The Juvenilization of American Christianity
By Thomas E. Bergler
Americans of all ages are not sure they want to grow up. It is common to hear thirty-, forty-, or even fifty-year-olds say things like, “I guess I have to start thinking of myself as an adult now.” Many emerging adults ages eighteen to twenty-three want to get married and have children eventually, but they think of settling down as the end of the good part of their lives. As one young woman put it, having children would be nice someday because they are “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. I can guarantee 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 college students, “What does a mature Christian look like? Let’s list some traits of spiritual maturity.” They disliked the question and came 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 in this life.” Sadly, these evangelical Christian college students did not think of spiritual maturity as attainable or even desirable. They wrongly equated it with an unattainable perfection.
REACHING YOUNG PEOPLE BUT LOSING SIGHT OF MATURITY
Where did this problem of low expectations originate? Over the past seventy-five years, three factors combined to create what I call the juvenilization of American Christianity. First, new and more powerful youth cultures created distance between adults and adolescents. Second, Christians responded by creatively adapting the faith to adolescent tastes. 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 as appropriate for Christians of all ages.
The History of Juvenilization and Where It Went Wrong
Juvenilization often begins with good intentions, as an attempt to win young people to the faith. Many benefits have come to the church through injecting more youthfulness. Church growth, mission trips, and racial reconciliation all received a big boost from the youth ministries of the past seventy-five years. Youth ministries are crucial laboratories of innovation that at their best keep churches strong and help them adapt to the unique challenges of each generation. But history shows that making Christianity more adolescent sometimes ends badly, with too many people embracing immaturity as a lifelong way to be Christian.2
Juvenilization began in the 1930s and 1940s as Christians faced what everyone was calling the “crisis of civilization.” As they lived through the massive disruptions of the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War, adults feared that unless young people were saved and mobilized for Christ, American freedom and democracy might collapse. After all, Hitler and Stalin had ridden to power on the backs of fanatical youth movements. Meanwhile, the word “teenager” was being coined to describe a new group of young people who all went to high school and all participated in the same commercialized youth culture. Adults wanted teenagers to save the world. But teens had other plans…
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