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.