December 2014 / January 2015 - Vol. 77

“We're All Adolescents Now” 
From Here to Maturity: Overcoming the Juvenilization of American Christianity

by Dr. Thomas Bergler

Americans of all ages are not sure they want to grow up. If you listen carefully, you can sometimes hear thirty- or forty-year-olds say things like “I guess I have to start thinking of myself as an adult now.” Greeting cards bear messages like “Growing old is inevitable. Growing up is optional.” A recent national study of the sexual lives of eighteen- to twenty-three-year-olds found that most want to get married and have children eventually. But they think of settling down as the end of the good part of their lives. One young woman spoke for many in the study when she said that having children will be “what makes your life, like, full, after like, you are done with your life, I guess.”1 

Try this experiment. Ask a group of college students to raise their hands if they think they are adults. They won’t know what to do. You can be sure they won’t all raise their hands. 

The problem goes deeper than just a fear of growing old. Early in my teaching career, I asked a group of undergraduate students, “What does a mature Christian look like? Let’s list some traits of spiritual maturity.” The question made my students uncomfortable, so they pushed back with responses like these: “I don’t think we ever arrive in our spiritual growth”; “We’re not supposed to judge one another”; “No one is perfect”; and “We can’t be holy in this life.” Sadly, these students who had been raised in church and were attending a Christian college did not think of spiritual maturity as attainable or perhaps even desirable. They wrongly equated it with an unattainable perfection. 

Where did this problem of low expectations originate? Beginning in the 1930s and 1940s, three factors combined to create the juvenilization of American Christianity. First, new and more powerful youth cultures created distance between adults and adolescents. Second, in an attempt to convert, mobilize, or just hang on to their teenage children, Christian adults adapted the faith to adolescent tastes. As a result of these first two factors, the stereotypical youth group that combines fun and games with a brief, entertaining religious message was born. In the years since, this model of youth ministry has become a taken-for-granted part of church life. Finally, the journey to adulthood became longer and more confusing, with maturity now just one among many options. The result was juvenilization: the process by which the religious beliefs, practices, and developmental characteristics of adolescents become accepted or even celebrated as appropriate for Christians of all ages. 

This dynamic of juvenilization leaped out at me when I realized that there was nothing happening in the seeker-friendly ministry of Willow Creek Community Church in the 1990s that had not already been done in the Youth for Christ rallies of the 1950s. The only difference was that the pioneers of Youth for Christ believed that what they were doing was not suitable for Sunday morning worship, but should only be done in an evangelistic rally outside the four walls of the church.2 

Other branches of American Christianity I examined Mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics, and African Americans either were latecomers to juvenilization or picked the wrong elements of youth culture to imitate. As a result, the white Evangelical model of youth ministry came to dominate not just the church basement, but increasingly, the adult worship service as well.3 To be sure, not all churches look like white Evangelical ones in their worship practices or other activities. But all churches compete for customer loyalty in a religious marketplace in which many people of all ages share similar adolescent preferences for an emotionally comforting, self-focused, and intellectually shallow faith.

It is important to realize that many benefits have come from injecting more youthfulness into American Christianity. Church growth, mission trips, and racial reconciliation all received a big boost from the youth ministries of the past seventy-five years. Churches that made compromises with youth culture sometimes managed to inspire long-term loyalty in their young people and even make church more attractive to adults. In contrast, churches that ignored the preferences of young people tended to decline in numbers and in effectiveness. For example, conservative Protestant churches have grown relative to liberal Protestant ones over the past forty years because conservative church members have had more children and conservative churches have done better at retaining those children through juvenilized youth ministries.4 Big churches are not necessarily more faithful to Christ than small churches, but churches without members have a hard time fulfilling their missions. 

Youth ministries are laboratories of innovation that at their best keep churches vibrant and help them adapt to the unique challenges of each generation. One of the few studies we have that asked the same questions about religion in the same town over a long period of time showed that between the 1920s and the 1970s the top reason people reported for going to church changed from “habit” to “enjoyment.” Because youth culture put teenagers especially at risk for abandoning their faith, youth ministers were the first to learn how to make church more enjoyable. And what they learned along the way has kept people of all ages coming to church.5 

But this attempt to make Christianity as pleasurable as youth culture had some dangers. In the 1950s, one teenage girl who was a member of Youth for Christ had this to say about Elvis Presley: “The fact of the matter is, I’ve found something else that has given me more of a thrill than a hundred Presley’s ever could! It’s a new friendship with the most wonderful Person I’ve ever met, a Man who has given me happiness and thrills and something worth living for.”6 In other words, Jesus is just like a teen idol, only better. Juvenilization kept Christianity popular, but did little to promote spiritual maturity.

 It is important to realize that because of juvenilization, the problem of immaturity is no longer just a youth problem to be solved by adolescents, parents, or youth ministers. One pastor told me that the concept of juvenilization helped him understand some of the struggles he is having with congregants in their sixties. These Baby Boomers raised in the founding era of juvenilization want church to revolve around their preferences. But the problem is not just the old oppressing the young. The young leaders of a church that targets twenty-somethings asked a middle-aged woman to leave the music team because she did not “project the right image.” That is, she looked too old. Not only is it easy to find people of all ages who are immature, it is now the whole life course the normal pattern of moving from childhood to adulthood – that has been compromised as a path to spiritual maturity.

Growing up isn’t what it used to be 

There have always been immature people, and there always will be. When I was young, if someone pulled a selfish prank, a classmate or sibling might yell “Grow up!” or “That’s really mature!” To be sure, growing up was typically something that other irritating kids should do, rather than something to which we all aspired. Yet this admittedly immature form of exhortation implied a shared notion that growing up included something called “maturity.” Today, there is less shared understanding of what “growing up” should include. In recent decades important changes in the patterns of human development have made immaturity easier and maturity harder. Both the journey to adulthood and the destination have changed.

Also see > Guest Author Interview - Five Questions with Tomas Bergler

This excerpt is from the book, From Here to Maturity: Overcoming the Juvenilization of American Christianity, Chapter 1, (c) 2014 Thomas E. Bergler, published 2014 by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company,  Grand Rapids, Michigan / Cambridge, U.K.

Thomas Bergler is professor of ministry and missions at Huntington University, Huntington, Indiana, U.S.A. He is a frequent speaker for Kairos and Sword of the Spirit conferences.

His 2012 book The Juvenilization of American Christianity was featured in Christianity Today and Preaching and won an award of merit from Christianity Today.

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