Gregory E. Reynolds
The Juvenilization of American Christianity, by Thomas E. Bergler. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012, 281 pages, $25.00.
An evangelical church without a youth group is unthinkable. Few realize that this, along with Sunday school, are rather recent innovations in the Western church. Bergler provides us with a detailed history of the development of youth groups in American Christianity, focusing on fundamentalist, evangelical, liberal, and black Protestantism. What these all have in common is their concern for cultural decline. What Bergler fails to mention is their lack of confessional ecclesiology. Hence, the pragmatism that lies at the root of the development of youth groups ends in serious cultural compromise, which Bergler insightfully notes along the way.
Bergler is himself experienced in youth ministry. He is senior associate editor for The Journal of Youth Ministry and is associate professor of ministry and missions at Huntington University, Indiana. Because he is a strong advocate of youth ministry, his criticisms have extra weight.
It is critical for church officers to be aware of this history in order to understand some of the perils of evangelical youth group culture, especially the temptation to imitate secular youth culture. In our tradition, we make promises to be involved in the discipling of our young people, as reflected in the parental and congregational vows taken at infant baptism.
Although “juvenilization” is an awkward term, there seems to be no better single word to describe the phenomenon that Bergler is identifying. Generally, juvenilization is the result of embracing adolescence as an ideal, which is the defining force of American youth culture. In the church, it is immature versions of the faith that resemble American youth culture. Bergler observes:
They [adolescent Christians] are drawn to religious practices that produce emotional highs and sometimes assume that experiencing strong feelings is the same thing as spiritual authenticity. They may be tempted to believe that God’s main role in their lives is to help them feel better or to heal their emotional pain. Juvenilized adults agree that the main purpose of Christianity is to help them feel better about their problems. (12)
Bergler traces the origin of Christian youth groups and the development of juvenilization to the Great Depression. He demonstrates that the initial motivation for this development was a response to the perceived “Crisis of Civilization,” especially presented by Communism as an ultimate threat to “Christian Civilization.” The revival of Christian youth was conceived as the best way to combat this foe. Save the world by saving youth. Entertainment was considered the only way to appeal to youth. Hence the creation of groups like Youth for Christ and Young Life and the popularity of revivalist youth ministers like Jack Wertzen and Word of Life Ministries (19–40).
The leaders of this new movement underestimated the long-term effects of accommodating American youth culture. Many young people became Christian “stars.” Old gospel music took on contemporary styles “subtly altering the gospel message” (51). Leaders embraced marketing and business methods (52).
The late 1940s witnessed the invention of the teenager. A new sub-culture of “passive consumers with poor critical thinking skills” was born (65). Mass entertainment promoted cultural conformity, which in turn dramatically reshaped American Christianity (80). But it was in the 1950s that American youth group culture was fully formed. Bergler’s title for chapter 6 nicely sums up the result, “How to Have Fun, Be Popular, and Save the World at the Same Time” (147). But, as Bergler observes, by adapting to American youth culture, “[t]he faith could become just another product to consume; a relationship with Jesus might become just another source of emotional fulfillment.... [This] set the stage for the widespread juvenilization of American Christianity” (148). “The evangelical youth culture had taken on a life of its own” (157).
Although some of their innovations may seem quaint today, the evangelical teenagers and youth leaders of the 1950s were engaged in a radical transformation of their religious tradition.... By defining the Christian life as less countercultural and more fun and fulfilling, YFC leaders harnessed the appeal of youth culture to the cart of revivalism. (157)
The new evangelical youth culture taught teenagers to see emotional states like ‘happiness and thrill’ as central to Christianity and its appeal ... Evangelical teenagers demanded that Christian music reflect the emotionally intense, romantic spirituality they were creating in their youth groups. (162)
With the Jesus Movement of the 1960s and 70s, “evangelical youth environments increasingly glorified entertainment and self-fulfillment and downplayed calls to spiritual maturity” (199). Youth groups more aggressively catered to teen styles, especially in dress and music. Informality ruled and general countercultural ideals prevailed, as evidenced in slogans such as “Get high on Jesus.” One of the leaders of the movement, Ralph Carmichael, accurately predicted “that teenagers of the sixties would bring their Christian rock music with them into the ‘adult’ worship services of the future” (201). Bergler chillingly observes that today the “Youth for Christ Model” has become the church. Bill Hybels at Willow Creek and Rick Warren at Saddleback self-consciously modeled their churches on this (208).
Aping the culture has come fully home to roost. An intensified focus on individual lifestyle places Christianity in the service of “lifestyle enhancement” (220). Formed by the juvenile mentality created by the menu of choices available in every area of popular culture, Christian youth are trained to “pick and choose what to believe and to be suspicious of religious orthodoxies and authorities” (221). The democratization of ideas and beliefs undermines the teaching authority of the church among its youth, and seeks to make the church like the youth group.
[T]he teaching methods used often reinforce the cultural imperative toward individualized belief systems. Youth ministries pioneered group discussions and simplified, entertaining teaching styles. Many leaders idealized youth and hope to make the church in the image of youth. Some youth leaders actively criticized the adult church and taught young people to feel religiously superior to adults. In short, youth ministry activities communicated to young people that they and their opinions were all-important. (223)
Bergler acknowledges the value of sociologist Christian Smith’s analysis of the American teenager (219–20). Smith’s book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers is a unique exploration of the religious and spiritual dimensions of the lives of American teenagers. Most disturbing is Smith’s discovery of an emerging, culturally pervasive religious outlook in America that he calls Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Smith perceptively relates this emerging outlook to digital communication, mass consumer capitalism, and therapeutic individualism.
While Bergler does not mention the absence of confessional consciousness, he does observe the lack of theological thinking behind the conception of evangelical youth ministries. Speaking of the evangelical youth leaders in the 1950s he says:
Rather than developing sophisticated theological criteria for evaluating popular culture and entertainment ... They saw most pop culture forms as morally neutral and showed little awareness of the way that a change of medium can change the message it communicates. (158)
The failure to understand the relationship between cultural forms and their messages has been endemic among evangelicals. The irony of fundamentalists using the tube was not lost on liberal Harvard Divinity School professor Harvey Cox, who wrote:
This is a tension between content and form, between message and medium, that occurs when the Old Time Gospel Hour goes out on network television.... The move from the revivalist tent to the vacuum tube has vastly amplified the voices of defenders of tradition.At the same time it has made them more dependent on the styles and assumptions inherent in the medium itself.... a set of attitudes and values that are inimical to traditional morality.... If the devil is a modernist, the TV evangelist may have struck a deal with Lucifer himself, who always appears—so the Bible teaches—as an angel of light.
This is one of the major themes to take away from Bergler’s research: the forms of culture communicate meaning. All embodiments of culture bear a message. When the church fails to understand this, it unwittingly adjusts itself to the plausibility structures of the culture.
In his final chapter, Bergler declares the juvenilization of American Christianity to be triumphant. He only spends the last three-and-a-half pages suggesting how to tame this dominant trend. Bergler’s book is mostly descriptive with a taste of prescription. Here are some of his suggested themes that need extensive amplification, some of which I offer here as guidelines to those who minister to youth—hence its didactic form:
“Pastors and youth leaders need to teach what the Bible says about spiritual maturity, with a special emphasis on those elements that are neglected by juvenilized Christians” (226). Youth ministry must locate teaching on maturity within the larger context of the Bible’s rich doctrine, teaching our young people to own the language of the Bible and the Catechism. One of the pervasive problems with the teens Smith interviewed was a lack of ability to articulate their beliefs. Rote memory is the beginning, not the end. Emphasize the particularity and exclusivity of the claims of Jesus Christ and the gospel, “its doctrine of salvation ... the perfect and only doctrine of salvation” (first membership vow in the OPC). Talk to them about the attributes of the Trinity, Christ’s person and work, the meaning of the gospel, sin, repentance, self-denial, etc. Smith heard almost nothing of these things expressed by “conservative Protestants.”
Such environments [youth ministries] taught young people that Christianity was centered on them, and that their opinions mattered. The point of Christianity was not to get indoctrinated in a complicated set of theological beliefs, but to engage in open-ended discussions with peers that culminated in a simple gospel message. (204)
Youth ministry educators need to teach future youth ministers about juvenilization and equip them to serve as responsible cultural gatekeepers in the church.... Youth ministry educators also need to challenge youth ministers to love both young people and the church. (227)
Youth ministry must be understood and practiced as an extension of the covenantal training of the young people in the visible church, especially biblical and catechetical instruction.Youth leaders must be mature adults who submit to sessional authority. “Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble’ ” (1 Pet. 5:5). The goal of the youth ministry is the formation of mature, adult thinking and character through the loving and wise nurture of mature leaders, not acting like teens.
“Our vision for youth ministry should neither stigmatize adolescents nor let adults off the hook” (228). Cultivate intergenerational ministry growing out of worship, not creating separate worlds of teenage and adult life. Do not promote “alienating stereotypes” that treat teens as aliens or rebels, impossible to understand. Nor should we idealize youth as a goal, but rather demonstrate the desirability of growing up into mature adults. We should engage them as young adults in the making. To promote intergenerational participation in the life of the church, include adults in all activities.
“Adults should not try to be teenagers, but instead need to set adult examples” (229). Avoid the dangers of becoming an adolescent ghetto. Youth groups tend to exaggerate and cultivate peer culture, developing their own dress, language, behavior, and self-orientation. Forming an identity distinct from the visible church is a problem.
Adolescent Christians expect their faith to be fun and entertaining. They want the church to make use of the latest music, technology, and cultural trends.... Adolescent Christians construct their religious identities through consumption of products and experiences. (14)
I recently received an email that perfectly depicts this major flaw in the long history Bergler narrates.
Want to create community in your church and excite the younger generation?
My name is Arthur. I am with a company called LocalHiro, where we help churches grow by exciting the young generation and keeping the church up to date with today. Have you been thinking of a way to get the younger kids at church involved? Today it's all about social media and tech, just two of the many things that an app offers.
There are currently more than 500 million Apple mobile devices and over 500 million Android mobile devices in use today and that number will only increase in the future. Your congregation has gone mobile. Have you been left behind?
What can a mobile app do for your church?
They need to ask hard questions about the music they sing, the curriculum materials they use, and the ways they structure the activities of the church. Is what we are doing together reinforcing mature or immature versions of the faith. (227)
Youth leaders should be trained to be disciplers, not entertainers. Evangelical philosophies of youth ministry often unwittingly promote some of the worst aspects of American youth culture by adopting the forms of that culture. It is a matter of pedagogy—when young people are taught good worship song, they will know what is appropriate in worship. This should be encouraged, taught, and practiced in youth ministry. More informal songs, which are appropriate in more informal settings, should be identified as such. The music used in the church’s worship should be appreciated and enjoyed in youth ministry.
A training program of the session should inculcate:
Will we let the world call the shots, or will we take our pedagogical responsibility seriously and train the next generation in Reformed Christianity? Considering the negatives documented by Bergler, some officers may conclude that it is wisest not to have a youth group at all. Having a youth group is certainly not the only way to address the question of how the church, its families, and officers can minister youth at the critical juncture in growing up. It should be remembered that Bergler has been working with youth ministry and the training of youth leadership for his entire career. So his critique is meant to be constructive—leading to more-biblical youth ministry. Here are several reason why youth ministry is important in our day.
I highly recommend this book. Every session that oversees or plans to design a youth group should read this book and use it to train potential youth leaders.
 The Book of Order of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Directory for the Public Worship of God II.B.1.b. (5, 8).
 Harvey Cox, Religion in the Secular City: Toward a Postmodern Theology (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984) 68–70.
 The Book of Order of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Directory for the Public Worship of God IV.B.2.
 Email received on June 12, 2013.
Gregory E. Reynolds is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as pastor of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, November, 2013.