A faith that resists maturity  

Posted by Denis Haack in , , ,

A new book arrived this week at Toad Hall, one that I am looking forward to reading. The Juvenilization of American Christianity by Thomas Bergler is a study of youth ministry, by most measures considered a success in modern American Christianity and how that ministry has in turn changed the church and the faith it proclaims. A quick scan of its pages found these intriguing statements in the Introduction:

            Adolescent Christianity is any way of understanding, experiencing, or practicing the Christian faith that conforms to the patterns of adolescence in American culture…
            Adolescent spirituality favors physical activity, touch, and other bodily ways of expressing faith. Adolescent Christians are concerned about how their faith relates to their sexuality and their romantic relationships. They want to experience a “personal relationship with God” and like the idea of ‘falling in love” with Jesus…
            Adults influenced by adolescent Christianity romanticize the supposed idealism and zeal of youth and try to force each other to conform to those patterns. Adolescent Christians blame someone else for the world’s problems and seldom recognize their own role in evil social systems. In an ironic twist, some adults influenced by juvenilization blame teenagers for society’s problems. Adolescent Christians spend their energy denouncing evils and staging symbolic protests rather than engaging in the less glamorous work that can lead to long-term change…
            Adolescent Christians seek out intimate, nurturing groups of friends who will support their faith journey. They care more about the quality of their religious friendships than about truth. Adolescent Christians are most comfortable around believers who are just like them, and they may have a hard time widening their circle of friendship. Some can become obsessively conformist in their religious beliefs or behaviors, while others pride themselves on their self-conscious rebellion against the crowd—although they often need a group of friends with whom to share their rebellion!
            Adolescent Christians are preoccupied with self-exploration and personal transformation. They want to personalize their faith and use it as a resource in identity development. They want to know how their faith can help them with important life decisions like marriage and career. Adults affected by juvenilization will glorify spiritual searching and look suspiciously on believers who have “settled” beliefs and habits. Because juvenilized Christians are still figuring out who they will be, they are free to experiment with new ways to live out their faith. They may see themselves as potential heroes in the drama of redemption. On the other hand, without a settled sense of identity, they find it hard to make strong commitments to particular beliefs, people, or religious institutions. Indeed, they may see institutions and commitments as impediments to personal spiritual growth. Even if they like church, such Christians are tempted to see it as a tool for personal fulfillment…
            Adolescent Christians see the faith as incomplete unless it is affecting them emotionally. They are less likely than adults to settle for a faith that offers only a dutiful adherence to particular doctrines, rules, or institutions. On the other hand, they have a hard time keeping religious commitments when their emotions are not cooperating. They are drawn to religious practices that produce emotional highs and sometimes assume that experiencing strong feelings is the same thing as spiritual authenticity. They may be tempted to believe that God's main role in their lives is to help them feel better or to heal their emotional pain. Juvenilized adults agree that a main purpose of Christianity is to help them feel better about their problems.

I am not suggesting that these statements adequately summarize Bergler’s conclusions—after all, I have yet to read the book—but find the ideas captured in these quotes interesting. Interesting because they put into words a sense I have had about aspects of the church over the past several decades.

My question here is, what is your response to these statements? Do they parallel your experience of the faith expressed in today’s church? What do you think?

Source: The Juvenilization of American Christianity by Thomas Bergler (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans; 2012) pp. 8-12.

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I have also not read the book, but does he have a problem with the way that youth ministry works, or is it that the youth-style is permeating other aspects of church life? If this is the way that youth ministry works, that doesn't bother me, but I think the problem is more complicated.

I heard a speaker who said that as a kid in a Christian home, when he "gave his life to Christ" he was really "giving what I knew of myself to what I understood about God." That stuck with me as a good reminder of the non-binary nature of faith (faith as opposed to salvation). There is nothing necessarily wrong--in my opinion--with adolescent faith when it is present during adolescence. I'm assuming that the author's point is that adolescent faith does not survive trials and questions well. I agree; neither do adolescents. Kids have emotional responses, and I think growing up is partially about learning which emotions are valid in a given situations.

I think that "the juvenilization of American Christianity" is a special case of "the juvenilization of America." The sentence "Adolescent Christians see the faith as incomplete unless it is affecting them emotionally" best sums this up. I would argue that my generation can replace the words "the faith" with "their job", "their marriage", "their family", etc. What's interesting about this to me isn't that people have a desire to be emotionally fed by their jobs, marriages, and families, because marriage, family and even job choices all have emotion at their core. The problem is that we want to be emotionally fed on our own terms, which IS a juvenile behavior. Dan Allender, in 'How Children Raise Parents,' gives two fundamental questions every child is asking all the time: "Am I loved? Can I get my own way?" Each of these questions can be answered with “Yes” or “No” by parents in words and actions. Allender asserts (and I agree) that there is only one pair of answers (yes and no, respectively) that lead to a well-developed child. I would assert that it is answering these two questions "yes" and "yes" that leads to the problem discussed here.

Mature faith requires a maturation process, and I think the real problem is that we are maturing at a slower pace than we used to. Most of what little personal "maturing" I have done since leaving home has been facilitated through marriage and children, and, to a lesser extent, schooling and work. These are the areas that have forced me to address, honestly and intentionally, what I truly believe about life and therefore God.

I will, by construction, have shallow faith if my life is shallow and I give "all" of it to God. My point is that adolescents have shallow lives, and the problem isn't how adolescents are presented with a doctrine about God, but rather that adolescents are all, by definition, "rocky soil" (in the Matthew 13 sense). I would assert that the real problem is that we allow adolescence to be a period that spans decades now, when it should be short. To me, how I would feel about the author's message would probably be a function of whether he saw the failure of the (capital-C) Church family to drive the maturation process of its children overall. In re-reading the quote again, maybe what I am thinking is actually part of his point, though I'm not sure.

May 25, 2012 at 4:10 PM

Mathew 18:3. A "mature" faith can often be that of a child.

June 13, 2012 at 7:43 PM

Jesus commends child-like faith not because it is juvenile and resists maturing, but because children know how to exercise trust in humility (verse 4).

June 13, 2012 at 8:03 PM

Have you read it yet? I'd be interested in your reaction and whether you feel it's a worthy addition to my library.

June 23, 2012 at 12:40 AM

Am reading it now, about 1/3 into the book, and finding it thoughtful and worth reading. The historical research, which takes up the central half of the book, is probably more than the average person needs to know, but I am finding it fascinating. Will review it in Critique when I am finished.

June 27, 2012 at 11:24 AM

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