The juvenilization of American Christianityby Gordon Houser
The June issue of Christianity Today devotes several articles to “The Juvenilization of the American Church.” Thomas E. Bergler’s long cover story, “When Are We Going to Grow Up?” presents a history of American Evangelicals reaching out to youth through organizations such as Youth for Christ and Young Life. He notes the success of this outreach but cautions about unintended consequences: “Juvenilization tends to create a self-centered, emotionally driven and intellectually empty faith.”
Throughout its history, the Christian church has adapted the gospel message to its culture, with varying degrees of success. At the same time, such efforts have been criticized as either watering down the message or presenting a false one that doesn’t adequately challenge people to follow Jesus.
White evangelicals, in particular, writes Bergler, found success in adapting the gospel message to the culture, especially to young people: “It fared equally well in the buttoned-down 1950s and the psychedelic 1960s.”
Meanwhile, in the wider culture, the meaning of American adulthood underwent change. Instead of encouraging responsibility, self-denial and service to others, a new “psychological adulthood” encourages the individual’s needs and wants above obligations and attachments to relationships.
He quotes sociologist James Côté, who says the seven deadly sins have been redefined: “pride has become self-esteem … lust has become sexuality … envy is now channeled into initiative and incentive … sloth has become leisure.”
Bergler refers to the National Study of Youth and Religion by Christian Smith and other researchers, which found that the majority of American teenagers are inarticulate about religious matters. Smith labels their pattern of religious beliefs as Moralistic Therapeutive Deism. (Our cover story in this issue references this on page 14.)
This kind of adolescent narcissism, Bergler writes, has come to typify many Americans today: “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 that same issue, several other writers respond to Bergler’s article. John Ortberg, a megachurch pastor, mostly agrees with Bergler but calls the issue a missiological one of contextualization. He asks, How do we contextualize the gospel to a youth-worshiping culture?
He also notes that we need help defining just what spiritual maturity is.
David Kinnaman, a researcher and president of Barna Group, says we under- and overestimate the power and shape of the next generation. He notes that “typical parents are just as ‘addicted’ to media and technology as are their teenagers, just in different ways.” He says they’ve interviewed teenagers who complain that their parents’ use of technology inhibited quality family time.
David Zahl, a cultural critic, agrees with Bergler’s diagnosis but says “it misses the freedom at the heart of the gospel.”
He makes the point that we don’t grow out of spiritual adolescence by trying to grow up. “The Christian religion,” he writes, “is not ultimately about the Christian, either adolescent or mature—it is about the Christ.”
The question Bergler raises is an important one: Are we too immature? One of the better resources I’ve found in discussing spiritual maturity is Richard Rohr’s book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. He posits that we create an ego structure in the first half, then “fall upward” in the second half as we search for meaning.
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