Thomas E. Bergler. The Juvenilizaton of American Christianity.Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012. 281 pages. ISBN 978-0-8028-6684-1
THE ARMINIAN MAGAZINE. Issue 2. Fall 2012. Volume 30.
Date Posted Jan., 2013
Bergler's book became the main topic of discussion in the June issue of Christianity Today. His research is impeccable. He stays well to his topic to the point of pure tedium. Yet, the massive substance of research that he presents is well worth it. Bergler does not subscribe to a conspiracy, but to facts of demonstrable history. He contends that the Church, in an effort to reach the youth of the 1930s through the 70s more or less jumped the track. They tried to counter the communism threat, the cold war, and failing Church attendance, and the result is what he calls the "Juvenilization of the American Church."
He focuses on four major groups. He studies a major black Baptist denomination, the Roman Catholic Church, the Methodist Church as representative of mainline Protestantism, and the Youth of Christ (YFC) movement. This reviewer can personally verify what Bergler says happened in Methodist youth program and YFC. With extreme skill he traces their weaknesses, failures and successes in their effort. But in the end, it is the YFC organization which wins the gold star. He also points out that without YFC, American Christianity might be in worse shape today. This conclusion I generally agree with. However, the main problem was that YFC began to move away from Bible teaching and much of the traditional attitudes of the church to achieve their objective.
YFC began doing market research more or less to see how to attract and keep youth enthused about their programs. It slowly became what draws crowds and what would keep their attention. Basically Bergler says they dumbed down the gospel and opened the door to consumer-driven Christianity. There was nothing too sacred, except certain moral values, that could not be sacrificed to attract the American youth. Music began to sound like what was popular among the youth of that time. The beat, drums, speakers and the rock music itself, did not matter. The same can be said about many other things that the youth accepted. According to him the result became "me." It became about how "I" feel.
Many believe in God, but they began to keep him in the background. He is there only if they need him. He goes on to cite how several mega churches have capitalized on these new attitudes which have been driving worship and all other aspect of contemporary Christianity. Basically this "juvenilization" manifests itself as spiritual immaturity. They do not know doctrine nor how to explain general concepts of the faith. It is about how they "feel," or how "I" see it. How one feels is important, but, when feelings have no foundation, it is a catastrophe in the making.
In the final chapter he discusses the lamentable results. He makes several very important observations. The following statement is one of those observations which is curious. Listen to this, "American Christianity is 'therapeutic' in that, . . . we believe that God and religion are valuable because they help us feel better about our problems."
I am sure that this could be taken in a different way, but it can apply even to popular teachings. For example in early Methodism feelings and knowing were two different things. You prayed until you knew your sins were forgiven and you were a child of God. We called this concept "praying through." However, once he was "through" the joy of salvation broke all over the new convert and those around him. Point is that the new convert knew that he was a child of God and the rejoicing started because of his adoption into the family of God. However, in the juvenilization process, feeling and emotions become central to faith.
Today in most churches, a seeker prays a sinner's prayer or takes a walk down the Romans Road or a mere hand shake to affirm salvation. Such a simple act in most Churches does the trick. If we contrast the contemporary lack luster conversion experience to the terminology of "believers baptism" and "help us feel" it becomes apparent. Almost everyone can't wait for the new convert to have the same "thrill" or "experience" that they had when baptized. With "believers baptism" it is always the thrill they receive to be baptized like Jesus! Yet no one has ever shown us the passage that says we ought to be baptized like Jesus.
The same expressions are also used with the gift of tongues. These examples well could illustrate what Bergler is saying. To argue against "believers Baptism"or tongues seems to threaten what faith people profess. The mature "know so" experience that early Methodism embraced is now kaput. We have been juvenilized and thrilled with lesser experiences.
As you can see from the above example, this book has the potential to provoke much thought and discussion about contemporary Christianity and doctrine. It will no doubt be one of the most exhilarating publications in our time, bar none. His only real weakness is his suggestions on how to correct the problem. He brings solutions to the table that could help, but, all too many times they will depend on pastors and teachers who themselves have bought into the "juvenilization." But could this "juvenilization" include many people who are not saved but are seeking a thrill or experience in religion? Interestingly, this idea receives scant consideration. Herein he too is a victim of "juvenilization" in a generation that only wants to hear positive things. Nevertheless, what Bergler presents demands attention and an honest discussion of all pastors who take their calling seriously.