The Juvenilization of American Christianity

Product DetailsThe 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.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

9 thoughts on “The Juvenilization of American Christianity”

  1. Just started reading the book myself. So far, the best, most incisive part, was the introduction, I thought. He has aspects of American Christianity nailed–how the Church has embraced immaturity in all its ugliness.

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  2. Just ran across an interesting quote on evangelicals in YFC (p. 158): “They also accepted anything that promised evangelistic success-or could at least draw a crowd of teenagers. They saw most pop culture forms as morally neutral and showed little awareness of the way that a change of medium can change the message it communicates.” And this is the history the evangelical world has reaped. God help us.

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      1. “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 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.” (p.12) Boy, does Professor Bergler have the evangelical world nailed.

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  3. Thanks Shane,
    I remember when starting a church in Florida, time and time again people would say to me, “I can’t take my family to your church because your youth group is not big enough”. On the contrary, when I was pastoring a church in Kansas, I was the head of the youth ministry. The parsonage was across the street and we had a Joy Club where many children and young adults attended this weekly event. It became my favorite time of the week and children were saved as a result of hearing the gospel. Our junior high youth group was a small one in a small town and there was no competition. We used great curriculum from Word of Life Ministries. The word of God was central in this ministry. My own kids were part of the youth group.
    When we moved to Grand Rapids, I was chagrined to find their new youth group playing, the Persecuted Church. Kids were arrested and put in a mock jail. Young people were laughing and running around. What do you call that?

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    1. Steve – your stories show the great aspects of youth ministry and also some bad aspects of it. Hopefully the book above will help get rid of the bad and help cultivate the good!

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  4. The fracturing of family worship. Historically speaking the entire family worshipped together, babies to elderly in one room, until the 19th century with the rise of Sunday school, and still even after predominately until the mid 20th century. Its a shame to split everyone up. There is no justification for it. From the Old Testament on when times of worship and renewal were mentioned the covenant family is always mentioned. To divide families so parents can concentrate is not the biblical answer. It destroys the commonality of the covenant community and the unity we have as sinners/saints and the Holy Spirits ability to minister the word to each heart as its proclaimed from the pulpit. It does profit many booksellers as there is a young mans study, a young girls, a single mans study bible, the couples bible, etc. Sure its good for kids to get together but that should be supplemental over above the regular services each Lords day. It really

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