- The Juvenilization of American Christianity by Thomas E. Bergler
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Over the past decade, Americans have become more aware of efforts by churches to broaden their appeal to young people by mimicking popular culture. Several television programs such as South Park and The Simpsons have produced episodes that ruthlessly mock Christian youth culture. In an excellent episode of the animated series King of the Hill entitled “Reborn to be Wild,” Hank Hill, the main character, asks a guitar-playing youth pastor who has enthralled his impressionable son, “Can’t you see you’re not making Christianity better—you’re just making rock ’n’ roll worse.” Like many Americans, Hank Hill perceives the well-intentioned efforts to draw teenagers into belief to be a poorly rendered version of an already debased popular culture.
Although most would believe the youth-centered Christianity such as that depicted on television to be a recent phenomenon, historian Thomas E. Bergler shows these practices to be the result of a much longer historical transformation. In The Juvenilization of American Christianity, Bergler examines the historical origins of youth-centered religion and the significant impact this trend has had on present-day American religion. Bergler, a student of George Marsden and associate professor of ministry and missions at Huntington University (IN), locates the origins of “juvenilization,” which he argues caused a “revolution in American church life,” in the 1930s. Bergler defines “juvenilization” as “the process by which the religious beliefs, practices, and development of characteristics of adolescents become accepted as appropriate for Christians of all ages” (p. 4). According to Bergler, juvenilization originated in the context of the broader crisis of the Great Depression, then intensified with the emergence of “teen” culture in the 1950s, and exploded alongside the other forms of Sixtiesera political and youth culture. Bergler cautions, however, that although the impulse to juvenilization began with good intentions to appeal to the young, it had the unintended consequence of creating “immature versions” of faith for young people as well as adults in the present (p. 4). [End Page 517]
Bergler structures his argument around a range of religious traditions, including mainline Methodists, conservative evangelicals, Roman Catholics, and African Americans. As he notes, at the outset of juvenilization during the Depression and World War II, each faith shared a common idealized vision of youth: adults believed that youth were the potential saviors of civilization, whether through mission work, political activism, or sheer patriotism. Bergler identifies the 1950s, when the juvenile delinquent and bobby soxer emerged as key figures identified with youth, as the critical era for the transformation of religious youth culture.
Bergler devotes a chapter to describe each tradition’s efforts to retain or attract teenage believers. Mainline Methodists sought to involve youth in progressive social politics, especially regarding racial prejudices. In the long run, according to Bergler, this approach to youth ministry undermined mainline churches as apolitical teens found little reason to stay within the church. On the other hand, Roman Catholics and evangelicals shared a common response: both sought to meet the needs of teen-as-folk-devil as well as consumer demographics by establishing teen-centered programs. Moreover, the Catholic and evangelical message emphasized bodily purity, which had consequences of limiting empathy for progressive political causes and narrowing the overall beliefs conveyed to teens about the nature of religion. In the 1960s as young people turned against adult institutions of all kinds, para-church organizations such as Youth for Christ proved to have greater flexibility than, say, the Catholic Youth Organization in deflecting young people’s concerns about entrenched adult power.
During the early years of youth ministry, African Americans—largely marginalized by a national culture that idealized white, suburban, middle-class teens—saw little need to cater to teen tastes when they faced more significant battles over racial equality; later, organizations such...