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The Juvenilization of American Christianity

The connection between adulthood and maturity has been severed, or at least severely attenuated.

“Governed by elders,” Presbyterians are those who, by definition, place a premium on mature leadership. Yet maturity is not valued as highly among Christians in America today as it once was, either as a quality of leadership or as a goal of the Christian life. Instead, qualities of youth, such as energy, enthusiasm, idealism, spontaneity, etc., are seen by many as more desirable. Granted, maturity can be overrated. But how did this come to be? To answer this question, Thomas Bergler, Professor of Christian Thought and Practice at Hunting-ton University, Indiana, wrote The Juvenilization of American Christianity (Eerdmans, 2012), which won Christianity Today’s Award for Best Book in Church/ Pastoral Leadership in 2013. Tom continues to wrestle with how juvenilization occurred and with how churches should try to address its challenges. In the following pages, he summarizes some of his main points and in the next issue of Theology Matters he will offer us further insight into how juvenilization might be addressed.

Richard Burnett, Managing Editor

Over the past seventy years teenagers and youth ministers have made the churches in America more adolescent in their beliefs and practices. This juvenilization of American Christianity has both revitalized the church and fostered spiritual immaturity. The necessity of appealing to young people by adapting the faith to their preferences opens up the possibility that Christians will stay stuck in adolescent modes of relating to God. It does not help that most new youth ministers are emerging adults who are groping their way through an ambivalent transition to adulthood. Meanwhile, the very nature of adulthood is changing in ways that make the adult journey more similar to the adolescent search for identity, belonging, and emotional comfort. As a result of these factors, Christians of all ages are tempted to engage in life-long, individualistic self-definition projects in which the church is just one more product to consume and spiritual maturity is optional.

To meet the challenges of juvenilization and the new immature adulthood, youth ministry educators need to equip youth ministers to be discerning cultural gatekeepers for the church. They need to develop a more sophisticated, realistic theology of culture that sees the church as of intrinsic value. Youth ministers need to be practical theologians who can use a well-developed theology of spiritual maturity to evaluate and reform their ministry practices.

Christian Youth Groups

The history of youth ministry in America over the past seventy years shows that the old saying “youth are the future of the church” is literally true. Attending tonight’s youth group meeting is like jumping into a time machine and visiting the church of the future. For example, everything Bill Hybels did in growing Willow Creek Community Church was already being done in the Youth for Christ rallies of the 1950s. This parallel is not just a coincidence. Hybels honed his skills in creating a seeker-sensitive church while he was a youth minister.
Juvenilization is the process by which the religious beliefs, practices, and developmental characteristics of adolescents become accepted as appropriate for Christians of all ages. The juvenilization of American Christianity has had revolutionary effects. Church life today is more informal, emotionally intense, and entertaining than it was in the 1930s and 1940s. Adults now commonly praise the idealism, passion, or spiritual searching of young people as the gold standard of spiritual authenticity. Christians of all ages participate in work camps and mission trips in unprecedented numbers. Most believe that churches should be involved in racial reconciliation and other social or political causes. Many think that “falling in love with Jesus” is a great way to describe the Christian life. Millions assume that the primary role of God and the church in their lives is to help them feel better about their problems. Pastors try to plant and grow churches by studying the local culture and “felt needs” of the people they are trying to reach. In sharp contrast to other western nations, church attendance and belief in God have remained at high levels in the United States over the past fifty years.

These and many other changes in American church life began as experiments in youth ministries in the 1940s and 1950s. Youth environments seemed to some adults to provide a safe place to quarantine and contain threatening changes like rock music or racial integration. Other youth leaders tried to sneak changes into the church using young people as a Trojan horse. Meanwhile, by threatening to vote with their feet, teenagers pressured adult leaders to provide youth-friendly versions of Christianity. No matter what adults intended, youth ministries digested youth culture and sent its nutrients, and sometimes its poisons, into the church.

The rise of universal secondary education and the emergence of a new and more pervasive commercial youth culture during the 1940s created the central dilemma of juvenilization. Churches could adapt to youth culture at the risk of creating an immature faith or they could ignore youth culture and potentially forfeit the interest and commitment of the young. Unfortunately, most youth leaders of the day did not realize what was at stake. They were distracted by frightening current events like the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War which many people of the day lumped together under the label “the crisis of civilization.” Since Hitler and Stalin had supposedly ridden to power on the backs of young people, a wide spectrum of Americans believed that only by solving the “youth problem” at home could civilization be saved. But if civilization might be destroyed any day, why worry about the long-term effects of remaking the church in the image of youth?

Four basic approaches to youth culture and juvenilization emerged in the 1950s. By actively trying to mobilize young people to save the world, the youth ministries of this era helped millions of young people come to faith and believe that they could make a difference in their world. But each youth organization’s way of adapting to youth culture also had negative long-term effects on the churches it was trying to serve.

Evangelical youth leaders adapted to youth culture the most aggressively. They promised teenagers that they could have fun, be popular, and save the world at the same time. Billy Graham, who got his start as an evangelist while working for Youth for Christ, told teenagers in the 1940s that “the young people around the world today who are having the best time are the young people who know Jesus Christ.” Promises of happiness and popularity were common in Youth for Christ circles during the 1950s. Young Life founder Jim Rayburn insisted “it’s a sin to bore a kid.” Evangelical adults demanded that teenagers abstain from drinking, smoking, petting, dancing, Hollywood movies, and rock and roll. They also urged teenagers stand up for Jesus at school and witness to their friends. But in return, teenagers demanded a sanctified youth culture that included “funspirations,” “singspirations,” Bible quiz competitions, senior banquets to replace the prom, Christian movies, Christian pop music, Christian celebrities, and even a Christian hot rod club called the Boltin’ Bishops. Leaders justified this youth culture Christianity by asserting that YFC was not a church and its rallies were not church services. But by the 1960s, musical pioneer Ralph Carmichael conceded to his fellow YFC leaders that whatever music people sang at the time of their teenage conversions would be the music they would want to sing in church for the rest of their lives. He was right. Over time, most beliefs and practices that began in Evangelical Christian youth environments migrated into the adult church.

Evangelical youth leaders, much like those who market the church today, claimed they were not changing the content of the faith. But here is what one teenage member of Youth for Christ said in an interview about Elvis Presley. “The fact of the matter is, I’ve found something else that has given me more of a thrill than a hundred Presley’s ever could! It’s a new friendship with the most wonderful Person I’ve ever met, a Man who has given me happiness and thrills and something worth living for.” Although it may have been good that this girl did not swoon over Elvis, she did speak for millions of young Evangelicals who were coming to believe that the ideal Christian life should be characterized by frequent emotional “thrills” and “happiness.” Perhaps because Evangelicals believed so strongly in a “personal relationship” with Jesus as the center of Christianity, they did not question what might be lost when that relationship was equated with an erotic, emotional attraction to a teen idol.

As a result of their aggressive juvenilization, Evangelical churches have done better at keeping their children in the faith and have therefore grown relative to Mainline Protestant churches. Evangelical Christianity is also less dour and legalistic today than it was in the 1930s and 1940s. On the other hand, Evangelical Christians have higher expectations that church will be entertaining, emotionally fulfilling, and otherwise tailored to their preferences than ever before. These expectations make it harder for church members to make sacrifices to pursue spiritual growth. Evangelical youth ministries helped create the therapeutic American culture religion which runs counter to the biblical call to spiritual maturity.

At the opposite extreme, many influential Mainline Protestant youth leaders avoided grappling with the preferences of young people and assumed they could easily co-opt their energy for a social action crusade. At national conferences, Methodist teenagers formed interracial friendships and learned about the evils of segregation. At camps in North Carolina and Arkansas, young Methodists boycotted meals and other activities when camp leaders refused to house African American speakers on the grounds. Methodist teenagers participated in interracial work camps that on at least one occasion provoked threats of violence from the Ku Klux Klan. Perhaps because some young people seemed more open to racial integration and other progressive political causes than adults, Methodist youth leaders came to idealize teenagers and their supposedly innate political progressivism. Addressing a 1952 meeting of the National Conference of Methodist Youth, student leader George Harper praised young people as a natural “opposition party” in church and society but warned that “the followers of the easy life will never extend freedom in today’s world; they won’t even keep it for themselves.” As Harper’s remarks hint, millions of Mainline Protestant teenagers were more interested in living a normal middle-class life than in making sacrifices to change the world. While this fact should surprise no one, Mainline Protestant youth leaders of the era seemed mystified by it. For the national Methodist youth convocation of 1959, a planning committee made up of adults and young people concocted a mix of jazz, modern dance performances, drama, existentialism and explorations of the poetry and spirituality of the “beatniks” to try to shake up the “silent generation.” This hip Methodism was certainly entertaining and controversial, but it won few converts to the liberal political agenda.

In a letter to Youth Department leaders complaining about the conference, Rev. John N. Grenfell of Wisconsin wondered why the church could “discard” its programs of evangelism because of their “emotional appeal” and yet replace them with interpretive dancing and jazz. “Since when did jazz fail to have any appeal or stimulation for the emotions?” he asked. Grenfell was closer to the mark than even he may have realized. For some time Methodist youth leaders had been distancing themselves from what they regarded as the outdated and hopelessly conservative spirituality of revivalism. But they had failed to create an equally compelling spirituality that could sustain social gospel Christianity. Instead, they turned to jazz and existentialism as a substitute for Christian spirituality.

After several decades of trying to mobilize “naturally” idealistic teenagers for social action, progressive Methodists grew understandably frustrated. As early as 1960, it became commonplace for national Methodist youth leaders to argue that teenagers needed to be “free to rebel.” They complained that Christians had been too concerned with “preserving an institution” and needed to move out into the world. This view that set spiritual authenticity and the institutional church in opposition to one another took hold among liberal Protestant leaders well before the dramatic days of the late sixties “youth rebellion.” But encouraging the anti-institutional sensibilities of adolescents turned out to be a bad way to help them love the church.

The most progressive young Methodists learned from their leaders to see the church as a hindrance to the work of social justice. John Newman served as a Methodist youth representative to the civil rights movement in the early sixties. He doubted that the Methodist Youth Fellowship could work with civil rights organizations or “any other social or political action group” because the average Methodist teenager only knew “his own middle-class white ‘churchy’ world.” Meanwhile, those young Methodists that John Newman criticized found few compelling activities in their churches that could capture their imaginations and loyalty. As a result, even though Methodist youth programs were right to oppose racism and segregation, they failed to win the loyalty of subsequent generations, leading to numerical decline in the church over time. Attempts to juvenilize the church through idealizing teenage politics and deploying edgy entertainment failed. To this day, Mainline Protestants commonly idealize the power of young people and underestimate the need for intense spiritual formation in order to mobilize teenagers for activism. A good cause is not a substitute for a compelling adolescent faith environment. It is even possible to juvenilize the faith without appealing to young people.

African American leaders did not form separate youth groups as often as white churches did. Instead, they mobilized young people for the civil rights movement by calling on them to be even better Christians than their parents. Ironically, it was some of these same young people who eventually rejected the black church culture of Christian maturity in favor of a juvenilized politics of protest.

One of the most common youth activities in the black church was a monthly Youth Sunday in which young people played prominent roles in the worship service. Pastors like Kelly Miller Smith of First Baptist Church in Nashville used these monthly opportunities to encourage young people to devote themselves both to a personal relationship with Jesus and to the cause of racial justice. For one Youth Sunday, the morning’s music included hymns like “The Son of God Goes forth to War” and the “Are Ye Able?” designed to inspire young people to heroic deeds. Smith preached on the topic “The Discipline of Difficulty.” The program also included an invitation to a special meeting that afternoon featuring civil rights leader Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. Rather than creating a separate Christian youth subculture, black churches like these encouraged young people to see themselves as partners in the church’s dual mission of spiritual consolation and social activism.

Pastors like Smith both modeled civil rights activism and helped young people participate. He led the way in trying to integrate the public schools in Nashville, and when school officials resisted, he organized a “Youth March for Integrated Schools.” He also led the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and encouraged James Lawson (a former officer of the National Conference of Methodist Youth) to train local black college students in the art of non-violent protests. His church served as a staging area for the young people who participated in the lunch counter sit-ins of 1960. These students learned to dress up, carry themselves with dignity, and express Christian love in the face of verbal and physical abuse. Indeed, African American leaders made much of the contrast between these mature protesters and the leather-jacketed “hoodlums” who harassed them.

John Lewis, a young participant in the early seminars on non-violence remembered, “We talked a lot about the idea of ‘redemptive suffering,’ which from the first time Jim Lawson mentioned the phrase made me think of my mother.” As Lewis and others came to accept the theology and spirituality of non-violence, they came to see it as a more authentic version of the faith in which they had been raised. Lewis later recalled,

I’d finally found the setting and the subject that spoke to everything that had been stirring in my soul for so long. This was stronger than school, stronger than church. This was the word made real, made whole. It was something I’d been searching for my whole life.
Lewis would later also compare his first civil rights arrest to a Christian conversion experience. Lewis and some of his peers were in the process of creating a new spirituality of social protest that seemed more real than the faith in which they had been raised. This spirituality empowered them to bring down the walls of segregation, but it also began to drive a wedge between the generations that would prove harmful both spiritually and politically in the decades ahead.

Although some adults criticized the young protesters for having a “crucifixion complex,” others, like Kelly Miller Smith disagreed. As he fought back tears while watching young people march away to possible imprisonment, beatings, or even death, he came to see the oppositional politics of the young as a form of redemption. “Because of these demonstrations the soul of America is in the process of redemption,” he declared.

Some African American church leaders were mesmerized by the student civil rights movement; others opposed it. Neither group gave sufficient attention to the changing culture and spiritual needs of the majority of African American young people. One young woman declared, “I have no interest in your so-called institutional Christianity but I will go on searching for the real meaning and true values in the Christian faith. And I will continue to avoid your organized religion because it is more church-centered than individualized.” She seemed to think that the church was bad not just because it had not done enough for racial equality, but because it was not “individualized” enough to her.

Meanwhile a new youth subculture was emerging among the full-time leaders of the civil rights movement. In 1966 Stokely Carmichael ousted the more religious John Lewis as Chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, denouncing him as “a Christ-loving damn fool.” The fact that such language could work shows just how far the student movement had moved from its Christian roots. Instead of trying to look and act more like adults, young civil rights protesters increasingly identified adults and their institutions as worthless. And this new juvenilized civil rights politics won the battle for the loyalty of the young. Significant numbers of late 1960s young people distanced themselves from the black church because they found it embarrassingly out of touch with their lives. Beverly Hill Lawrence remembered, “My generation was one that fled churches filled with those who appeared to us to be helpless, sitting and waiting for (a white) God to intervene and solve problems for them. Many of my friends and I admit now that at times the idea of going to church was simply embarrassing, because it taught people to wait for change to come.”
Although some of the young people who left the church in the late sixties and early seventies would return twenty years later, in the meantime the church lost many young, gifted leaders who could have helped it deal with the daunting challenges of the post-civil rights era. And those leaders lost touch with the faith communities that could have helped them recover from the physical and emotional traumas they endured in the movement.

For decades African American churches had not done much to juvenilize their church activities. So as the decade of the 1960s wore on and intergenerational tensions rose, teenagers lost patience with what they regarded as adult-centered church life. Meanwhile, young political leaders preached revolution and denounced churches as part of the “establishment.” Post-civil rights teenagers found themselves caught between an unresponsive church and a juvenilized version of black politics that demanded their full religious devotion. The result was a loss of young people and a period of chaos in youth work in the black churches.

Roman Catholics adapted too much to youth culture in some ways and not enough in other ways. They created an interlocking network of institutions that made growing up Catholic a powerfully formative experience. After recounting at some length the sights, sounds, and smells that made the Catholic world of his boyhood so memorable, Garry Wills concluded: “All these things were shared, part of community life, not a rare isolated joy, like reading poems. These moments belonged to a people, not to oneself. It was a ghetto, undeniably. But not a bad ghetto to grow up in.

Catholic schools and local chapters of the Catholic Youth Organization promoted an all-American Catholicism that combined devotions like the rosary and Eucharistic adoration with flag-waving anti-communism and strict morality, especially with regard to sexual purity. This youth subculture was very well adapted to the morally conservative, upwardly mobile Catholic population of the 1950s.

A typical Catholic youth club offered plenty of social activities, with a dash of religious observance, all designed to keep young people out of trouble and in the Catholic fold. For example, twenty-five-year-old Florence Hangach of St. Mary’s Parish in Chardon, Ohio, noticed early in 1953 that Catholic teenagers in her rural community frequented Protestant church social functions. Alarmed at the possibility for spiritual drift and “mixed marriages,” she helped parish teenagers organize the “Mariateen Club.” After eight months of square dances, song fests, swimming parties, and weekly religious discussions with Fr. James Maher, the club had fifty members. The national Catholic youth publication Youth Newsnotes editorialized, “thus Catholic youngsters, who may otherwise have lost their faith, are now providing themselves with Catholic fun and frolic––and Catholic truth.” Catholic leaders effectively used fun and frolic to appeal to teenagers, but in the process they created a more adolescent version of Catholicism. They also burdened teenagers with a defensive, negative posture toward the non-Catholic world.

Although millions of young Catholics eagerly participated in dances, sports teams, youth masses, and other activities, many chafed under the sexual and intellectual restrictiveness of Catholic schools. Mary Gordon remembered that the Josephite nuns who taught her tried to get the girls to feel “beleaguered” by enemies ranging from “Communists, Jews, Protestants, or atheists” to “pornographers, intellectuals, and sociologists, almost without distinction.” In hindsight she also recognized a parallel in the attitude toward men that the sisters hoped to instill in young Catholic women: “Not only were you beleaguered as a Catholic, but you were beleaguered by males, who were out of control.” Mary was not alone.

Numerous young Catholics who grew up in this era remember having their questions about the faith silenced rather than answered. Many more remembered a heavy burden of guilt and fear surrounding sexuality. But the parts of teen culture that Roman Catholics tried to suppress by force came back to haunt them later. In the 1960s, innovative Catholic youth leaders tried to create more youth-friendly programs like the Search Weekend which used teenage leaders to encourage young people to make a personal commitment to the faith, rather than just be forced to obey its rules. They also called for new ways to teach teenagers about sexual morality. But these initiatives were too little, too late. When everything in society, including the Catholic Church itself, began to unravel in the late sixties, Catholics were ill-equipped to adapt. The institutions of the Catholic ghetto began to crumble, but Catholics were too divided and confused to provide a coherent spiritual formation program for their young people. As a result, the Catholic Church experienced a mass exodus of young adults in the late sixties and early seventies. American Catholic spiritual formation efforts have yet to recover. One study of the religious attitudes of young adult Catholics conducted in the late 1990s found that they had overwhelmingly negative memories of their religious education. They remembered fun, but little substance. Leaders drilled into them the importance of social concern, but did little to explicitly connect that concern to the Catholic faith. Some Catholics are now developing their own Christian youth subcultures that parallel those of Evangelicals. The Catholic experience suggests that trying to suppress youth culture by force does not work in the long run. In the end, juvenilization of one kind or another will happen.

These diverse paths of juvenilization found in four different church traditions reveal that the need to adapt the faith to adolescents is real and cannot be ignored. In each case, leaders suffered from shallow, short-term thinking about their adaptations to youth culture. Even when they succeeded in keeping young people involved in Christian activities, youth ministries did so by catering to the anti-institutional and therapeutic tastes of teenagers. In their desperate bid to save teenagers, save the world, or both, youth ministries tended to sacrifice some elements of biblical maturity.

A New Kind of Adulthood

In theory, people should leave behind adolescent versions of the faith when they enter adulthood. But a new kind of adulthood is emerging that looks a lot like the old adolescence. Because of the dynamics of juvenilization, youth ministries have been a key social space in which the church has made its peace with this new form of immature adulthood. To make matters worse, new youth ministers are often groping their way through their own confusing transition to adulthood which makes it harder for them to guide the teenagers in their care.

It is well established by now that the life stage of adolescence lengthened over the course of the twentieth century. Today adolescence starts early, not just because puberty comes earlier, but because companies market skimpy clothing, cosmetics, and raunchy entertainment to pre-teens. The transition to adulthood has become so delayed on the other end that psychologists have identified a new life stage called “emerging adulthood.” These emerging adults have a hard time finding their way to adulthood and are not sure they want to go there anyway. Just ask any group of undergraduate students if they think they are adults. They will not know what to tell you.

It would be possible to imagine a society in which people tried desperately to escape their imprisonment in an unnaturally long-life stage between childhood and adulthood. But most Americans have not rebelled significantly against extended adolescence because it seems pleasurable. When the term “teenager” was first coined, most adults still wanted young people to grow up as soon as possible. For example, in the 1940s, articles in Seventeen taught teenage girls to aspire to adulthood and advertised household goods they might purchase when they graduated from high school and got married. But already, a teenager interviewed in the 1940s newsreel Teenage Girls claimed, “We just like to live and have a good time. We’re not in a hurry to grow up and get all serious and morbid like older people.”

Over time, this adolescent desire to stay young and avoid the perceived liabilities of adulthood has permeated society. Beginning in the 1960s, advertising experts discovered that adults would buy products that promised to make them feel young and hip. But as more and more media products praised youth as a time of freedom and self-expression, adulthood seemed boring, restrictive, and inauthentic by comparison. By now, the assumption that youth is better than adulthood is widely accepted. This cultural belief is visible whenever adults tell teenagers that “this is the best time of your life” or when college students say, “this is my time to have fun.” Christian youth leaders have often contributed to the worship of youth by praising young people as model Christians and looking to them to save the world. Adolescence can be a wonderful stage of life; so can adulthood. The danger comes from idolizing immaturity at any age.

The consumer economy tends to promote extended adolescence. People who know who they are, who think carefully about purchases, and who exercise self-control are harder to persuade to buy products they do not really need. In contrast, impulsive people who are searching for a sense of identity, who are looking to salve their emotional pain, who desperately crave the approval of others, and who have lots of discretionary income (or are willing to spend as if they do) make ideal consumers. Encouraging people to settle into some of the worst traits of adolescence is good for business. Not all businesses and advertisers operate on this basis, but enough do to encourage the cult of youth and discourage people from growing up. Immersed as we all are in the culture of consumption, it becomes increasingly hard to embrace the self-denial and character formation necessary to achieve what used to be called mature adulthood.

Yet it will not work simply to tell people to “grow up” or to stop being so driven by their emotional needs. Structural changes in society are starving people of meaning, identity, belonging, and emotional comfort. Many adults work in jobs that are high on frustration and low on meaning. Job security has decreased. Divorce, remarriage, and single parenthood have become commonplace. Happiness seems to have decreased in western industrialized nations as economic prosperity has increased. Geographic mobility is high, especially among more educated segments of the population. Clubs, political organizations, neighborhoods, and families that used to help people gain a sense of belonging and identity are either no longer functioning effectively or are not available. In an increasingly fluid society, young people grow up knowing that they need to figure out for themselves who to be, what to do, and what to believe. Indeed, most late modern people want to define themselves and chart their own course. This sense of forming the self by oneself can be exhilarating, but it can also be burdensome and terrifying. The pressure causes some to take the path of least resistance and settle for the quasi-adulthood offered by the entertainment industries and consumerism.

In the past, the transition to adulthood was signaled by objective events like getting a full-time job, getting married, having children, or establishing a household. Responsibility, self-denial, and service to others were considered valuable adult traits. Americans now define adulthood using subjective criteria that highlight self-discovery and personal fulfillment. This “psychological adulthood” is ambiguous and self-defined. It becomes increasingly hard to know when one has really become an adult or even if adulthood is desirable. There are potentially as many definitions of adulthood as there are people, with few shared standards and little social accountability.

The connection between adulthood and maturity has been severed, or at least severely attenuated. Adults are free to define themselves in almost any way they choose, whether or not their personalized version of adulthood is beneficial to themselves, to their communities, or to their children. For example, most contemporary Americans take it for granted that it was bad for adults of previous generations to stay married “for the sake of the children.” Yet divorce can also be harmful to children and adolescents. Church leaders should be particularly concerned about the fact that children of divorce are less likely to be religious and to be members of a faith community. Meanwhile, phrases like “be yourself,” “respect yourself,” “stand up for yourself,” and “you have to love yourself before you can love someone else” have become unquestioned cultural beliefs about how to behave in relationships. The self-absorption and identity searching which are common in adolescence are now bleeding into “normal” adulthood. The “systemic abandonment” of teenagers that Chap Clark found in his ethnographic study of a Southern California high school may have been at least partly caused by these changes in adulthood. Thankfully many people still aspire to maturity and achieve it. But in the brave new world of immature adulthood, there are fewer supports for those wanting to grow up and many tempting detours along the way.

Youth ministers and other church leaders need to recognize that juvenilization and the emergence of a new kind of adulthood push them to turn the faith into another product to be consumed. These same forces also push them to idealize adolescence and devalue maturity. Many adults will tend to participate in church activities as consumers who are looking to meet the needs of their “inner adolescent” which include identity, belonging, and emotional comfort. These needs are increasingly viewed as ends in themselves. All other relationships and life experiences, including the individual’s relationship with God and the church, become instrumental means toward the end of self-development.

But it is the increasingly frayed fabric of people’s daily lives that causes them to have deep emotional needs and unstable identities. While we may wish to wean people from their emotional dependencies and help them find godly sources of identity, we cannot simply ignore the effects of extended adolescence. Not only adolescents, but also many adults in the church need to be guided to spiritual maturity.

Youth ministers themselves are often entangled in extended adolescence. Parents and church leaders still assume that the best youth workers are young adults who supposedly can relate better to teenagers. Further, many take it for granted that youth ministry leadership is a temporary stage on the way to a “real” adult leadership role. Poor pay, low status, and low levels of volunteer support have sometimes conspired to make this a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But extended adolescence is not simply imposed on young leaders by older church members. Many youth leaders start their work during their twenties, the very years in which the transition to adulthood is most demanding. It is not hard to find people who are at least initially drawn to youth work because they do not want to grow up. Over the years I have met too many aspiring youth ministers who loved hanging out with teenagers but had a hard time relating to adults in the church. Not surprisingly, these young men and women often did not do so well at helping teenagers aspire toward maturity either.

Too many undergraduate youth ministry students have a negative image of the adult church and see many of its ways as obstacles to authentic Christianity. Melissa Wiginton in her work with the Fund for Theological Education has had contact with numerous young people preparing for ministry. She contends that “most bright, capable, passionate young people entering theological education or preparing for ministry are not deeply committed to the church as an institution even as they recognize the need for and gifts of community in the life of faith.” My experiences with youth ministry students both in the classroom and during evaluative internship site visits over the past eight years confirm her claim. Many young leaders are ambivalent about the church. Sadly, a good number of them probably learned their prejudices against the church in a youth group.

This sense of distance from the adult church is not all bad. It sometimes provokes young leaders to ask probing questions which can lead to positive reforms in the church. In an age-segregated society, teenagers sometimes have a hard time identifying with older adults, so it is helpful to have role models who are closer in age. When those young leaders demonstrate Christian character and love for the church, they can motivate teenagers to embrace the best elements of the faith. But when youth leaders are stuck in extended adolescence, they are not well equipped to help teenagers aspire to Christian maturity and to love the church.

An earlier version of this essay appeared under the title, “Taming the Juvenilization of American Christianity: Developing Youth Ministry Leaders Who Can Help the Church Grow Up” The Journal of Youth Ministry 9, no. 1 (Fall 2010): 7-34. The next edition of Theology Matters will feature a sequel to this essay which focuses on ways to overcome juvenilization, drawing on insights that Bergler elaborates in his second book, From Here To Maturity: Overcoming the Juvenilization of American Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014).

Thomas Bergler
Thomas Bergler
Thomas E. Bergler, Ph.D., Professor of Christian Thought and Practice, Huntington University, Indiana.


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