I just finished a helpful book by Thomas E. Bergler, The Juvenilization of American Christianity (Eerdmans, 2012). Those of you who know me know that books on youth ministry are not my typical cuisine, but this was no typical book on youth ministry. Instead, it was a history of how excessive Christian catering to youth has comprehensively transformed how Americans “do” church. In the first chapter the author shocks the reader with the observation that “we’re all adolescents now,” and in the balance of the book he explains how this happened. Contemporary society tells us that this development is good. The author demurs.
It’s not that adolescence is bad. Adolescents play a vital role in infusing the church with fresh optimism, zeal, innovation, and attention to cultural change. For these reasons, the author (a 12-year professor of youth ministry and senior associate editor for The Journal of Youth Ministry) assures us that he is not planning to bash youth in this book. He is concerned, though, that the adolescents are refusing to become adults; instead, they are assuming leadership roles in the church as chronic adolescents rather than as adults. So pervasive is this problem that the American church has completely inverted its first-century tendency to “despise youth” to instead despise mature people—people who temper youthful optimism with experimental realism, youthful zeal with knowledge, and youthful innovation with caution. Indeed, as Carl Trueman recently observed, Paul’s advice in 1 Timothy 4:12 seems “at best unnecessary, at worst incomprehensible today.” A more apt warning for the contemporary church, he muses, might be “Let no one despise you because of your great age.”
By youth, Bergler does not restrict his discussion to “teenagers.” The rise of this age-segregated, non-employed high school demographic in the wake of the Great Depression was an important step in creating youth culture, but teenagers today are being slowly marginalized as an “amusing” or even “irritating” prequel to youth (p. 46). The nexus of youth has shifted instead to a brand new demographic that extends from high school graduation to the arrival of adulthood, with its three cardinal features of marriage, children, and a stable career. Unfortunately, society’s fawning cultivation of this new demographic has been so complete, Bergler observes, that today’s youth have lost all interest in moving on. Marriage is now viewed as boring or as a laboratory for social experimentation. Children are a bother. And the ideal of stability that once was an object of aspiration has been recast as the dark vestibule of expiration. It’s no longer the “in thing” to grow up. One cannot help getting older, of course, but that does not mean we must succumb to adulthood. Everyone can be a youth! Almost all secular advertising is directed to that very end. Even advertising directed toward those poor people infected with adulthood has as its goal the reawaking of adolescence. Adulthood can be temporary, they tell us: grown-ups can recover from their misery and enjoy a second adolescence in retirement. This is a troubling trend in secular society. It’s a serious problem in the church of God.
The earliest elements of the juvenilization of the Church took place outside churches. Organizations like Young Life and Youth for Christ focused on “keeping” youth by catering to their tastes and offering romantic, amusing thrills that rivaled and exceeded those found in secular life. In time, however, the youths began to return to their churches and demand similar thrills there. The result was churches fixated on keeping the attention of the expanding youth demographic: we’ve got to “keep” the youth, we hear, by adapting to their expectations. And the youth are more than willing to tell us about their expectations. Since the youth generation prizes technological innovation, churches must make upgrades as frequently and ambitiously as the Apple iPhone (of course the youth won’t pay for this, but they want it just the same). Since youth culture prizes tolerance, equality of opinion, and “belonging,” dialogue must replace dogma. Since the youth culture is skeptical of commitment and authority, churches must scrap their covenants, ignore their creeds, and instead celebrate involvement: the “what to expect” and “ministry opportunities” links have far outstripped the “what we believe” link in importance. Since youth culture prizes celebrity, the church must supply a steady stream of fresh preaching and musical icons (humble ones, of course). Since youth culture prizes simplicity, informality, and authenticity, the church must allow the youth to decide what the church will wear and what it will sing: after all, we surely would not want wise, stable, and mature believers stagnant and tradition-bound believers (much less dead ones) to contribute to these all-important aspects of worship. None of this is to say that all adolescent concern is bad; in fact, Bergler at times borders on the annoying in reminding his readers how important adolescents can be to the church. Still, he summarizes, “By assuming that teen tastes in music and spirituality were essentially neutral, [evangelicals] allowed the youth culture the power to reshape the Christian faith. While some of these changes were beneficial, others would create a chronic immaturity among American Christians” (p. 207).
Bergler traces the development of juvenilization along several lines, mainline Protestant, Roman Catholic, African-American, and even “delinquent” perspectives—but mostly he concentrates on the white evangelical middle class. Readers looking for a history strictly of the latter might want to skip chapters 3–5, but should be aware that these chapters offer important contrasts in the way these groups invested in youth ministry together with theories about why these disparate groups have rarely succeeded in connecting meaningfully. This in turn exposes one of the greatest problems of adolescent churches—they tend to function as isolated and homogenous cliques that cannot appeal to anyone outside their own narrow demographic—the heterogeneous unions anticipated in the New Testament Scriptures have been forgotten.
Bergler does not believe a comprehensive reversal of juvenilization is possible or even advisable. Any church that tries to buck the trend, he cautions, will “pay a price” (p. 8). That does not mean, though, that Bergler is resigned to juvenilization: it must instead be managed, “tamed,” and only gently reversed. But how? Bergler’s admits that his purpose is more descriptive than prescriptive, but he offers at least one major corrective, viz., striving for biblically heterogeneous church involvement. Rich with poor. Black with white. Refined with raw. But most of all, Bergler suggests in the book’s thesis, young with old: “Only intergenerational communities of people devoted to mature Christianity can build seawalls high enough to hold back the tide of juvenilization that has now risen high enough to threaten all of us” (p. 18). He returns to this theme in his conclusion on pp. 226–29. Veteran believers must pray and serve side-by-side with unrefined new converts. Elderly and conventional Christians must intersect with young and progressive believers. Older and wiser, but sometimes pessimistic Christians must rub shoulders with younger, more naïve, and idealistic Christians. In short, instead of allowing generations of church members to stand at a distance from other generations and hold them in contempt, the church must return to the biblical ideal of facilitating adults to model reasons for adolescents to grow up (Titus 2:1–15; Eph 5:21–6:4; Col 3:18–4:1; 1 John 2:12–14).