problem is that church planting among the tens of millions of religious Muslims in Turkey has not been successful; it has not even begun.” Turkey is 99.8 percent Muslim, according to the CIA World Factbook. Turks estimate that their country has about 5,000 Christians now, but when Bocek became a Christian in 1988, he was one of a total of 80 Protestants in the country. “One significant barrier may be the existing translation of the Bible,” Blincoe wrote in an email: “These are paraphrases that help a conservative Sunni Muslim audience know what the Bible really says.” . . .

Thomas Cosmades, a Turkish Christian who translated the New Testament into Turkish from the original Greek, mailed a letter to Frontiers at the end of 2007 after he saw a copy of the Turkish Matthew. (Several hundred were printed before the official publication in 2011). Cosmades died in 2010, at age 86, just after he published a new edition of his New Testament. In his letter he wrote that he was “highly disquieted” by the paraphrased Matthew and proceeded to analyze the debatable phrases in detail.

“This translation is not seeking to emphasize the value of the incarnation,” he wrote. “Should the trend continue, who knows where it will lead the coming generation? If Athanasius of old would have encountered such departure from biblical Christology he would have placed these redactors far below the Arians.” . . .

The Pakistan church at large may not know about the debate, but the Pakistan Bible Society (PBS) does. After 20 years of work together, the Bible society and SIL are parting ways over the issue, which is a blow to SIL because now it must operate without the imprimatur of the premier local publisher. SIL said in a statement that the decision not to work together on one project was mutual, the result of “translation style differences,” not just the debate on divine familial terms.

But the general secretary of the Pakistan Bible Society, Anthony Lamuel, wrote in a letter on Jan. 26 that the issue of altering terms for target audiences was central in the decision, and added that such translations have resulted in the “water downing” of Christian concepts: “We the Pakistan Bible Society will not promote experiments with the translation at the cost of hurting the church.”

A woman working on another translation project in Central Asia, who asked for anonymity for the sake of her work, said the debate on the “Son of God” issue in her translation team has deadlocked their project and stirred confusion among local believers who don’t have a Bible in their own language as a reference: “It has eroded their faith in the authority of the Word of God and in us as foreigners who are supposed to be the ‘teachers’ but can’t seem to agree on some basic truths of who Christ said he was. … Sadly it raises doubts and endless discussion, wasting a lot of time.”

Anwar Hussain, the head of the Bangladesh Bible Society, has been at the forefront of efforts in his country the last few years to repel Bible translations from various groups that change divine familial terms. Hussain grew up Muslim, and when he professed Christ as a young man, his family cut ties with him. Edward Ayub, another Christian of Muslim background, is the moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Bangladesh and—alongside Hussain—has vigorously opposed the translations. “I want to die for the Bible,” not a misleading translation, Ayub said. “The harm they are doing now for the church will be long-lasting.”

via WORLDmag.com | Translation battle | Emily Belz | Feb 25, 12.  (Subscription required to read full text.

What connections do you see between this particular tactic on the mission field and the church growth movement here?

The megachurch bubble?

There was the dot.com bubble and, more recently, the real estate bubble, markets that grew and grew until they they burst.  Some experts are saying that we may be in for a megachurch bubble:

In the 1970s, only a handful of churches drew more than 2,000 people on Sundays. Now they number in the thousands.

But the collapse of the Crystal Cathedral near Los Angeles, which is being sold to pay off more than $40 million in debt, has prompted fears that the megachurch bubble may be about to burst.

Most megachurches — which earn that label around the 2,000-attendance level — are led by baby boomer pastors who soon will hit retirement age and without suitable replacements in the pipeline. And some fear the big-box worship centers with lots of individual programs no longer appeal to younger generations.

Skye Jethani, a senior editor of Leadership, a prominent evangelical magazine for pastors, compared megachurches to the real estate market of a few years ago.

“If you asked people back in 2007 if the housing market was doing well, people would have said yes,” he said.

Jethani said megachurches have become so big that their economics are unsustainable. They often have multimillion-dollar mortgages and hundreds of staff members. That works while a church is growing.

But churches often shrink when a longtime minister leaves, Jethani said.

“If you are a church of 400 people and you lose 200 people, you can still keep going,” he said. “If you are a church of 10,000 and you go down to 5,000, you may not be able to survive.”

via Some fear megachurch bubble may soon burst | The Tennessean | tennessean.com.

The article goes on to quote other people who deny that megachurches are creating a bubble ready to pop.  What do you think?

HT: Tim Challies

The genius of Steve Jobs

I was asked to write up something about the death of Steve Jobs for the Lutheran Witness website.  I’ll link to that when it goes up.  In the meantime, here is something in today’s Washington Post that I think is very telling about the man’s  genius.

It seems the public was disappointed about the unveiling of the iPhone4S.  Apparently, it didn’t look much different from the old iPhones.  People were looking for matters of appearance.  But look at the reality of what this new device can do:

The launch wasn’t really about the phone at all. It was about the software inside and possibly the kick-start of the next big revolution in how we interact with our gadgets.

That software is called Siri, but Apple would like for you to think of it as your “intelligent assistant.” And what Siri does is nothing short of amazing.

Siri can listen to your “natural language” (that is, words spoken as you would to another human, not a computer) questions or requests and respond like a digital secretary. It’s not just that Siri listens, either. The software is capable of understanding the context of what you’re talking about, so if you ask it to set an alarm on your phone, it will ask you for what time. And again, you don’t. Have. To. Talk. Really. Slowly.

If you ask Siri to schedule an appointment, it will not only check to see if it conflicts with any of your other meetings but will help you juggle the time slot until you have your day’s events mapped out. Siri will find movie theaters close to you or tell you how to get home from your current location. It can identify family members, spouses and co-workers you’re always talking to, and it knows when people’s birthdays, anniversaries or other big events are coming up.

Here’s an example of a chat I had with Siri:

Me: “Schedule an appointment with Jack for 3:30 p.m.”

Siri: “Okay, here’s your meeting. Note that you already have a meeting that overlaps with this. Should I schedule it anyway?”

Me: “Change the time.”

Siri: “Okay, Joshua, what’s the new time and date for this meeting?”

After I learned that my new time overlapped again, I asked Siri to cancel the meeting, and it asked me if I wanted it removed from my calendar. All this happened in the span of a minute or so, and all of it felt strangely normal.

More interestingly, Siri is plugged into Yelp and Wolfram Alpha (a search engine dedicated to finding facts instead of Web pages). If you ask Siri how much $45 is in British pounds, it can tell you the answer. Or how many cups are in a gallon (16, for the measurement challenged). But again, the best part of this is that you don’t have to tone down or over compensate for computer hearing. Siri listens like a person, and often responds that way, too.

via Apple Siri: the next big revolution in how we interact with gadgets? – The Washington Post.

It seems to me that Jobs and his company did not just give people what they want, following the dictates of the marketplace.  Certainly, someone who does that is likely to have great success.  Rather, he came up with things no one knew they wanted, things they never even dreamed of.  He led the marketplace.

There is a lesson here for churches that want to engage the culture and Christians who want to make an impact.   Just conforming to cultural trends and following fashions is not going to do very much.  Try addressing what the culture does NOT already have, finding something that it needs or that it doesn’t know that it needs.  Don’t just imitate the dominant styles.  Invent new styles that other people might imitate, to the point that your style might become dominant.  Don’t follow the culture.  Lead it.

This applies also to technology, business, and the arts.

Marketing & consumer tastes

Economics columnist Steven Pearlstein goes off on how super-thick clam chowder has replaced the thinner, more authentic version that is much tastier.  In doing so, he makes some point about how markets actually work:  not so much by fulfilling a consumer preference but by getting consumers to change their preferences.  As when research showed that Americans like weak coffee, whereupon Starbucks–going in the opposite direction–taught Americans to like strong coffee.

My search for a decent bowl of clam chowder got me thinking about consumer preferences — how they are established, how they are reinforced by market competition and how they change over time.

One of my first calls was to Greg Carpenter, a marketing professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Carpenter explained that the way most of us think and talk about market competition is based on something of a mythical model in which consumers know what they want in a product and companies engage in a continuous battle to satisfy those preferences with better and better offerings.

In fact, Carpenter says, most of our preferences are learned and largely formed by social norms and expectations that producers have a strong hand in shaping. Moreover, such preferences are anything but fixed, susceptible to changes in technology, culture, fads and the business strategies of companies competing in the marketplace.

Our notion of what a “family car” ought to be used to be a station wagon. Then it was the family van. Now it is an SUV.Or take coffee. For a long time, the market and all the consumer research suggested that Americans preferred weak coffee, and there were basically a handful of coffee companies, led by Folgers and Maxwell House, that offered products within a narrow range to provide it. Of course, that was until Starbucks came along and demonstrated that maybe our preference for weak coffee wasn’t as fixed as everyone thought.

Our wine preferences have also developed along lines that have caught the industry by surprise. According to Alexander Chernev, another Kellogg marketing professor, the conventional wisdom was that wine was an “aspirational” product that allowed people to see themselves as worldly and sophisticated. In that context, people tended to prefer wines produced in good years from small vineyards in France or the Napa Valley, where everyone knew the best wines were made.

At some point, however, Yellowtail and a few other Australian wines entered the market not only with new products but with a new social context for thinking about wine. Their idea was to relieve consumers of what for many was really the burden of having to know more about vintages and vineyards and grapes than they really did, or really wanted to, and then going through the hassle of wrestling the cork out of the bottle. Instead, they offered a standard chardonnay or pinot in screw-top bottles. What was once a wine negative — commonness, ubiquity — suddenly became a positive.

via Consumer conformity: Why we like thick clam chowder (and other inferior products) – The Washington Post.

What lesson could the church growth movement–which uses marketing research and marketing techniques to try to appeal to more religious consumers and to get them to come to a particular church–learn from this principle?

9.5 Theses on the Emergent Church

In the tradition of someone else, Wheaton professor David Milliner has posted 9.5 Theses against the Emergent Church (that variety of the church growth movement that tries to be postmodernist).   Here are some of them:

1. I’ll say it again: He who marries the spirit of the age will soon become a widower. Do those who married postmodernity realize their spouse is in a nursing home?

1.5 Christians who cater their theology to accommodate deconstruction are comparable to sub-rate CCM bands who copy Green Day five years after they’ve ceased being cool. They’ll sell, but to a subset of evangelicalism who want to be “relevant” – which is the only group they’ll ever be relevant to.

2. Yes Paul said he sees through a glass darkly – but he still saw. Don’t forget to keep reading.

2.5 Paul did not end his speech at the Areopagus by saying “the Unknown God” is a great idea, sorry I bothered you. Nice statue. Can I have a copy? . . . .

NEW! 4.75 POP QUIZ! What is wrong with the following Biblical quotation? “Seek and you shall seek.”

Revised! 5. Protestantism’s only hope is to cling to its birthright, a passionate focus on the written Word of God, the unique, authoritative avenue to the Word of God in Christ. Protestants are an order of the written Word (in very sad condition) within God’s woefully divided church. Our guide in stewarding this threatened charism is not the “spirit of protest” but the Holy Spirit. There’s a difference. . . .

6.5 Speaking of big words, consider this one: “And.” It’s especially helpful when confronted with polarizing rhetoric shortsighted enough to suggest one must choose propositional/factual truth or narrative/aesthetic truth.7. It does not “puncture the hegemony of logic” to deny the central tenets of the Christian faith. The central tenets of the Christian faith do a fine job of that already. It is not humility to deny what God has done by impenetrable obscurity masquerading as “nuance.” It is pride.

7.5 To correct abuses of rationality (which are legion) by neutering epistemology is like correcting poor carpentry by outlawing tools.

NEW! 7.75 The most radical postmodern epistemology appears numbingly Newtonian next to the first few verses of 1 Corinthians 8: You can’t know this kind of knowledge (verse 3), this Knowledge knows you.

8. Heresy is boring, not exciting because it eviscerates mystery. If you’re attracted to heresy because it makes you feel naughty then that’s kinda creepy. If you’re attracted to it because you don’t want to “limit God,” then the religion that serves a God who became a particular first-century Palestinian Jew might not be for you.

via millinerd.com: 9.5 Theses.

HT:David Mills


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