A review of The Juvenilization of American Christianity, by Thomas E. Bergler

If God doesn't punish America, he'll have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah." So wrote the Reverend Billy Graham citing his late wife Ruth in a recent "prayer letter" to America. He worries about "the terrible downward spiral of our nation's moral standards and the idolatry of worshiping false gods such as technology and sex." But there is hope, he concludes. "Already tens of thousands have heard the Gospel, and many have responded, especially young people."

Graham's message has changed remarkably little in the past seven decades since he got his start as a preacher for an organization called Youth for Christ (YFC). Back then, of course, as Thomas Bergler recounts in his new book The Juvenilization of American Christianity, Christian leaders were primarily concerned about the threats of Communism and juvenile delinquency (preachers saw the two as deeply related) rather than technology and sex. But their belief that evangelizing young people was the key to solving the world's problems has remained constant.

Although the tactic may seem obvious, prior to the 1930s as Bergler notes, churches were intergenerational affairs, with the message tailored to adults. Adolescents (there was no such thing as "teenagers" back then) were expected to absorb the same religious ideas as their parents in largely the same manner. They were expected to aspire to what Bergler, an associate professor of ministry and missions at Huntington University, calls "Christian maturity." But "[b]etween 1930 and 1950, Americans got blasted by the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War" and "[c]oncerned Christians launched dozens of new youth organizations in this period in the hopes of protecting young people from the evil effects of these crises and mobilizing them to make a difference in a dangerous world."

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The Evangelical shift toward juvenilization is easily recognizable today, with "seeker friendly" megachurches offering a selection of contemporary Christian music, casual dress codes, and sermons about "falling in love" with Jesus. But consider the quaint roots of these developments. In 1947, one observer, Hoover Rupert, reported on a YFC rally in Kansas City. He had "noticed the strong emphasis on entertainment in the first half of the program," notes Bergler.

A xylophone solo was followed by thundering applause, which was unheard of in churches of that era…. In between songs, the leader kept things moving by asking questions like ‘How many are having a good time?'… Rupert found this frantic activity distracting and inappropriate when singing Christian hymns and songs, but grudgingly acknowledged that the teenagers in attendance seemed to be enjoying themselves.


Who could argue with success?

Mainline Protestant churches took a different tact. Though they were not opposed to reaching teenagers through music and popular culture, they believed that the key to growth was politics. Focusing primarily on the Methodist Church, Bergler explains how the emphasis on political ends ultimately undermined the mainline churches' spiritual messages and has been at least partly responsible for their declining numbers today. Many teens embraced the political messages while giving up on the religious ones altogether.

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The author notes a similar history in the African-American churches, which is perhaps easier to understand because the politics of the age were inevitably going to change every institution in the black community. At the First Baptist Church of Nashville, for instance, a preacher by the name of Reverend Kelly Miller Smith "taught young people not to settle for what he called ‘the snail's pace' of change. When white people told him things like ‘don't push too hard,' he responded, ‘When we say freedom, we do not mean for the next generation, nor for tomorrow, but want our freedom now!'" According to Bergler, Smith also "worried that the emphasis on heaven and consolation in old-time religion might alienate young people." But Smith was going against the grain: most black churches took longer to focus on youth specifically, notes Bergler. For one thing, the racial injustices they faced "forced every young person to realize that some things were more important than fun and entertainment."

As in the mainline churches, political activism started to become the focus of spiritual life. For many, the fortunes of their church began to rise and fall with every political success or failure. As matters became more desperate and violent in the 1960s, many young African Americans felt that the church was insufficient or even unnecessary. As one young leader put it, "No prayer is necessary to open this meeting. We shall be concerned with social problems and it is too late for God or the Church to pretend to have any concern. We know better." When Stokely Carmichael replaced John Lewis as the head of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in 1966, he called Lewis a "Christ-loving damn fool."

Bergler closes with a look at the Catholic Church and here his critique is a bit more confused. There is no doubt the Church underwent a sea change. Though it could once depend on a network of churches, schools and other institutions to engulf youth in the religion, the institutional structure started to break down in the 1960s. Bergler argues that the Church could not "give satisfying answers" to the moral and spiritual questions of young people and that "children and teenagers sometimes even grew up with a strong sense that their faith was on the defensive and had little to offer intellectually." At the same time, he illustrates the failure of "aggressive juvenilization of Catholic piety and social concern" with events like the "Search Weekend," in which young people were invited to sing "Kumbayah" and focus on their own spiritual journey rather than the tenets of the faith.

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Yet Bergler calls such facile spirituality the "best thing going in Catholic youth work during the 1960s" because by the 1970s Catholic adults—including the clergy—were questioning the faith in large numbers. "Clear answers to young people's questions about the faith and what it meant to be Catholic were in especially short supply," he writes. Sadly, this remains true in many churches today.

Still, for Bergler, juvenilization has not been all bad. Rates of church attendance increased dramatically between 1924 and 1978 and the top reason people cited for going changed from "habit" to "enjoyment."

There is much to be said for the innocence of youth, their energy and enthusiasm, and potential to achieve great things. What Thomas Bergler calls the juvenilization of American Christianity has allowed some teenagers and young adults to embrace their faith more fully at a deeper emotional level. But young people are also naturally naïve and self-centered. In the course of this new emphasis on youth, Christians have "glorif[ied] the process of individual choice." Youth ministers "have formed generations of Americans who believe it is their privilege to pick and choose what to believe."

Today, not surprisingly, religious leaders are worried about losing a generation of "emerging adults" who feel little if any attachment to their churches. It was said of the French Revolution that it ate its young. In this case, it is the young who threaten to consume their all too accommodating churches.