Slowing Down Juvenilization

There are some genuine oddities about Thomas Bergler’s book, The Juvenilization of American Christianity. To begin with, I think he’s basically or generally right. American Christianity has no doubt been influenced by the youth culture, but this raises an oddity for me: if adults, in a widespread way, are participating in this juvenilization, is it juvenilization any longer? Or is it a widespread cultural shift?

Which raises the next oddity: what is juvenilization? It is a Christianity that takes on the contours and substance of the youth culture, but this requires a fine and accurate definition of what “adult” or “mature” faith looks like — and we finally get a nice sketch of such on p. 226 of this book, where it basically means mature discipleship. Know the faith, godly, sacrificial, committed to the church as a fellowship, daily cross — both emotional comfort and suffering — they follow Christ. Which all means that the juvenilization of the church is about immaturity, which is the same problem the writer of Hebrews faced, Martin Luther faced, Jonathan Edwards faced, and … well … almost all have faced this. Bonhoeffer complained about this as well.

How would you define juvenilization of the church?

Another oddity is that Bergler finds unsuccessful juvenilization among the mainline, the Roman Catholic, and less so among the African American churches, but the evangelicals have successfully been juvenilized.  In particular, Bergler makes the interesting proposal that the 1960s was an apocalypse, the revelation of trends that preceded and came to light in the 1960s. And yet the evangelicals have been most successful of the church branches he studies.

Which leads me to this oddity: “juvenilization,” as I read this book, is the result of a form of communication. It the adaptation of the Christian message — and he could have examined the history of how “gospel” changed over this time and seen much of what he was saying — to be attractive (think music, think fun, think games, think entertaining) to the next generation. Part of this is evangelistic — reaching the unreached — and part of it is catechism — reaching the church kids. Adaptation to the audience is part of good Christian communication, so elements of the whole juvenilization theory are not only unavoidable but desirable. Read the New Testament in roughly chronological (not canonical order) sometime — and the take the Synoptics first and then read Paul and Peter and John etc. Notice what happens: the gospel substance shifts in its orientation and linguistic games (kingdom, soteriology, ecclesiology, eternal life, temple priesthood, etc). Audiences led to adaptation. Judaism notoriously was an accommodating faith.

So I’m not as concerned with what happened in the 1930s to the 1960s in seeking to communicate with the next generation; I am concerned with the gradual diminishment of the gospel, which I argue in The King Jesus Gospel, and the diminishment of discipleship in the church. Notably, Bergler ends up pointing his finger at Youth for Christ where the soterian gospel flourished. So the oddity is that I’m back on board with Bergler: immaturity is the problem and accommodation of message at the heart of the problem. Juvenilization, tied as it was into a shallow gospel and a shallow demand, led to satisfied, immature Christians and churches and Christianity because the adaptation of the gospel to the next generation watered down the gospel and its summons to follow Jesus.

Bergler thinks juvenilization led to informalism and to a self-centered Christian (but pick the parts you like) faith [I'd go with Bellah's Habits of the Heart on this one; it's more cultural than juvenilization] where people sought, instead of the rudiments of the Christian faith, emotional well-being [Norman Vincent Peale, Robert Schuller, Joel Osteen, and those who reflected their message]  – in other words, juvenilization led to Christian Smith’s team’s theory of “moral therapeutic deism.” The oddity is that adults created this religion, adults indwellt MTD, and adults passed on MTD to teenagers who then embodied it all over again — and who will probably thin it down more.

Yet juvenilization has made Christianity vibrant, it has reached many unchurched, and it has kept the church alive. Churches shaped by what he calls juvenilization are the ones growing and setting new trends. And he wonders what has kept the conservative churches going and alive in comparison with mainline and Catholics: stronger beliefs, more rigorous morally, more rewards, they adapt, and fertility rates. He thinks youth ministry history shows it is a combination of strictness and creativity.

For all of Bergler’s fine history and analysis and critique there’s not much proposal for solution: he suggests intergenerational ministry and emphasizing the necessity of maturity in the Christian faith. Many conservative Christians, I suspect, will like this book; it strikes me as a book that wants to get back to basics, which I applaud, but it may be read as a plea to go back to the way things were at the turn of the 20th Century. The book is short on solutions and proposals. It is, however, a fascinating study of how teenage culture has influenced American Christianity, and I see Bergler’s major thesis being the accommodation of evangelical church and its methods to youth culture.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • RJS

    Well Scot, When you started this series I didn’t think that juvenilization was an increased emphasis on youth culture – although this is certainly there at times.

    I think “juvenilization” is evident in an increased emphasis on entertainment, bite-sized messages, and the staff/clergy vs laity divide. There is no real expectation that people will grow up into mature Christians unless they become paid employees of a church. A 60 year old life-long christian who has lived the faith is inherently less “trustworthy” than a 24 year-old new hire. Part of this is simply because in a large impersonal institution most people can’t be known and the only safe approach is to put into place rules that limit everyone except those who are known – staff. Part of this is because of this ethos that views church through the lens of youth ministry – there are leaders and “students” and students can be mentored, but they never grow up in the ministry, they only outgrow the ministry.

    Juvenilization leads to Churches where staff provides a service for “students” rather than gatherings of people who come together to worship and embody Christ to each other and to the world.

    You suggest that these the places that are growing and keeping the church alive. I think this is true at some level – but I don’t think it will be true 50 years down the road (a safe prediction as neither of us will be around to test it).

  • Gary Lyn

    Scot, I’ve got to agree with you. The way you are describe what the author is trying to do, it does seem to be more about culture than youth. In fact, the use of the word “juvenlization” to describe the phenomenon seems misleading. I think of work done by Fowler and other on stages of faith. Youth are well, they are young. They can have a faith that is vibrant…and appropriate for their age and stage of development.

  • http://www.educatingbrian.com Brianmpei

    Thanks for this. I’ve been writing something up based on the article that advertised the book in CT. In that article, along with a significant mis-quote, I found a lack of definition of what “mature” or “serious” really looks like. Obviously we’re being teased to purchase the book. In the end I think he’s settled on the wrong culprit(s) in youth ministry. While the gutted gospel might have been part of the YC approach it certainly didn’t originate with them. I was also struck by the arbitrary designation that rock music = immaturity or that loud music = immaturity. I wasn’t impressed with the article and your review is saving me from buying to book to hear the rest of his argument. Are there problems with immaturity? Certainly. We have churches giving away cars to get people in on a Sunday morning. But as you say, this is a culture shift that did not originate with YC or any other youth ministries even if it influenced some approaches to reaching teens.

  • phil_style

    @RJS,
    There is no real expectation that people will grow up into mature Christians unless they become paid employees of a church. A 60 year old life-long christian who has lived the faith is inherently less “trustworthy” than a 24 year-old new hire. Part of this is simply because in a large impersonal institution most people can’t be known and the only safe approach is to put into place rules that limit everyone except those who are known – staff.
    This is an amazingly insightful description that resonates heavily with me. I’ve never considered this “phenomena” in the particular light you shed here,… but now I can see how the young staff model is effective in perpetuating the kind of culture you describe. Thanks for this observation.

  • Phil Miller

    I think “juvenilization” is evident in an increased emphasis on entertainment, bite-sized messages, and the staff/clergy vs laity divide.

    I know this is somewhat of a tangent, but I don’t necessarily think having “bite-sized” messages is all that big of a problem. Actually, I think a problem in evangelical churches (or perhaps just Protestant churches) is that they tend to put too much of an emphasis on the sermon. Too many people want to pretend they’re the next Rob Bell or Mark Driscoll, and in reality, most people can’t. I think that this is actually related to your other points. When people have to listen to someone for an hour, that speaker has to be pretty charismatic and entertaining. So, naturally, you get personality cults forming around particular pastors.

    Personally, I think that most sermons could really be condensed to 15 or 20 minutes and still get the point across. How many hour long sermons have you heard that you’d consider memorable?

  • Travis Greene

    The informalism/music part seems to me a red herring. There’s nothing particularly disciple-y or rigorous or mature about organ music or suits and ties (the same, of course, is true of guitars and jeans).

  • Tom

    Could it be that pastors come out of youth ministry and learn to relate to people as if they are teens. Sometimes I sit in church and feel brain dead. They want me to clap like I am up in a camp meeting. No real worship. Nothing that will change my real life. Same old stuff.

  • Scott Gay

    Can Willard, Foster, Peterson, Houston be called the ressourcement movement? Very healthy as a method of slowing down juvenilization. And yet it is a hard thing to train people in God’s ways. That movement itself has slowed, probably due to our believing in fads. Not their fault, but pastors, philosophers, geologists are not the long term solution. I’m saying theologians, like Scot McKnight, are the key. That is, spiritual formation(maturing) being rooted in the theological departments. No more dabbling in the spiritual classics, but reaching back creatively and intricately for the patterns to faithfully read scripture, worship(I’m praying for more multi-voiced), and engage a religiously diverse culture. Those trained as such will be the ones to make a maturity movement stick. If this sounds like it takes too much time for you all, well suck it up. Resistance and circumstances show that only when we send our children and grandchildren to a school that is committed to the ancient faith for the churches future will we have the leadership capable of committment to spiritual growth.

  • http://rising4air.wordpress.com MikeK

    I don’t doubt that “‘juvenilization’ is the result of a form of communication. It [is] the adaptation of the Christian message…”

    But, I wonder if too much weight is given to “communication”, and not enough to various methods and forms you and Bergler cited. You and Bergler observed other social and cultural forms in play, e.g., the culture of when YFC was formed, and the subsequent cultural presence of YFC suggests Christians were attracted to such. There are plenty of formal and informal messages that routinely get ignored.

    Plenty of people were- and are- more attracted to the kinds of faith communities that Bergler and you describe that rely upon a soterian gospel, and they ignore disciples, and the kinds of lives disciples enact in the world as communities representing King Jesus.

    Regrettable, to be sure, but it’s not just from communication: other processes are in play and deserve consideration. Otherwise, if we just focus upon communication, we’re dealing with arguments over whether the sermons should come from preachers in robes, 3-piece, or polos; 15-20 min or 30-35 min, PowerPoint or a just a pulpit, etc…

  • http://saintmarkslutheran.org Mark Brown

    “Yet juvenilization has made Christianity vibrant, it has reached many unchurched, and it has kept the church alive. Churches shaped by what he calls juvenilization are the ones growing and setting new trends.”

    That is a shocking statement. That really depends on what you define vibrant, reaching and alive as. You can create a seemingly vibrant, growing and alive organization as a first article institution (creation), but it never really gets to the 2nd article (the work of Christ). Joel Osteen has a successful 1st article institution, but if anyone gets Christ out of him it is shear happenstance. How much do the “setting new trends” and the frantic “aliveness” just hide a lack of the gospel and encourage a perpetual infant faith?

  • Fred

    These questions come to mind:
    1. Twenty years ago it was the “feminization” of the church, now it’s the juvenilization. What’s the difference? Does this imply a downward trend? How are they similar or different? Were we wrong then?
    2. The article brings to mind Paul’s description of the people of Israel in Romans 10:2. I’m not a (good) theologian so I wonder if his comment in some way describes what we see today.

    RJS
    Thanks. I always appreciate your way of adding clarity.

  • Jon

    At some point we will need to stop blaming youth pastors and culture and just grow up ourselves.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Scot will be able to try some juvenilization first hand soon. Get ready to smoke a joint with Scot!

    http://www.npr.org/2012/06/27/155791620/exhale-chicago-a-little-pot-may-be-fine-d

  • Bob3

    I am part of a juvenilized start-up group, now a little over three years old. We average 1700 on a Sunday, have been as high as 2100. We”ll’ be starting a sattilite campus 10-miles away this fall. First test service drew 247 people. We also have people who went out to Nevada to plant a church.

    Why do I say the group is juvenilized? We meet in a movie theater with multiple venues and use video feeds to reach them. We askew all “church” language, reading only contemporary, Americaized versions of scripture. Music, all contemporary Christian, is played at “11″ on a scale of 1-10. All communicartion goes through social media; very little personal contact. Talks are theologically conservative but sound bite. They speak to felt needs. We are characterized as Charismatic with a seat belt. The demographic of the group is primarily 20 -30 somethings. Disciplehship is talked about but not something to strive for; it will come (?) I’m in my late 50′s. Why am I there? Not because I like the music, the talks or the social media approach. (I really don’t like the lack of discipleship.) I’ve had to put aside my preferences so that I might be an influence for the Kingdom and the King. Whether with those who have a relationship with Jesus already or those who are coming to see what this Christian thing is all about. I believe there is a role for this type of group in the Kingdom. Should it be normative? I’m not sure about that.

  • JoeyS
  • Marcus C

    …and get off my lawn!

  • http://twitter.com/alimcgrathfan Hfa

    A few things come to mind as I think about this…
    We, as a culture at large, expect too little of our young people. We don’t expect them to work hard in school. We don’t expect them to behave and be respectful. We don’t expect them to sit and listen to an expositional sermon (let alone jot down some notes).

    We are too worried about being cool. They won’t like us if we don’t “have fun!” It’s like the teacher who wants to be buddies with their students and gives out easy grades and jokes around the whole class. This teacher is less respected in the end (and probably liked less) than the one who demands hard work. I think if we raised the bar a bit, we might be surprised that kids step up.

    Also, we need to be real about the cost of following Christ and stop shielding young people from the difficulties and trials of life. This is also a larger cultural issue, I think. We don’t take kids to funerals because it is difficult and sad and we have to answer tough questions (which the unbelieving world has no useful answers to). As a result, many kids first meet death in video games and movies. They have little or no concept of how death tragically affects people. They are not prepared for life.
    The same is true of a young believer who is shielded from the realities of the Christian struggle. They are not prepared to persevere and thus don’t often grow to maturity and learn to depend solely on Christ.

    And it is not young people who are averse to sacrificial service. Again, culturally we are cut off from one another. We don’t talk to our neighbors anymore. We easily avoid fellowship with other believers because our churches are often so big no one knows if you’re there or not.

    These are all things that the church needs to work on and make sure that we are different than the culture at large. We don’t need to be different because we wear suits to church and keep the volume to 5 and refuse to use Facebook. We need to be different in that we teach our kids how to love and how to persevere when life is a struggle. But, this takes mature believers who will meet these kids where they are. My fear is that there are not many of those around, who are not themselves a product of these cultural problems or are too old and stubborn to crank up the volume a bit. This is why the Mark Driscolls are more effective today than the John MacArthurs of the world. There, I said it.

  • Angela Rines

    Honestly, it is a bit disheartening to consistently have the blame placed on youth ministry and the youth of our country. Adults should act like adults and stop looking for a scapegoat.

    The wider church could learn a lot from youth ministry. What other ministry in the church has as deep community and large involvement in mission?


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