The Juvenilization of American Christianity (Intro)

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?


6 thoughts on “The Juvenilization of American Christianity (Intro)

  1. First I would like to say that I am excited to see the discussions that develop the next few weeks! I have very little ministry experience, but I would like to share from the perspective of growing up with this sort of faith mindset. I always thought something was wrong with my faith growing up because I didn’t have those emotional highs we used to talk about at youth group and campus life. At times, I questioned if I was even a true believer. It wasn’t until I came to HU and took Dr. Bergler’s intro ministry course and then Dr. Fetter’s Evangelism course that I came to understand how misinformed I was.

  2. This looks like an interesting subject Kent. I would expect this juvenilization to be especially evident on a college campus. One of the questions it raises for me (and not having read the book, you’d have to tell me if it discusses this) is about the importance of a Christian’s development through what might be called an ‘adolescent’ stage where they have to sort through a lot of emotional baggage and seek healthy differentiation from their parents and appropriately bond with God. A lot of people in their 20’s and early 30’s go through that and it seems to be an important phase. The question i have, is a) are we to ‘grow out’ of that phase on to other things, and b) what are the marks of that transition, and c) if one does not go through the ‘adolescent’ stage, how is their version of adult maturity actually stunted because it is emotionally disconnected?
    – Geordie

  3. Pingback: Eerdmans All Over: A Weekly Roundup of News from Eerdmans and Elsewhere « EerdWord

  4. Pingback: The Juvenilization of American Christianity (Part 1) « Theology Forum

  5. Geordie:

    I’m glad you asked the questions you did. I agree that there can be a positive process of spiritual development that engages the kind of differentiation and identity formation processes that have been identified by developmental psychologists. Indeed, to the extent that the developmental theories of adolescence are accurate, we would expect that a full discipleship process in Christ would address those issues and incorporate them into the process of spiritual growth. So in answer to your question, the emotional connection with God that many people experience during adolescence or emerging adulthood can be an important and positive part of their spiritual development. And, as you suggest, people should normally grow out of adolescence and into a humanly and spiritually healthy adulthood. They do not lose their emotional connection to God in the process of growing up, but they add to that dimension other elements of spiritual maturity.

    Unfortunately this transition to adulthood is becoming more difficult and ambiguous because adulthood itself has changed over the past few decades. In his book Arrested Adulthood, sociologist James Cote argues that due to macro level social changes in modern societies, there is a new “psychological adulthood” that looks a lot like the old adolescence. Like adolescents, adults are in a continual process of self development and identity formation. A person is an adult when she decides she is. And what “adult” means is up to the individual to decide. A duty to care for others or give back to society, to keep commitments, etc…are things that are now optional. As Cote poignantly asks, “Who will care for the children?”

    There has been far too little serious theological reflection on developmental theories and on how human development itself has changed over time. We are in a new era in which the social and psychological markers of adulthood are in flux. And as Cote argues, there are many tempting, self-indulgent, consumerist detours on the way to mature adulthood. So Christians will need to more carefully develop our own biblically and theologically grounded portraits of maturity. And we need to help Christians of all ages see spiritual maturity as both desirable and attainable.

  6. Pingback: The Juvenilization of American Christianity (Part 2) « Theology Forum

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