The Church of Low Expectations

Has American Christianity become juvenilized? Thomas Bergler thinks so. He is a professor of ministry and missions at Huntington University, and he's concerned about Christianity being turned into an entertainment spectacle and a form of therapeutic affirmation. He has written an article expounding this topic for Christianity Today, adapted from his book, The Juvenilization of American Christianity.

My off-the-cuff answer to this question would be, Of course. Almost everything else in American life has become juvenilized in at least some ways. Why not Christianity?

That presents the follow-up questions: what is grown-up and adult, and how is our modern culture juvenilized?

People have a lot of ready answers to those questions, from dumbed-down education and "self-esteem" curricula to easy credit and excessive expectations about what we are owed in life. It's adult to understand the need for work, sacrifice, and challenge; juvenile to be put off or overwhelmed by those things. It's adult to shoulder burdens, including personal burdens like feelings of inadequacy or rejection; juvenile to succumb to those burdens and "act out" instead of soldiering on. It's adult to put others before yourself and be solicitous of the weaknesses of those around you; juvenile to make fun of others and think mainly of yourself.

It's quite true that most of us attain high standards only because they are set for us. Our natural state is evident when we are about two years old, and it doesn't translate well to thirty. We require a lot of instruction and development to become high-performing humans; it doesn't just happen. And most of us learn the important skills from what we see our parents do, whether it's being steady and reliable as a pillar of the family, keeping jobs and being respected at work, treating church like something important, or saving and paying bills on time. We can also learn invaluable things in school, like how to succeed at the subjects we aren't naturally good at, and the mental power it builds for a lifetime to memorize things and know what they mean.

So Bergler is right, I think, that the church needs to set high standards of Christianity for us. It doesn't do us any good to have a Church of Sentimental Entertainment, Cheap Sympathy, and Low Expectations, any more than it does to have such an environment at home, school, or work. We don't become better or more effective through being coddled and catered to. Mature people know that that doesn't really even make us happy, no matter how good it sounds.

On the other hand, readers, if you've sensed a "but" coming, here it is. One of the biggest reasons that the churches Bergler speaks of are attracting new people to their congregations is that so many people have a deep need to know that they are loved. If little in your life has given you a sense of what that feels like, it matters to hear someone with spiritual authority tell you often—as Bergler quotes modern preachers—that "God is not mad at you. He loves you unconditionally."

Even many of today's young middle-class adults may never in their lives have known what it is to be loved unconditionally, and with unfailing attention. That lack is a struggle in itself, and a lot of people are in it. They don't come to the church ready for graduate-level teaching about the benefits of affliction. They're in the big middle of affliction, with no way to explain it or put it in the larger context inherent with God's love. The main thing they need to hear is that God loves them, just as they are. They need to hear it until it sinks in and they are firmly rooted in the certainty of it.

I should observe that I don't say this because I really enjoy "contemporary" worship styles. I'm happy that they are enjoyable for others, but I'm a liturgical, motets-during the-offering, organ-fanfare kind of worshipper. I relate well to the Hymnal 1940, the beloved mid-century hymnal of the Episcopal Church, which had truly gorgeous, biblical, and poetic writing as well as lovely hymn tunes. And I sympathize with older Catholics who still lament the loss of the Latin liturgy for celebrating Mass. Much of modern worship music has on me an effect I can only compare to hearing Pink Floyd's "Shine on You Crazy Diamond" played by the BBC Orchestra, during a telephone call to my credit-card company.

So it's not from an affinity with modern worship styles that I defend a mission for the church to offer succor and comfort to those who may be less mature in some (or many) ways. It's from the certainty that everything else comes from being built up in love. The love has to come first. Certainly, in my own life, I could only come to embrace Psalm 119:71—"It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees" (NIV)—because I knew God loved me.