This is a fascinating article by Thomas Bergler, a professor at Huntington University in Indiana and a historian of Christian youth culture. He discusses a “quiet revolution in American church life” in which Christian teenagers and their youth leaders have convinced churches that the “the religious beliefs, practices, and developmental characteristics of adolescents” are now acceptable for adults. White evangelicals have led this revolution and it has resulted in adults “embracing immature versions of the faith.”
As a fellow historian, my natural instinct is to want to argue that Bergler’s juvenilization thesis is not new, but has been a part of American church life for decades, if not centuries. But I am hard pressed to make this argument since I cannot think of any point in the history of American evangelicalism where the youth culture has had this much influence over the way adult Christians worship and practice their faith.
Here is a taste of Bergler’s essay:
Still, churches new to juvenilization would do well to consider its unintended consequences. Juvenilization tends to create a self-centered, emotionally driven, and intellectually empty faith.In their landmark National Study of Youth and Religion, Christian Smith and his team of researchers found that the majority of American teenagers, even those who are highly involved in church activities, are inarticulate about religious matters. They seldom used words like faith, salvation, sin, or even Jesus to describe their beliefs. Instead, they return again and again to the language of personal fulfillment to describe why God and Christianity are important to them. The phrase “feel happy” appeared over 2,000 times in 267 interviews.
Today many Americans of all ages not only accept a Christianized version of adolescent narcissism, they often celebrate it as authentic spirituality. God, faith, and the church all exist to help me with my problems.
Smith and his research team labeled this pattern of religious beliefs Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Teenagers learn these beliefs from the adults in their lives. It is the American cultural religion. Teenagers are “moralistic” in that they believe that God wants us to be good, and that the main purpose of religion is to help people be good. But since it is possible to be good without being religious, religion is an optional tool that can be chosen by those who find it helpful. American Christianity is “therapeutic” in that we believe that God and religion are valuable because they help us feel better about our problems. Finally, American teenagers show their “deism” in that they believe in a God who remains in the background of their lives—always watching over them, ready to help them, but not at the center of their lives.
Given the history of youth ministry and juvenilization, this pattern of religious beliefs should come as no surprise. As early as the 1950s, youth ministry was low on content and high on emotional fulfillment. The best youth ministries did provide individualized spiritual formation and even intense discipleship. But even otherwise exemplary youth ministries could unintentionally send the message that the church or even God exists to help me on my journey of self-development. Most youth ministries since the 1960s have followed the club model pioneered by Young Life and YFC. Songs, games, skits, and other youth-culture entertainments are followed by talks or discussions that feature simple truths packaged with humor, stories, and personal testimonies. As they listen to years of simplified messages that emphasize an emotional relationship with Jesus over intellectual content, teenagers learn that a well-articulated belief system is unimportant and might even become an obstacle to authentic faith. This feel-good faith works because it appeals to teenage desires for fun and belonging. It casts a wide net by dumbing down Christianity to the lowest common denominator of adolescent cognitive development and religious motivation.
Today many Americans of all ages not only accept a Christianized version of adolescent narcissism, they often celebrate it as authentic spirituality. God, faith, and the church all exist to help me with my problems. Religious institutions are bad; only my personal relationship with Jesus matters. 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….