is youth ministry the cause of the american church’s juvenilization?

like many of you, i read the cover story in the current issue of christianity today with interest. the article, by huntington prof thomas bergler, is called When Are We Going to Grow Up? The Juvenilization of American Christianity. if you haven’t read it, take a few minutes now — i’ll wait. the article is a synopsis/excerpt of bergler’s new book (which i haven’t read, so these comments are only in connection with the CT article).

anytime CT is willing to address any subject pertaining to teenagers or youth ministry, i’m intrigued (particularly as i find that youth ministry is still considered “junior varsity ministry” in most church leader thought circles).

it’s a very well-written article, with great bits that were new to me. bergler traces the history of youth ministry in the american church alongside the rise of the seeker movement and the dumbing down of worship. on the surface, he’s gracious to youth ministries, saying that the approaches forged in that context were appropriate.

but bergler takes it a HUGE step further: the basic thrust of the article is that youth ministry approaches are responsible (exclusively, since he doesn’t name other factors) for the shift in the american church to a feel-good, dumbed-down, pep rally:

Youth ministries and juvenilization contributed to this surprising outcome by making the Christian life more emotionally satisfying. Passion was in, duty was out. This kind of individualized, emotional connection to God sustained religious interest in a changing society in which custom, tradition, and social pressure would no longer motivate people to care about faith or attend church.

Not surprisingly, in the process of adapting to the new immature adulthood, churches started looking a lot like youth groups. Contemporary churches appeal to thousands of Americans by providing an informal, entertaining, fast-paced worship experience set to upbeat music. Everything done in these churches to reach “unchurched” people was already being done in the YFC rallies of the 1950s. And this parallel is not coincidental.

now, i don’t deny for a second that youth ministries can (and hopefully do) have a shaping influence on their churches, and on the church at large. that reality is one of the primary reasons i have stayed in youth ministry all these years! and i don’t want to be defensive, and ignore the negative ways youth ministry may have inadvertently shaped the church for the worse.

but the further i got into the article, the more i found myself moving from a response of “yeah, i agree!” to a response of, “wait, that’s not a logical conclusion.”

as a more minor point of contention, bringing in worship styles seems to be a weak example to me. i’m with bergler that there’s been a theological shift toward a feel-good gospel, and that has had (and will have) damaging implications for the church. call out the lyrics — that’s fair; but the musical style seems to miss the point.

but my bigger issue is that i just can’t buy it that youth ministry has that much power! (maybe we should all be flattered!) the broader, and much more influential issue, from my perspective, is the juvenilization of american culture in general! expressions of church are far from being the leading case studies of juvenilization. and, at the end of the day, the bigger influence on the church has been an american culture where youth (and the values and norms, styles and preferences, attitudes and behaviors) reign. institutional loyalty is out the window in our culture, and “what works for me” is the primary deciding factor for the average adult decision, whether in the church or outside of it. it’s a stretch to imply that youth ministries were anything more than a response to those broader cultural shifts. and the church just went down the same path, a few years later.

10 thoughts on “is youth ministry the cause of the american church’s juvenilization?”

  1. Yeah, but…
    What Bergler does in the book (which I am partly through, having only scanned the CT article) is set up the argument that we often have had youth ministry serve as the push-back response to the culture… often engaging much moiré in the response rather than the Gospel or the mission of the Church.
    I think what Bergler offers is an historical perspective to similar outcomes to which Christian Smith attends from a sociological perspective.
    Youth Ministry has engaged many generations. Yeah, but was it more abore fighting communism, rejecting juvenile hoodlum-ism, defending civil rights, committing to waiting for true love, etc., etc., etc. None of that is getting is actually closer to being communally (your word) “Jesus-y.”
    Has youth ministry become the vehicle to “fix” the culture / church and, if so, are we actually pleased with the end product? Berger is good on diagnosis and short on prescription, but does provide an interesting examination of conscience regarding why we do the voodoo that we do so well.

  2. Thanks Marko! From my limited exposure to the topic, it seems like you nailed it, or at least put into words the confused internal response I had to the article when it popped up in my mailbox last week. I agree that the juvenile influences on the church have a lot to do with the culture’s invention of ‘teenage-ness,’ and perhaps the church’s riding of that wave rather than damming it over the years.

  3. It appears that broad stroke answers from broad stroke assumptions leaves one missing the point! I think Youth Ministry has been more willing to be culturally relevant, and potentially, more Christlike in its reaching/teaching the lost/found. Some of the church has recognized that and followed suit. It’s appearance, to some, then looks to be a dumbing down of what was ministry. This concept could easily be praised for possibly being more like Jesus in its approach than a church that, in general, has lost touch with evangelizing the culture it is based in and sent too!

  4. Marko, I’m guessing you’ve encountered Pete Ward’s ‘Growing Up Evangelical,’ now nearly 20 years old. In that book, he makes a subtly different argument: it is by NOT FULLY engaging with culture that Youth Ministry has bred a generation that thinks that going to church (and maybe a home group), giving money and keeping your nose clean makes you a Christian. By keeping teenagers in a safe bubble we have bred adults who either live in the bubble (and are therefore evangelistically useless) or give up their faith because the world seems better than the Kingdom (and are therefore evangelistically useless).

    So Ward argues strongly that Youth Ministry should be more engaged with contemporary culture, by actually living in it instead of creating a religious version of it.

    Here in the UK, it’s notable that many of the pioneers of the new forms of church came out of youth ministry. But I would put the argument the other way around to Bergler; 30 years ago Youth Ministry was the only place where a creative person could do their thing. Nowadays creativity kicks off all over the place and Youth Ministry – in this regard – is nothing special.

    But I think the whole thing about duty and passion/pleasure/self-help is a biggie, but hardly something that can be laid at the feet of Youth Ministers! I think postmodernity might need to take some of that blame, if blame is even the right word. So much has changed in our culture and we were trying to respond to it. Maybe we got some things wrong, but we all get so much wrong. From outside America, all that US flag-worship you do looks pretty over-enculturated.

    A British sociologist-priest once gave a lecture at the college I was teaching at and said that if the church in the UK really wanted to change and impact people outside its walls it should sack all the clergy and employ youth workers instead!

  5. Thanks for your thoughts, Marko. Here are a couple of mine to throw into the mix:

    At the end of his article, Bergler gives a trajectory for engendering a more robust spirituality across generations when he says, “I believe one key is to renew our commitment to the church as an intergenerational family, in which each person has a unique role in helping the others toward our shared goal of maturity in Christ.” As a member of the younger generation of the church, I think that is dead on. Younger need to look to older, and vice versa.

    But assuming that his thesis is true, there are few parents (and even grandparents) who, as products of the original youth movements, would be theologically or spiritually equipped to provide the kind of relevant, mature engagement that would make young people look to them as examples to follow and learn from. Bergler acknowledges this reality when he says, “Young people need adults in their lives who are modeling a vibrant spiritual maturity. One reason no one wants to grow up in America is that many adults don’t make their life stage look very attractive.”

    So he’s saying that we younger ones need robust adults, but the modes of youth ministry from the parents’ generation have not translated into an authentic or attractive outworking of real, robust faith in adulthood. Which creates a problem when he says that young people are useful for the adult generation for the sake of “draw[ing] out their committed love and provide concrete opportunities to care for others.” He’s saying the adults can lose or have lost their passion for Jesus, and that young people are good for rekindling it.

    But I doubt that’s the case at all. If anything, it is my experience that the adults are very passionate – about the same things that the youth movement of their generation taught them to be passionate about. Bible clubs. Bible in schools. Following moral standards as the means of shining like a beacon in a dark place and saving souls. Preserving marriage. Patriotic Synergism. Young people don’t look to adults not because the adults have lost a passion for the expression and maturation of their faith. They don’t look to adults because the adults have not progressed into a more robust spiritual and practical faith themselves – one that doesn’t just talk about Jesus’ care for the sinner, but shows it by loving them where they are at, “dens of iniquity” and all.

    While what you say is true – “institutional loyalty is out the window in our culture, and ‘what works for me’ is the primary deciding factor for the average adult decision,” I believe that this is merely a sign that the older generation of the church has not provided something genuinely more attractive and robust – something that rings of the life of Jesus. And until that juvenilized generation demonstrates a maturity that moves outside of the safety of its own moral and spiritual sandbox, we’ll keep raising up copies of the previous generation that will either leave the church jaded or, worse, continue to view the modes of faith expression of the juvenile movements of the 50’s, 60’s, and beyond as the best way to restore Jesus’ kingdom here in America and across the world.

  6. For me, Western Christianity as a whole is responsible for the dumbed-down nature of the church, not youth ministry.

    Take a look at all the bestselling Christian books over the last 10 years – pretty much every single one focuses on the self. Now, I’m not saying that all these books are theologically inaccurate, simply that the preponderance of them reflect the focus we have on ourselves. How can I have the best life? How can I be prosperous? How can I be a leader? How can I get God’s blessing?

    Jesus said he came to serve, not to be served and that that’s how we should live our lives. How many bestselling books are there about “How can I serve people better?” or “How can I share what I have with people who have less than me?” I guess that the latter would be deemed too socialist and thereby not allowed in Christian book stores.

    As it is, books that are seeking to have us look outside of ourselves and engage with wider issues – books like Love Is An Orientation and Love Wins – are simply not sold by, Lifeway, Family Christian Stores etc. Instead we’re left with people with gleaming white teeth selling us the 10 secrets to a better life.

    When churches refuses to engage with issues that matter to everyday people, it’s not surprising that all we’re left with is a shallow, me-focused, tick-off-church-on-a-Sunday approach to faith. In my opinion that’s what’s to blame, not youth ministries that are seeking to reach young people who are disillusioned by what they see and hear from Christians.

  7. i remember around eight years ago when a new batch of college students came to my Wesley Foundation (a few years after i left) they initiated a letter writing campaign to get rid of the campus pastor because they didn’t like how he operated the WF. what they wanted was an extension of a youth minister doing all the programmatic planning and leading, not the pastor who he was who made the college folk lead small groups, worship and program. i saw then, in a small anecdote, that we had raised up at least a few juvenile christians.

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