23 August 2012

review: the juvenilization of american christianity

Thomas E. Bergler, The Juvenilization of American Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012).

In an examination of the Twentieth Century's impact on American Christianity, Thomas Bergler (associate professor of ministry and missions at Huntington University) provides interesting insight by tracing the background of the current religious culture in the United States.  Initially, I was expecting a title like this to be a critique of worship styles and congregational scope.  There is some of this, but the volume is more concerned with the history of the Christian subculture through the Twentieth Century to simply be a bloviation of opinion.  In other words, to understand the current "juvenilization" of American Christianity, one must come to appreciate the background(s) of the current context.

The Introduction shows where the study is going, aptly titled We're All Adolescents Now, an indication that American Christianity as a whole is more consumer-oriented than ever before in the history of the church . . . "Even if the church officially frowns on combining entertainment and worship, its members still tend to behave like spectators" (2).  Further, even in all of the attempts to engage churchgoers in increasingly meaningful ways, there is an overall consumerism that labels, brands and summarizes the "high-points" of the modern faith trends (cf. 2-3).  The Twentieth Century is distinctive for the impact which youth movements made upon the whole faith movement.  "Like other revolutions, juvenilization swept away both good and bad elements in church life.  Youth ministries brought necessary and beneficial reforms to the churches, but they also made Christians suspicious of authorities and traditions" (4).

Bergler also introduces his work with the assertion that, "In some ways, juvenilization was a byproduct of noble goals" (5).  This means that the impact which youth ministries have had on the church begins with the intention of reaching young people with the gospel, even though not all of the outcomes have been desirable in the life and health of the church as a whole.  Thus, he defines "Adolescent Spirituality" as ". . . any way of understanding, experiencing, or practicing the Christian faith that conforms to the patterns of adolescence in American culture" (8).  He develops the various layers of this assertion, which provides the context for a non-maturing faith: "Adolescent Christians don't expect to be adults for a long time, so they don't particularly care if their Christianity prepares them for adulthood.  They tend to be much more aware of their religious 'rights' than their religious responsibilities" (14-15).  Although not all that has come from the youth movements is bad for the church, there have been serious (and often unintended) consequences which must be addressed.

The book is an interesting and informative read.  The development of these themes and the tracing of their history throughout the Twentieth Century is good to understand as we seek to work within our current context of Christianity.  "Young people, many whom had never seen old-time religion anywhere but in church, found it exciting to attend rallies in theaters, civic auditoriums, and even stadiums" (50).  What began this cultural shift was the decision/crisis of what to do with the emerging youth culture: "The 1940s saw the emergence of an enduring dilemma in Christian youth work: to adapt to youth culture and tamper with the faith, or to ignore that culture and suffer the loss of youthful loyalty" (65).

Specific areas of examination include Liberal Protestantism, The Black Church, The Roman Catholic Church, and more conservative Evangelicalism.  (Here is one reason why this can be a challenging book, but also why it makes it an important book - the range of study includes areas that demand an appreciation for the American church's diversity; one cannot simply read from within their own faith tradition alone.)  For those looking to gain a better understanding of how our current American Christianity emerged, the roots of those movements are found in this cultural history.  For one example, consider the statement, "Teenagers who grew up in Youth for Christ during the 1950s and early 1960s were primed to accept the Jesus People movement, Christian rock music, and small groups that would be needed to reach later generations . . ." (175).

Chapter Seven draws the various traditions together in a discussion of the cultural events of the 1960s, where many things considered to be establishment fell apart.  Bergler looks at the impact on the main streams of American Christianity, and how each movement responded to the shifting world around them.  He concludes, "In the long run, the rebellious styles of the sixties youth proved more popular among the middle class than the substance of their social vision" (206-207).  Further, "Unfortunately, their success came at some cost . . . While some of these changes were beneficial, others would create a chronic immaturity among American Christians" (207).

The final chapter speaks of the lasting impact (both positive and negative) of the process of juvenilization among American Christianity.  On the one hand, "Juvenilization has kept American Christianity vibrant" (208).  On the other hand, it has led to a culture that has lessened the maturity of the American Christian: "But in far too many youth groups, teenagers learn to feel good about God without learning much about God" (221).

Bergler also concludes that, "Although juvenilization has renewed American Christianity, it has also undermined Christian maturity" (225).  This has happened primarily by 1) equating faith with emotional comfort, and 2) presenting theological beliefs as optional to the faith experience (see 225).  How do we confront such a situation?  Bergler suggests: "They need practices and environments that will help them grow into spiritual maturity" (227).

Furthermore, "Adults should not try to be teenagers, but instead need to set adult examples.  Teenagers can legitimately follow Christ in adolescent ways, but they need to grow up spiritually as well as physically . . . After all, churches full of people who are committed to helping each other toward spiritual maturity are not only the best antidote to juvenilization in the church, but also a powerful countercultural witness in a juvenilized world" (229).

No comments: