“The Juvenilization of American Christianity” by Thomas Bergler: A Book Review

by Randy Corn

The Juvenilization of American Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012); 229 pgs. $19.17

 

Like many book-reading pastors, I pay attention to suggested reading lists.  For a number of years now, Al Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has published a top ten list of books that would be helpful to those in the ministry.  The Juvenilization of American Christianity made Mohler’s list for 2012.

The thesis of the volume is that from the 1940s and onward, the church has been gearing itself toward winning its young people.  This is summarized in the introduction:

“By personalizing Christianity and creatively blending it with elements of popular culture ranging from rock music to political protests, youth ministries 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.  For good or ill, American Christianity would never be the same.” (pg. 5)

What is interesting is to see how the various branches of American Christianity have gone about “juvenilizing” Christianity.  The author divides this into four large religious bodies:  Roman Catholics, Liberal Protestants, Black Protestants, and Evangelical Whites.  The Roman church wanted to say that Catholics made good Americans, but tried to keep them in a cultural ghetto.  The Liberals thought that the key was to champion progressive political involvement.  The Blacks did a version of this same thing, but it was more focused on their own problems and therefore there had greater involvement.  The Evangelicals followed the lead of Youth For Christ and determined to be entertaining and to emphasize how God could help people live a happy, fulfilled life.  Of these approaches, the author says that the Evangelicals had the most numerical success.

The problem with that success was that it has produced at least two generations of Christians who don’t seem to understand what spiritual maturity would even look like.  This is reflected in much of the popular Christian music, which speaks of falling in love with Jesus, almost like He is your lover.  The idea is that we are to have something of an adolescent crush on him.  To quote the author, “If we believe that a mature faith involves more than good feelings, vague beliefs, and living however we want, we must conclude that juvenilization has revitalized American Christianity at the cost of leaving many individuals mired in spiritual immaturity.” (pg. 225)

While I found all of this book interesting, I would have to say that the concluding chapter is worth the price of the book by itself.  The author asks,

“In our attempts to ‘reach’ people in our community, are we conceding too much to the characteristic weaknesses and besetting sins of our culture?  We will always have to build cultural bridges to people outside the church (Acts 17:16-34, 1 Cor. 9:19-27).  But which direction is the traffic flowing on those bridges?  Are unbelievers crossing the bridge to reach a countercultural, spiritually mature way of life, or are believers crossing  back into the spiritually immature ways of the world?” (p. 227)

I did not expect it, but it really challenged me to ask myself how mature my faith really is.  What’s more, as a pastor, what sort of Christianity am I hoping to develop in the lives of the people that I serve?

 

Note: Bergler’s follow-up book, From Here to Maturity: Overcoming the Juvenilization of American Christianity, will be released in November.

 

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