Book Review: The Juvenilization of American Christianity

23 January 2013 by Wes Bredenhof

The Juvenilization of American Christianity
The Juvenilization of American Christianity

The Juvenilization of American Christianity, Thomas E. Bergler, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012.  Softcover, 281 pages, $25.00.

It is fairly obvious that our North American culture idolizes youth.  The Bible says in Proverbs 16:31 that grey hair is a crown of glory, but try telling that to Clairol.  This obsession with youth goes deeper than one’s dermis – it extends well into immature attitudes and behaviours.  Sadly, what our culture values makes its way into the lives of Christians too.  That’s what this book is about.

Thomas Bergler defines juvenilization as “the process by which the religious beliefs, practices, and developmental characteristics of adolescents become accepted as appropriate for Christians of all ages” (4).  He sees this phenomenon as a distinct element of contemporary American Christianity.  Many American churches, especially those that identify themselves as evangelical, are predisposed towards catering to the tastes of teenagers in virtually all aspects of ecclesiastical life.  Bergler notes that this is particularly true with regard to what happens on Sunday in public worship services.

Two introductory chapters set the stage for what happened with youth in the 1950s and 1960s in the United States.  Bergler especially notes the pressures of the Cold War and the daunting threat of communism.  Youth were seen as crucial players in the battle against communist world domination.  They were regarded as the vital future of a free America.  The author then follows up with three chapters which trace developments with respect to youth ministry in the mainstream liberal Protestant churches, the black church, Roman Catholicism, and “evangelical” churches.  The book concludes with two chapters of analysis and reflection.  Truthfully, the two chapters at each end of the book were the most readable and engaging.  While the historical chapters about the different churches in the middle are necessary, the writing was occasionally tedious.  For example, the author himself didn’t seem all that interested in developments in youth ministry among the liberal Methodists.

The book is a helpful study of what happens when priorities shift towards accommodating youth, rather than challenging them.  Bergler gives a clear picture of how things came to be the way they are in so much of North American Christianity.  Among other things, juvenilization has reinforced narcissism and the view of Christianity as mere “lifestyle enhancement.”  Interestingly, according to Bergler, the idea of small group Bible studies also finds its origins with this phenomenon.  This idea is not without its downside:

But sometimes this way of learning encourages people to think that their opinions are every bit as important as what the Bible or the church teaches.  The discussion format may sometimes reinforce the idea that all theological beliefs are a matter of personal preference.  So juvenilization has made the process of finding, maintaining, and submitting to religious truth more problematic. (224)

The author is abundantly clear about the problems that juvenilization has introduced.  Chief among them is a chronic spiritual immaturity.  Yet, strangely, he is not ready to abandon it.  He notes that it has contributed to the “ongoing vitality of American churches” (226).  Youth ministry is here to stay, and so are juvenilized churches, and Bergler thinks this to be a good thing.   I’m left to wonder why he concludes then with this sentence:  “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).   What do we normally use antidotes for?  Bergler himself seems unsure whether juvenilization is ultimately a poison or a blessing.

As I read this volume, I felt acutely that I was reading it as an outsider.  Not only am I a Canadian reading a book about the American situation, but also I’m Reformed.  Bergler gives no attention whatsoever to what was happening amongst confessionally Reformed or Presbyterian churches in this era and how they might compare.  Yes, I know that we are small – there might be 500,000 of us.  He can’t really be blamed.  Still, amongst many of our churches, we have exceptionally high retention rates of youth – and this without juvenilization or the youth ministry models that dominate elsewhere.  Why is that?  Our ministry philosophy has never involved accommodation to the culture.  Instead, we have traditionally held the doctrine of the antithesis in high regard.  And we do have a time-honoured type of youth ministry – it’s called catechism.  The church instructs her young members in the doctrines of God’s Word and challenges them with these teachings.  The covenant youth are challenged, not only to embrace these doctrines intellectually with their minds, but also with the affections of their hearts.  Other factors that need to be accounted for when considering our youth retention include a biblical understanding of worship and how it is to be regulated, our focus on Word and Sacrament gospel ministry, parental responsibility in discipling covenant children, and Christian education.  In all these ways, the world of Reformed and Presbyterian churches is vastly different from what is described in this book.  One can only wish that readers of this volume from other backgrounds would long for something different and find it amongst us.  Similarly, one can wish that readers of this volume from our own background would read it and be reminded of the riches of our own heritage.