The title of this book made me get it and read it: The Juvenilization of American Christianity by Thomas Bergler (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012). It reminded me of a time I was at a Christian thrift shop and a 50+ year old woman was singing along to the CCM music playing in the store (the Christian version of Miley Cyrus or Green Day, though I forget which). What is the juvenilization of American Christianity? “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 the young. But it sometimes ends badly, with both youth and adults embracing immature versions of the faith” (p. 4).
Bergler makes an important and accurate observation here. His critique of youth ministry (starting way back in the 30’s and 40’s) is that it sometimes “pandered to the consumerism, self-centeredness, and even outright immaturity of American believers. For good or ill, American Christianity would never be the same” (p. 4). This book is basically a history of American youth ministry, which is less than 100 years old. Bergler discusses youth ministry from the 40’s to the 60’s, and shows how many of the philosophies of youth ministry back then are now part of the DNA of many churches and denominations. For those of you who have read some of Marsden’s work on 20th century American Christianity, you’ll see some parallels. Around 80% of the book is devoted to the history of youth ministry, which, I admit, wasn’t overly interesting to me since it was very detailed.
At the same time, it was fascinating to learn how youth ministry in the past is now embedded in the fabric of many American churches. I also thought it was telling to see how earlier youth ministry was aimed at patriotism and morals rather than doctrine and how it relates to the Christian life. Finally, Bergler made a connection that I should have made before: youth ministry in the past was largely about entertaining youth. Therefore it isn’t an accident that many churches today want to entertain the masses in a similar way to youth ministry of old: by baptizing secular culture to make it Christian.
To be sure, Bergler notes some positive aspects of youth ministry and some of the good youth ministries have done. From my perspective, I’m thankful when I see young people with a strong desire to serve the Lord. It’s refreshing! Yet, as Bergler shows, there are harmful aspects of much youth ministry. The last few pages of the book are probably the best, as Bergler brings his critiques together and then shows a way forward in youth ministry done biblically and toward Christian maturity. Here’s one example from the last pages.
“So juvenilization has made the process of finding, maintaining, and submitting to religious truth more problematic. And the faith that Americans choose is increasingly the faith of ‘moralistic, therapeutic deism.’ To put it simply, they continue to believe what they learned in adolescence. And more and more often, they hear the same messages as adults. God, faith, and the church all exist to help me with my problems. Religious institutions are bad; only my ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ matters. In other words, large numbers of Americans of all ages not only accept a Christianized version of adolescent narcissism, they often celebrate it as authentic spirituality” (p. 224).
Obviously I recommend this to those of you who work with youth. Please get this book to help you avoid these juvenilization dangers. I’d also recommend it for pastors and elders who have talked in-depth about ministering to youth. Though the church I pastor doesn’t have a youth group, the book was still helpful to me because I do preach to youth and teach them Catechism and Bible lessons. The Juvenilization of American Christianity isn’t a manual for how to lead youth forward to maturity in the Christian faith, but it does show some common pitfalls to avoid. I’m confident it will help youth ministry in many ways.