Tag Archives: christianity today

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.