Thanks to a Facebook friend for providing the link to an excellent and sobering article in this month’s Christianity Today.
It’s not just that our youthcentric culture ignores the fact that youth are stupid (as JTR wrote yesterday), and seems oblivious that pandering to youth’s massive ego is ultimately self-destructive. The ugly truth is that we have ALL, by and large, been “juvenilized.” Huntington University professor Thomas Bergler’s lengthy, excellent article (adapted from his book, The Juvenilization of American Christianity) diagnoses the state of the Church in America in four words–and I believe that those same four words describe a huge problem in America at large: “We’re all adolescents now.”
Here’s a bit of background on how Bergler sees the changing face of evangelicalism:
Beginning in the 1930s and ’40s, Christian teenagers and youth leaders staged a quiet revolution in American church life that led to what can properly be called the juvenilization of American Christianity. Juvenilization is the process by which the religious beliefs, practices, and developmental characteristics of adolescents become accepted as appropriate for adults. It began with the praiseworthy goal of adapting the faith to appeal to the young, which in fact revitalized American Christianity. But it has sometimes ended with both youth and adults embracing immature versions of the faith. In any case, white evangelicals led the way.
Just as Craig Ferguson pointed out, advertising began appealing to the young as a way to create lifelong customers for various products. Our arts organizations see the value of offering free tickets to students in order to establish “tomorrow’s audiences today” (to borrow a phrase from one local theater company). But somehow, along the way, youth became idealized, almost deified, and the activities of youth enshrined as the best of all possible fun. What is the ultimate all-ages vacation destination? Not our national parks or historic landmarks, but the Disney properties. The rock bands of the 60s and 70s still play packed-out concerts…and if the faces onstage are sagging badly, they only mirror the faces in the audience. (A Rolling Stone may gather no moss, but it surely does gather wrinkles…)
If tracing the lack of maturity within the Church took a whole book, I’d assume that tracing the same phenomenon in our culture at large would be a multi-volume set. But the parallels are striking:
The final step in the process was the transformation of American adulthood itself. Older cultural conceptions of adulthood encouraged responsibility, self-denial, and service to others. In the first half of the 20th century, most people clearly entered adulthood in their teens or early 20s by virtue of getting married, getting a job, and having children. More recently, the passage to adulthood has been delayed and rendered more subjective for most middle-class Americans…
In what sociologist James Cote calls the new “psychological adulthood,” the individual’s “needs and wants” expand and his or her “obligations and attachments” contract. The seven deadly sins have been redefined: “pride has become self esteem … lust has become sexuality … envy is now channeled into initiative and incentive … sloth has become leisure.”
Doesn’t this sound remarkably like what JTR was saying yesterday??
“…too many families today are focused on the self-esteem of kids, and not focused enough on the actual life lessons that are needed to turn them into functional, mature adults.”
What happens when a generation (or two) of kids raised on “self-esteem” hit supposed adulthood? Well…in the Church, Bergler points out:
Juvenilization tends to create a self-centered, emotionally driven, and intellectually empty faith.
I would contend that it creates self-centered, emotionally-driven and intellectually empty PEOPLE. And our mainstream media, far from seeking to inform and mature its readers and viewers, instead caters to this emotional, self-centered, empty-headed populace. We get character smears instead of careful studies, soundbites instead of sound analysis, hyperbolic rhetoric instead of hard facts. Students aren’t trained to think, to use logic, to form their own opinions by a thorough investigation of the data. They’re taught to parrot the party line, and spew politically-correct group-think. They’re encouraged to do enough to get by, so that they can spend as much time as possible playing Diablo 3 and World of Warcraft. And somehow, this just isn’t changing as they hit their late 20s and early 30s.
Bergler’s antidote for the Church includes doing away with artificially segregating congregations by age-based peer group. Instead, celebrate the “intergenerational family” of the church, bringing youth and elders together for dialogue and mutual respect. By encouraging maturity in the faith, we may be making the greatest stride possible towards maturing our society in general:
Churches full of people who are building each other up toward spiritual maturity are not only the best antidote to the juvenilization of American Christianity, but also a powerful countercultural witness in a juvenilized society.