Book Review: The Juvenilization of American Christianity and From Here to Maturity, by Thomas E. Bergler

Review
09.16.2015

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

Thomas E. Bergler, From Here To Maturity: Overcoming the Juvenilization of American Christianity. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014. 189 pp. $20.00.

 

When my wife and I were growing up, our mainline congregations would periodically sponsor “Youth Sunday.” The Sunday morning service was turned over to the Youth Group, under the supervision of one of the ministers or interns of the church. The church’s young people chose the hymns, offered the prayers, read the readings, and even delivered the sermon that Sunday morning.

Thomas E. Bergler provocatively and persuasively argues that, for American Christianity at the dawn of the twenty-first century, every Sunday is Youth Sunday. That is to say, over the course of the twentieth century, the American church came to accommodate itself to the burgeoning youth culture that would come to shape and define the life of the country. Bergler refers to this phenomenon as “juvenilization,” that is, “the process by which the religious beliefs, practices, and developmental characteristics of adolescents became accepted as appropriate for Christians of all ages” (Juvenilization, 4). More pointedly, juvenilization is a “Christianized version of adolescent narcissism” (From Here, 25).

What are some of the symptoms of juvenilization? Worship that is designed to entertain and that relegates the congregation to the role of spectator; songs on Sunday morning that resemble romantic love songs; suspicion of creeds and doctrine; crusading and idealistic social activism and political engagement; diminution of church office; and dedicated programs for the youth of the church (Juvenilization, 1-4). Young people, with their “‘passion’ and ‘authenticity,’” are the “gold standard of Christian spirituality” (2).

While juvenilization has brought certain benefits to the church, Bergler argues, its liabilities outweigh those benefits. Juvenilization has arrested the spiritual growth and maturity of even adult believers. It furthermore represents an unwholesome capitulation of the American church to the culture in which it finds itself.

HISTORY OF JUVENILIZATION IN THE CHURCH

In Juvenilization, Bergler offers a gripping historical account of how juvenilization transformed the church between 1930 and 1970. Church leaders in the 1930s and 1940s perceived a looming “crisis of civilization” confronting the Western church in the form of the Depression, WWII, and the Cold War (19). Increasingly, these leaders began to point to young people as the ones who would carry the church through this crisis. Youth for Christ was founded in 1945 in order to reach unchurched young people and to galvanize Christian youth in the tasks of evangelism and Christian living. Mainline Methodists and the Roman Catholic Church instituted, for the first time, youth programs (African American Christians, at least initially, resisted this trend). At the same time as the formation of these youth organizations and programs, “teenagers” were beginning to emerge as a powerful social, economic, and cultural force in American society.

Bergler traces the histories of these four bodies’ engagement of youth in the 1940s and 1950s. Mainline Methodists sought to fashion left-leaning political activists out of their youth, but failed. Many young people responded with indifference. Other youth were alienated by the church’s theological and liturgical innovations that were intended to retain them. Those who did take up the church’s call to progressive social action were actively encouraged to rebel against established authorities. In the 1960s, they would have little reason to remain in the church.

The Roman Catholic Church employed its youth activities to help form what has come to be known as the mid-century “Catholic Ghetto.” Roman Catholic youth were immersed in a regimen that combined catechical indoctrination and rigid moral oversight with youth rallies and sporting events. When the social and political upheavals of the 1960s arrived, the church discovered that its youth had been insufficiently prepared to weather those storms. Large numbers of Roman Catholic youth left the church.

In different ways, the African-American church and white evangelicals had better success in retaining the young people in their ranks. African-American churches at first resisted juvenilization. This resistance proved critical for the Civil Rights movement. Young African-American Civil Rights leaders demonstrated remarkable maturity both in their commitment to racial equality and in the manner in which they responded to white aggression (92, 93). As young men and women came to the forefront of the Civil Rights movement, however, older African-Americans ceded leadership roles to them. By the end of the 1960s, a young civil rights leadership, alienated from Christianity and disillusioned by events of the decade, had left the church. In following decades, however, many African-Africans would return to the church, a church that for the most part did not bear the imprint of juvenilization.

White evangelicals benefited the most from juvenilization. Evangelical,parachurch leaders shed fundamentalist separatism in the 1950s and presented evangelicalism to young people as something enjoyable and capable of providing personal purpose and emotional fulfillment. This positive appropriation of “youth culture” would pave the way in the following decade for “the Jesus people movement, Christian rock music, and small groups” (175). The flourishing of evangelical Christianity in the 1970s and 1980s was due, in no small measure, to evangelicalism’s “ability to foster and sustain religious commitment among the young” (175). In doing so, however, evangelicalism failed to engage critically the “cultural forms” of white middle-class youth (175). It also failed to yield a theologically and ecclesiastically robust Christianity.

THE AUTHOR’S ASSESSMENT

Bergler concedes that juvenilization is here to stay in both the culture and the church. Even so, he pleads, Christians may and ought to take steps to counter its deleterious effects in the church. From Here to Maturity is Bergler’s attempt to help churches pursue spiritual maturity in the face of the headwinds of juvenilization.

Bergler first argues that Christians need an understanding of maturity that is “desirable,” “attainable,” and “visible” (From Here, 48, 49). Christian maturity requires “know[ing] basic truths of the gospel,” “discernment,” “connect[ion] to the body of Christ (the church),” a “life of love” and increasing Christ-likeness, particularly in growing conformity to Jesus’ death and resurrection (48, 49). Maturity encompasses not only the mind, but also the will and the feelings (54). It transpires in Christian community (55).

How is maturity to be pursued and attained? Bergler suggests that Christian leaders adopt Dallas Willard’s “VIM” model. Christian leaders should help believers embrace a “Vision” for maturity, help them cultivate the “Intentions” or motivations to implement that vision in their own lives, and identify the specific “Means” by which they can pursue and attain to maturity.

Bergler argues that youth ministry and ministry to “emerging adults” (people in their twenties or thirties who are in “limbo . . . being neither a teen nor a real adult,” 6, citing Christian Smith) has a constructive role to play in the pursuit of maturity. Citing the findings of the National Study of Youth and Religion, Bergler identifies “six faith-sustaining factors in the lives of teenagers that are especially likely to lead to stronger faith in emerging adulthood”: “high parental religious attendance and importance of faith;” “high teen importance of religious faith;” “teen has many personal religious experiences;” “teen has no doubts about religious beliefs;” “teen frequently prays and reads Scripture;” “teen has many adults in religious congregation to turn to for help and support” (92, 94). Bergler then identifies concrete steps that youth leaders should take to foster these factors in the lives of the young people whom they serve. Bergler concludes From Here to Maturity by sketching a four-step plan by which church leaders may help congregants pursue maturity, and to eliminate barriers to maturity in the life of the church (113).

WHY THIS IS INSTRUCTIVE FOR US

Bergler’s chronicle of the juvenilization of the church is particularly instructive for leaders in the local church. He argues that “the story of juvenilization is a story not of a sinister plot or a noble crusade, but of unintended consequences and unquestioned assumptions” (Juvenilization, 5). Church leaders failed to subject cultural norms to biblical scrutiny. They also failed sufficiently to train younger generations in biblical teaching to withstand the tide of juvenilization that swept American society in the mid-twentieth century. The result was either the decimation of the ranks of some churches or the transformation of other churches according to the norms of adolescence. Bergler’s narrative underscores the importance of discernment and rigorous biblical training to the life and work of the church.

Bergler further notes that many of the features of the worship, ministry, and mission of the church are relatively recent arrivals in the church. He invites us to review even aspects of the church’s life that evangelicals take for granted, and to consider the degree to which they may be indebted to juvenilization. If the church is called to pursue Christian maturity, then Christian leaders especially have an obligation to address in biblical fashion any and all obstacles in the life and work of the church to that pursuit.

IS BERGLER’S CURE ENOUGH FOR THE PROBLEM?

Bergler’s cure, set forth in From Here to Maturity, unfortunately does not rise to the level of his diagnostic analysis in The Juvernilization of American Christianity. He is certainly correct to press for Christian maturity as something that is desirable and attainable. He rightly understands that this pursuit must be conducted according to biblical norms and is not a solitary enterprise. He also provides valuable statistical data to help church leaders better understand the challenges and opportunities that lie before those who serve young people in the church.

And yet, certain planks of biblical maturity are either absent from or do not receive due emphasis in From Here to Maturity. Two in particular merit reflection. First, Bergler acknowledges that biblical truth is sine qua non of the pursuit of Christian maturity. At the same time, From Here to Maturity demonstrates little interest in specifying what precisely that biblical truth is. The “first step in helping people grow toward maturity” is “identify[ing] a core body of Christian teaching” (56). Bergler recognizes that “churches and theological traditions” differ on this matter and that “choices here will have significant impact on the spiritual formation of human hearts” (56). Unwilling to “sort out” or “arbitrate . . . these differences,” however, he urges “church leaders” to “identify the basic teachings of the faith as understood by their faith tradition and start teaching them” (56). Later, Bergler notes that when Christians “learn, love, and live theology” they become “more spiritually mature,” whether “the theology they learn comes from an Evangelical, Reformed, Lutheran, or Catholic theological tradition” (112).

But Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions have radically different understandings of both Christian doctrine and the Christian life. What is the rule of faith and practice? What role do the sacraments play in the beginning and progress of the Christian life? What is the relationship between justification and sanctification? May an ordinary believer obtain assurance of grace and salvation? What happens to the believer after he dies?

Even within Protestantism, there are important differences. Must I speak in tongues in order to experience the Christian life to its fullest? Is perfection possible in this life? Is it possible for a true Christian totally and finally to fall away from the state of grace?

Answers to these questions are determinative of the way in which one understands not only Christian maturity but also the Christian life itself. The creeds and confessions of the Reformation, and of the Reformed tradition in particular, were framed precisely in order to help Christians grasp with precision the Scripture’s teaching on these matters. To neglect or bypass these resources, and to express unwillingness to make biblical evaluation of different, even disparate, theological traditions does not bode well for the project of Christian maturity.

A second concern relates to the context within which Bergler understands Christian maturity to transpire. He laudably stresses that one may not pursue Christian growth in solitude. In developing his VIM model, Bergler commends an ongoing mentoring relationship between a more mature believer (“spiritual parents,” “spiritual mentors,” “spiritual friends,” 58) and a less mature believer (“spiritual child,” “mentee,” 58, 59). This relationship takes place within “the body of Christ (the church)” (49). Among the “spiritual disciplines” that Bergler commends are “Sabbath,” “worship,” and “Holy Communion” (62). Specifically, “prayer, learning God’s Word, Holy Communion, serving others, corporate worship, and possibly a few other practices should be part of every Christian’s life” (66-67).

Bergler, however, commends a host of other “spiritual disciplines”—well over sixty, in fact (62, 63). The means of grace and public worship, while on that list, are not prioritized relative to other practices that Bergler commends. As a result, the biblical importance of the means of grace is lost in a welter of activities, some of which will transpire within the church and others of which need not.

Furthermore, the place of church membership and church discipline is negligible within From Here to Maturity. Little mention, if any, is made of the vows that a believer must take in formally associating with the local church. Neither is there is discussion of what may or ought to happen should a church member persist in violation of those vows. What’s more, while “mentors” assume a prominent role in the pursuit of maturity, comparable stress is not placed on the role of ministers and other elders in the growth of the Christians under their spiritual charge.

CONCLUSION

The membership, offices, ordinances, and discipline of the church are not absent from From Here To Maturity. Neither, however, do they play a controlling role in Bergler’s conception of the pursuit of Christian maturity. These crucial facets of the New Testament writers’ conception of Christian growth and maturity are muted, if not absent.

In all, The Juvenilization of American Christianity and From Here To Maturity will richly repay every Christian leader who takes the time to read them. Bergler’s research helps the church understand and diagnose many of the weaknesses that plague the contemporary evangelical church. Bergler’s exit strategy from juvenilization contains much wisdom, even as its deficits underscore a standing vulnerability within evangelicalism: the lack of a robust, biblical ecclesiology, in which creeds, confession, church membership, office, ordinances, and discipline play a necessary and vital role in Christian maturity. If we are willing to use these rich resources at our disposal, then, by the grace of God, we will be able not only to decry juvenilization but also to strive for the maturity to which Christ calls us.