I ran across a generationally concerned quote while reading University of Connecticut sociologist Bradley Wright recently: "Our earth is degenerate in these latter days … children no longer obey their parents." It was chiseled on an Assyrian stone tablet around 2800 B.C. And it may well have been true. You don't see a lot of thriving Assyrian family ministries these days.
The "things are getting worse" narrative is a comet with a long tail in human history and has particular resonance with today's evangelical community. Thomas Bergler's thoughtful exploration of American youth ministry taps into that narrative with a wealth of information that will be new even for many of us who grew up in the evangelical world. And it will prompt many questions about a dilemma that has troubled the American church for a long while: What kind of people are we trying to reach, and what kind of people are we trying to produce, and is it possible to do both simultaneously?
Youth has always been worshiped in its own way. After all, Ponce de León didn't risk his life and fortune searching for the Fountain of Maturity. But what was once a quest has become an industry. Between Rogaine, Viagra, Botox, and Gingko, the fountain of youth has turned out to be pharmacological.
Bergler poses as his thesis that an inescapable tension struck the core of American Christianity during the 1930s and '40s: Should church leaders aggressively seek to adapt to youth culture and risk altering the faith, or should they avoid youth culture and risk losing the youth?
One of the difficulties in answering that question is the lack of a baseline. To truly measure the cost of adapting to youth culture, we would need to have a good gauge of the "maturity level" of people whom churches were turning out in the three or four decades before the '30s and the rise of youth culture. The emergence of adolescence as a prolonged developmental stage of life is clear; judging its impact on national character would require some kind of assessment of prior national character.
The opening pages of Bergler's new book, The Juvenilization of American Christianity, are devoted to describing common features of contemporary churches: praise music featuring spiritually romanticized lyrics (I recently heard Tony Campolo say, "When I get to heaven, if they have an overhead projector, I'm out of there"); messages that focus more on spiritual life as a journey than on themes of guilt and repentance; an approach to missions that emphasizes personal experience; and a tendency to exalt young people as the spiritual gold standard of authenticity and passion.
Most of what follows is a detailed history of youth ministry from the 1930s to the '70s along four tracks: the evangelical world, mainline Methodism, the African American (particularly Baptist) church, and Catholicism. (In fact, the book is so historically focused that I would have loved to see more time spent reflecting on the contemporary state of the church; that will have to be the focus of another book.)
Evangelicalism in particular has featured an entrepreneurial spirit that allows it to navigate cultural change with both effectiveness and excess. I had heard before about the Youth for Christ (YFC) "Gospel Horse," which would stamp its hoof three times when asked how many members make up the Trinity. What I didn't know was that even some Unitarians like the Rev. G. Richard Kuch began to suggest they should copy the "vim and vigor" of YFC. (A Unitarian Gospel Horse should be easier to train, needing to stamp only once for the how-many-members-in-the-Godhead question.)
A friend who teaches philosophy at Notre Dame noted that while evangelicals tend to adapt to culture, Catholicism has tended to survive by creating its own culture to which its adherents must adapt, and mainliners have tried to muddle along without any clear cultural strategy once they cease to occupy a privileged seat in civil religion. When I was growing up, I was somewhat jealous that the Catholic kids got to have dances sponsored by the church. Bergler notes that YFC leader Torrey Johnson was sometimes called "the religious Frank Sinatra"; the Catholic Church didn't have to create one, because they actually had Frank Sinatra. They only had to argue whether he was a good enough Catholic.
Bergler's landing place, that "juvenilization has kept American Christianity vibrant" but at a serious cost, is enough to give any church leader pause. In many ways, I think the discussion of juvenilization is more like the missiological discussion of contextualization than anything else. Because we increasingly live in a post-Christian culture, any church leader must seek to discover how to contextualize the gospel to our culture. And our culture is a youth-worshiping, Justin Bieberized, Twilight-Hunger Games-Kardashian culture.
Bergler's book is both an indicator of need and a beginning of the kind of reflection that churches and church leaders hunger for. We also need our best thinkers to help us identify what true spiritual maturity is (much easier to define what it is not). Here, the "things are getting worse" narrative so common in evangelicalism can keep us from thinking clearly and rigorously about what kind of people we actually used to produce, and what kind of development we are heading toward now. It is easy to confuse maturity with churchiness.
Paul himself said he was in the "pains of childbirth" until Christ was formed in the Galatians, and he complained that the Corinthians were still infants (adolescence not yet being a developmental category available for ancient metaphor). In a sense, juvenilization has been the problem of the church from the beginning. We just happen to live in a moment when the greater culture has gotten caught up in it as well.
John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church and author of the forthcoming Who Is This Man?: The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus (Zondervan).
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This piece is a response to Christianity Today's cover story, "When Are We Going to Grow Up?"
Other Christianity Today cover stories include:
Miracles in Mozambique: How Mama Heidi Reaches the Abandoned| There are credible reports that Heidi Baker heals the deaf and raises the dead. One thing is for sure: She loves the poor like no other in this forgotten corner of the planet. (May 11, 2012)
The New School Choice Agenda | Why Christians in Richmond, Virginia, and elsewhere are choosing to send their children to struggling public schools. (April 9, 2012)
The Missing Factor in Higher Education | How Christian universities are unique, and how they can stay that way. (March 2, 2012)
The Best Ways to Fight Poverty—Really | The government is by far the best institution to raise the poor's standard of living. The church does something more important for them. (February 10, 2012)
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