Book Reviews

The Juvenilization of American Christianity

Thomas E. Bergler Grand Rapids 2012-04-20

Thomas E. Bergler is associate professor of ministry and missions at Huntington University in Indiana. He teaches youth ministry courses and serves as senior associate editor of The Journal of Youth Ministry.

Bergler describes juvenilization as “the process by which the religious beliefs, practices, and developmental characteristics of adolescents become accepted as appropriate for Christians of all ages” (p. 4). He argues that juvenilization flourished in the youth ministry approaches that began to bear fruit in the 1950s: “By personalizing Christianity and creatively blending it with elements of popular culture ranging from rock music to political protests, youth ministers helped ensure the ongoing vitality of Christianity in America. But these same ministries also sometimes pandered to the consumerism, self-centeredness, and even outright immaturity of American believers” (ibid.).  He explains, “This book is about how and why this process of juvenilization got started, what keeps it going, and how it has benefited and hurt each of the major streams of Christianity in America” (p. 7).

Bergler asserts that juvenilization began in the 1930s and 1940s with the rise of youth ministry in response to a perceived “crisis of civilization” (p. 19). Christian leaders thought they could fix the problems in American culture through the youth. Leaders across “the spectrum of American churches” created programs that would draw youth in and encourage young people toward political action (p. 25). He argues that youth leaders bear responsibility for juvenilization because of “overestimating the political power of youth and underestimating the long-term effects of accommodating youth culture” (p. 42). By the end of the 1940s, youth ministries found themselves in competition with the broader American culture; namely “high school and youth consumerism” (p. 44). Youth leaders saw the dilemma as a choice “to adapt to youth culture and tamper with the faith; or to ignore that culture and suffer the loss of youthful loyalty” (p. 65). Many chose the former.

In succeeding chapters Bergler focuses on liberal Protestantism, using Methodism’s evangelistic approach as his case study, the African American church, and American Catholicism. He demonstrates the process of juvenilization and its widespread effects in these diverse traditions, turning to evangelicals in chapter 6, entitled “How to Have Fun, Be Popular, and Save the World at the Same Time” (p. 147). Evangelicals actively adapted to youth culture in parachurch ministries. They used pop culture to attract youth to their programs with a “version of Christianity that embraced fun and entertainment while maintaining strict rules about bodily purity” (p. 174). The success of these parachurch ministries then became the model for church youth groups. Youth leaders had good intentions; they “wanted teenagers to make sacrifices for Jesus, not just have fun. But in the long run, the pleasurable side of this spirituality would prove overpoweringly enticing—and its rigors all too easy to avoid” (p. 148).

Bergler focuses on the developments across segments of Christianity during the 1960s in chapter 7. He states, “The sixties revealed that juvenilization was here to stay” (p. 177). By this decade, Bergler observes, “evangelical youth environments increasingly glorified entertainment and self-fulfillment and downplayed calls to spiritual maturity” (p. 199). He concludes that this decade “revealed that only those churches that creatively adapted to the tastes and needs of large numbers of young people would continue to thrive” (p. 206).

In a final chapter, Bergler summarizes the positive results and the negative implications of his study. On the one hand, “juvenilization has kept American Christianity vibrant” (p. 208). On the other, he identifies Christian Smith’s “Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism” as the current expression of a juvenilized American Christianity (p. 219). People believe “religion is to help people be good,” as well as “help us feel better about ourselves,” and God is “in the background” to help when we have problems (pp. 219–20). As a result, “it should not be surprising to find that many Americans have an inarticulate faith” because of ministry programs characterized “by dumbing down Christianity to the lowest common denominator of adolescent cognitive development and religious motivation” (p. 220). Bergler argues that intergenerational ministry is the solution to this problem: “Intergenerational communities of people devoted to mature Christianity can build seawalls high enough to hold back the tide of juvenilization that has now risen high enough to threaten all of us” (p. 18). He concludes, “Churches full of people who are committed to helping each other toward spiritual maturity are not only the best antidote to juvenilization in the church, but also a powerful countercultural witness in a juvenilized world” (p. 229).

Many readers will resonate with Bergler’s provocative assertion that the American church reflects the adolescence of American culture even while they disagree with some of his examples of juvenilization and the corresponding causes he identifies. If he is correct, Bergler’s proposed solution, intergenerational ministry, seems problematic. If juvenilization is so pervasive, then where are the adults qualified to lead the church toward maturity? Readers will wish there had been more attention devoted to solutions in this book; perhaps a sequel would be helpful.

This book succeeds in identifying a concern and helps by proposing a path toward correction. Youth ministers and other concerned Christian leaders, maybe particularly parents, should read this book. Most readers will find themselves agreeing with Bergler at times and maybe even strongly disagreeing at others. The book is beneficial for the conversation it will stimulate. 

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Carisa A. Ash
Dr. Ash received her bachelors from Spring Arbor University in 1996, followed by her ThM in 2003, and her PhD in 2012, both from DTS. Carisa enjoys helping others explore how to think theologically about studies, vocation, and life. She spent eleven years serving in the area of Academic Advising. Dr. Ash now serves international students as they consider how DTS training can transform them for ministry in an ever changing world.
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