Book Review: The Juvenilization of American Christianity

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by Gary Wake

If someone’s driving and they have no idea where they are, it’s helpful for them to stop and figure out where they went off track, so that they don’t move further from their intended destination. There are more directions that churches want to go with youth groups than there are youth group leaders. Thomas Bergler’s The Juvenilization of American Christianity shows readers how youth groups got to this point in time, and how the church has changed along the way, so that they might have a clearer idea of how to get to their destination of a fully lived faith.

Not too long ago, there were no church youth groups. There were just churches, gatherings of Christians of all ages. You were born into the church and you spent your life in the church. However, in the past hundred years, as American culture has developed, church culture has changed as well. The word “youth,” which for a long time meant anyone who isn’t an adult, has come to mean adolescent. Youth culture is a fairly new phenomenon, and as it developed, churches needed to address that culture, and have done so in a variety of ways. As a result of attempting to make youth like church, churches have often made the church look like the youth culture instead.

Thomas Bergler takes readers through these changes by focusing on four church groups that have worked through this process. Mainline denominations, Roman Catholics, African Americans, and conservative evangelical groups all worked to stake out their place in youth culture. As America grappled with the changes of international war, communism, Cold War, and civil rights, these four groups, covering the vast majority of American Christians, hoped to find their place in guiding adolescents to a life in Christ while competing with the fast growing culture outside the church.

Bergler is very thorough in how he examines these four large groups of American Christians. With mainline protestants, he focuses largely on Methodists because of their size and their attempts to reach youth with a liberal protestant voice. From 1953 to 1956 the Methodist church declared a church-wide “Quadrennial Emphasis on Youth.” Like most of the churches, as well as the culture at large, Methodists placed a huge emphasis on the power of youth. Methodists spent large amounts of time and energy on getting Methodists into youth groups at local churches, and formed large national organizations to do things like oppose the arms race, denounce communism, support labor unions, and decry injustice. Unfortunately, a number of adults in the Methodist church didn’t always support or even know about what was going on in the national body, so the most active youth found themselves unsupported by their local congregations. Additionally, Bergler points out that though many Methodist youth were engaged with the issues of the times–civil rights, labor issues, and military build up–a large number of youth were also just interested in trying to deal with being teenagers, and the church didn’t offer a strong alternative to the culture at large. Many teenagers in mainline denominations saw the local youth group as just another organization to join, or not to join.

African American churches were not, initially, as concerned with establishing youth groups and countering youth culture. Facing the tremendous injustices and burdens placed on them solely because of their race, they spent their energies on trying to balance the scales. Their focus was on the civil rights problems of their day, and they were successful in including youth in this struggle. Many of the front line protestors at lunch counters and public venues were young people. These youth “seemed to have become the spiritual and political saviors of the nation” (93). However, because of this focus on putting young people on the front lines, tensions developed in the movement and young African Americans felt that though the church may have need of them, they didn’t need the church in their quest for a better society. Though great work was done through and because of the African American youth, the church wasn’t quite certain how to deal with the changes in the culture at large.

Though Catholics did not face the extreme prejudices that African Americans contended with, they were still trying to determine how to make peace in a society that frequently looked at them skeptically as outsiders. Bergler demonstrates the lengths that the Catholic church, a strong institutional foundation, was willing to go to make Catholic youth faithful members of the church, but also faithful members of American culture. “This juvenilized version of Catholicism kept kids busy praying and demonstrating their patriotism in a way that promoted cultural assimilation more than deep commitment to a countercultural way of life” (122). Catholics spent time trying to promote positive public images of youth, and pushed the sacraments in ways parallel to modern advertising of the day. This may have lead some Catholics, like their colleagues in other Christian groups, to see church as yet another thing to choose from in the cultural market places.

In the chapter “How to Have Fun, Be Popular, and Save the World all at the Same Time,” Bergler looks at conservative evangelicalism. In some ways, Bergler sees the successes of the evangelical churches as something to learn from. These groups, numerically, are still very strong. But he also gives them quite a bit of criticism for their juvenilization. He points out that by focusing largely on white, middle-class youth culture, they compromised some of their witness. Groups like Youth for Christ and Bible clubs imitated popular culture, helping to “sanctify teenage popularity by linking it to effective witnessing” but also blurring the line “between witnessing and peer pressure” (154). Bergler demonstrates how this need to make Christianity a fun, exciting brand in the world of popular culture led to making the church indistinguishable from the culture in many ways.

Bergler admits that juvenilization is a challenging thing to define. The book points to examples of ways that churches tried to accommodate youth but instead compromised the church. Juvenilization seems to indicate this weakening and pandering to specific groups as a way that churches watered down their message. One question that Bergler doesn’t seem to address is whether the churches prior to this juvenilization were that much better at discipleship than the churches that have seemed to water down the message of faith. Christians in every culture have found discipleship to be a slow, challenging process.

Though Bergler can demonstrate areas where churches went wrong in trying so hard to woo youth, he does not simply leave the reader wondering where to go next. He also sees good things in each of the approaches he explores, and though he acknowledges that many churches have dumbed down Christianity, he offers youth workers some guiding questions for the path towards more faithful leadership. The Juvenilization of Christianity is not a roadmap to discipleship, but by providing a thorough history of the way that American churches have adapted in the past decades, Bergler provides youth workers with a sense of location strong enough to help them plot further journeys.

*****

Gary Wake is an IT Manager for a social work agency in Tennessee, a former lay speaking director in the United Methodist church, and a black belt in Shotokan karate, but he generally doesn’t hurt people as long as they don’t fold down corners of pages in his books. 
 
Gary is an endorser of the Ekklesia Project, helps with their digital media, and invites you to the annual gathering in Chicago. He writes reviews for the Englewood Review of Books and always has more books than he does shelves. Gary, his wife Amy, and their two children live in Henderson, Tenn. and worship with St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Jackson. He’ll be your friend on Goodreads.

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