A colleague of mine at Huntington University, Tom Bergler, just published a book on the influence of youth culture on American Christianity, The Juvenilization of American Christianity. The next cover of Christianity Today will highlight the book and include an article by Tom. I am going to review the book chapter by chapter over the next few weeks, and Tom will join in to respond to questions and comments.
A good place to start: what does Tom mean by the term “juvenilization”? As he defines it in the introduction, “Juvenilization is the process by which the religious beliefs, practices, and developmental characteristics of adolescents become accepted as appropriate for Christians of all ages. It begins with the praiseworthy goal of adapting the faith to appeal to the young. But it sometimes ends badly, with both youth and adults embracing immature versions of faith (4).” In other words, as the American church sought to reach young people in the 2oth century it incorporated aspects of adolescent development and culture that ultimately shaped the faith of adult Christians and the way the church today understands spiritual maturity.
The effects of juvenilization have not all been negative. Yet, with certain gains also came loses, mainly the exchange of spiritual maturity for adolescent immaturity. Tom describes it this way, “By personalizing Christianity and creatively blending it with elements of popular culture ranging from rock music to political protests, youth ministries helped ensure the ongoing vitality of Christianity in America. But these same ministries also sometimes pandered to the consumerism, self-centeredness, and even outright immaturity of American believers.”
It seems that Tom’s biggest worries have less to do with the pragmatics of contemporary American Christianity – like the elements of corporate worship or evangelism strategies – and more to do with how American churches of all denominations understand and seek spiritual maturity. “Maturity” has come to be understood according to the dynamics of adolescent spirituality, and this only inhibits the efforts of churches and individuals to foster maturity as it has been traditionally understood (something I wish Tom would have said more about in the introduction. What is the foil of “adolescent” spirituality we might call “maturity”?).
The argument seems to go something like this: the American church of the twentieth century (beginning in the 1930’s) juvenilized the Christian faith in order to reach adolescents, and that strategy has created the accepted norms for mature, adult faith.
For example, Tom singles out the emotionally charged nature of adolescent faith and suggests how this dynamic comes to be the norm for adults:
Adolescent Christians see the faith as incomplete unless it is affecting them emotionally. They are less likely than adults to settle for a faith that offers only a dutiful adherence to particular doctrines, rules, or institutions. On the other hand, they have a hard time keeping religious commitments when their emotions are not cooperating. They are drawn to religious practices that produce emotional highs and sometimes assume that experiencing strong feelings is the same thing as spiritual authenticity. They may be tempted to believe that God’s main role in their lives is to help them feel better or to heal their emotional pain. Juvenilized adults agree that a main purpose of Christianity is to help them feel better about their problems (12).
I am curious, have you experienced this in your church? What does it look like? How do you recognize it?