The Juvenilization of American Christianity

Below is an interview with Thomas Bergler on his forthcoming book, The Juvenilization of American Christianity (Eerdmans, April 2012), discerning how youth ministry has influenced the church at large. I like his definition of juvenilization:

The process by which things that might be normal and good for a teenage spiritually come to be accepted and even idealized for all ages.

He’s making a lot of the same observations that Reformed critics have been making for quite some time, though perhaps more tempered. He recognizes that some of these youth-targeted methods are appropriate for youth, yet they make a poor template for adults. His criticisms are sound — the immaturity and emotional baggage that has been wrought; yet, he claims that without this juvenilization the churches in America would be empty (hyperbole of course), because American culture at large has become adolescent and immature. The churches are tracking with this cultural shift. So, I’m interested to see if Bergler offers any proposals in the book for how to overcome this immaturity without emptying the churches (i.e., the fear among evangelicals of America becoming like Europe).

Unfortunately, the interviewer is not, ummm, my favorite.



  1. Interesting. I wonder if his concern and critique with resonate with evangelicals who are on the ancient-future track? Would this be a critique against many so-called emergent or emerging folks who just want to extend sr. high/college age life experiences?

    • Yeah, it would definitely resonate with ancient-future types.

      It’s impossible to really pin-down emergent folks on anything, many who would actually identify with ancient-future. Plus, there are so few who will even call themselves emergent anymore. Still, juvenilization would clearly characterize the emotional bent of their focus on aesthetics, as opposed to a genuine aesthetics which makes room for suffering, purgation, absence, etc.

      • ah. i like your differentiation between aesthetics and ASETHETICS. I suppose by juvenile you would mean “fulfilling” “uplifting” emotive sort of stuff as opposed to more liturgical approaches which do not make the worshippers “experience” the most important thing.
        To sum up, from my perspective, we are fighting against a powerful tide of therapeutic deism. And i hope Bergler helps the process.

  2. It’s not only in America that Christianity is being “juvenalized”, but wherever American culture generally and church culture in particular has had an influence. So I’ll be interested in his proposals for reversal too – I meet so many people of the baby-boomer and younger age groups who’s faith seems to have stopped developing after about the age of 30 (which is when people get married now and hence when “youth” ends) and what’s more they’re not interested in developing it. Thus, to use a rather banal but highly symbolic example, we have congregations composed mostly of 40-60 year olds who insist on having a rock band up front and will never countenance the use of the lovely pipe organ that sits in the choir loft except when requested for funerals!

    • I have been interested in Pete Rollins take on these things. Especially the fact that many people feel a disconnect during worship experiences, disagree with many of the things preached about and dislike the hierarchial structures of their church but keep going. Rollins is exasperated by this. I dont think he is against rock bands and for organs but is for more existentially driven participation. Not super passive go with the flowism.

  3. Sorry -that should be “whose” faith seems to have stopped.
    And I’m not against rock bands in principle, just in worship, but maybe we shouldn’t open that particular can of worms here :0)

    • Yeah, worship is the most horrifying example in my opinion. Evangelical denominations (like the PCA and SBC) have fully embraced the contemporary worship paradigm. This is where the mainline churches should get some recognition for, by and large, not sacrificing excellence at the dubious altar of authenticity. In Charlotte, if you want a liturgy that conveys the presence of the Creator of Heaven and Earth, you have to go to a mainline church: PCUSA, Episcopal, United Methodist, Roman Catholic. I actually do like a lot of contemporary worship, which is why I’ve posted videos of David Crowder, Brooke Fraser, Chris Tomlin, et al., but I think it serves best on special occasions, not the regular Sabbath worship. On a regular basis, contemporary worship can actually generate a pathos of sentimentality and emotional dependence.

      • I think worship bands are often harmful, but I don’t think they inherently are – people did once say some of the same things about the organ! I’m critical of what passes for worship in a lot of churches, but I ended settling on an AMiA church with a band that selects its music carefully (mostly hymns and adapted Psalms with the occasional modern song) and the band doesn’t draw too much attention to itself (no guitar solos, not too heavy or flashy a sound, not too much talking between songs from the leader).

      • Joel,

        Yes, there are better and worse ways at doing contemporary worship, and a lot of Reformed groups are doing the better ways (e.g., Indelible Grace) in churches. If they are basically doing hymns, set to modern instrumentation, then I would actually class that as “traditional,” even with newer hymns (e.g., Getty/Townsend). Yet, the organ is able to convey a sense of majesty that guitars cannot; hence, Mozart called the organ, “the king of instruments.” The current pope, Benedict XVI, said this:

        “The organ has always been considered, and rightly so, the king of musical instruments, because it takes up all the sounds of creation – as was just said – and gives resonance to the fullness of human sentiments, from joy to sadness, from praise to lamentation. By transcending the merely human sphere, as all music of quality does, it evokes the divine. The organ’s great range of timbre, from piano through to a thundering fortissimo, makes it an instrument superior to all others. It is capable of echoing and expressing all the experiences of human life. The manifold possibilities of the organ in some way remind us of the immensity and the magnificence of God.”

  4. Joel,
    I guess I could live with a band at the side doing hymns and psalms along with the better CCM in the context of worship that is basically liturgical (actually, I have done so). That, to me, is the only way to do it.

    I realize this discussion is about more than worship style, but I think that’s where the juvenalization shows up most (including preaching!).

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