- The Juvenilization of American Christianity by Thomas E. Bergler
Thomas E. Bergler has written an important book for the historian of American Christianity. Beginning in the 1940s, Bergler takes the reader on an historical journey through the development of youth ministry and youth culture in the United States to outline the origins and process of the juvenilization of American Christianity and “how it has benefitted and hurt each of the major streams of Christianity in America” (p. 7). Along the way, Bergler draws upon archival documents, national publications, published memoirs, and the work of sociologists and historians. He does not intend to blame youth ministry for the current state of American Christianity; nor does he intend to explain how to eliminate juvenilization. Rather, he hopes “that by understanding where we have come from and how we got here, we might be able to choose the best paths forward” (p. 7).
In his introduction, “We’re All Adolescents Now,” Bergler examines adolescence in American culture and briefly defines adolescent Christianity as “any way of understanding, experiencing, or practicing the Christian faith that conforms to the patterns of adolescence in American culture” (p. 8). He then continues by offering a brief overview of the process of juvenilization and examining the current state of American Christianity. In chapter 1, “Youth, Christianity, and the Crisis of Civilization,” he examines the perceived crisis of civilization in the 1940s that provided the impetus for the development of youth ministry, before introducing his four study groups: (1) Mainline Protestants represented by the Methodist Episcopal Church, (2) Evangelical Protestants as seen in Youth for Christ, (3) Roman Catholics and the American bishops’ Catholic Youth Organization program, and (4) African Americans of the Baptist denomination. He opens chapter 2, “Misreading the Signs of the Times: From Political Youth to Trivial Teenagers” with a discussion of the developing youth culture of the late 1940s and 1950s before looking closely at each group’s response to the cultural shifts that put American Christianity on the path to juvenilization. The next four chapters look at each group’s approach to youth ministry from the 1950s through the early1960s. Chapter 3 examines liberal Protestantism’s failure to move youth to Christian political action as it effectively undermined youth’s view of organized religion. Chapter 4 chronicles the crucial role that African American churches played in the civil rights movement as they placed their emphasis upon and hope in young people’s willingness to fight. Chapter 5 focuses on the American Catholic Church’s supportive network of parishes, schools, and national youth programs that formed youth in the faith. Chapter 6 returns to evangelical Protestantism, analyzing its continued success in adapting to the ever-changing youth culture even as some ministers worried about the cost of cultural adaptation. Chapter 7 elucidates the connection between the youth ministry of the 1940s and 1950s and the seemingly sudden juvenilization of the American Christianity. Chapter 8, “The Triumph and Taming of Juvenilization,” offers a timely and keen analysis of the state of American Christianity and suggestions for dealing with it. [End Page 958]
Although Bergler focuses on youth ministry, the college professor will benefit from a careful reading of The Juvenilization of American Christianity, especially the final chapter. His work offers insights into college students’ experiences and perceptions of Christianity and suggestions that professors may want to keep in mind when structuring courses and leading classroom discussions. Without straying into the arena of campus ministry, professors can help students to develop an understanding of Christianity beyond what Christian Smith labeled “Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism” (p. 219).