“The Juvenilization of American Christianity”: Orthodox Observer, Christianity Today

It’s on page 9 of the September issue of the Orthodox Observer:

Fr. John S. Bakas, in the column “The Juvenilization of American Christianity,” remarks on a Christianity Today article by the same name by Thomas E. Bergler.

Both articles are worth reading.  From the one by Bergler:

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.

In my days as an Evangelical, I actually liked modern praise choruses and poppy hymns.  I liked having more upbeat songs in church than “Just As I Am” and the like.

But then one day in 2004 or 2005, after singing one too many of the silly kids’ songs that had made it into adult services (either “Trading My Sorrows” or “Every Move I Make”), I realized this was just like modern radio pop: all fluff with no substance.

We used to have substance in these modern hymns, such as when Rich Mullins’ hits became hymns.  But over time they turned into a bunch of mind-numbing, hypnotic repetition of lines like “Jesus I love you,” cornball tunes, and no doctrinal meat.

“Awesome God” and “As the Deer” are examples of the heights modern hymns can rise to.  Dancing around to “Every Move I Make” is an example of a church service turning into a ball.  A song like that is fine for Sunday School or youth group, but making 50-year-olds do it, too, complete with hand motions?

Another thing Bergler points out, is that American Evangelical teenagers are turning their relationship with Jesus into the equivalent of a romantic relationship, or an “erotic, emotional attraction to a teen idol.”

Unlike many teens, adults are well aware that romantic love is very fragile and changeable.  You can be totally, passionately in love one month, then hate that person the next.  Or you can be married for 50 years, and spend most of it contemplating bills and doing housework and childcare, rather than getting butterflies as you stare at each other.

This is why you should marry based on how well you get along, rather than just on a warm, fuzzy feeling, because those warm, fuzzy feelings wax and wane over and over again over the years.  Should we really expect to have those same warm, fuzzy feelings for Christ, and have them last?

Bergler’s article goes even further, digging into the history of Christian youth culture from the 30s to now.  I had no idea that even in the 40s, they had Christian Big Band music, just as now they have Christian rock and pop.

The article also notes that there is nothing wrong with doing such things for the children and teenagers, as a way to interest them in the faith–especially since Catholicism did not, and later paid the price.  But this is not supposed to be carried on into the adult worship services.  It’s spiritual milk, kid stuff.  Adults need meat.  From Bergler:

When asked what they get out of their rock band-energized youth liturgies, Catholic teenagers report that they like the “intense experience” that serves as a “stress reliever” and they “love the music.”

Some African American church leaders are experimenting with hip-hop worship in order to reach young people who are alienated from traditional black churches.

The history of white evangelical youth movements suggests that over time these innovations will filter into adult church life. And that is not all bad. “That’s the way we’ve always done it” is not a compelling theological argument.

Still, churches new to juvenilization would do well to consider its unintended consequences. Juvenilization tends to create a self-centered, emotionally driven, and intellectually empty faith.

In their landmark National Study of Youth and Religion, Christian Smith and his team of researchers found that the majority of American teenagers, even those who are highly involved in church activities, are inarticulate about religious matters.

They seldom used words like faith, salvation, sin, or even Jesus to describe their beliefs. Instead, they return again and again to the language of personal fulfillment to describe why God and Christianity are important to them. The phrase “feel happy” appeared over 2,000 times in 267 interviews.

…Today many Americans of all ages not only accept a Christianized version of adolescent narcissism, they often celebrate it as authentic spirituality. God, faith, and the church all exist to help me with my problems. Religious institutions are bad; only my personal relationship with Jesus matters.

If we believe that a mature faith involves more than good feelings, vague beliefs, and living however we want, we must conclude that juvenilization has revitalized American Christianity at the cost of leaving many individuals mired in spiritual immaturity.

…Teenagers can legitimately follow Christ in adolescent ways, including participating in age-appropriate youth ministries. But those ministries must also help youth catch a vision for growing up spiritually.

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.

Fr. Bakas adapted this to the Orthodox Church’s way of doing things.  Orthodoxy does not allow for such things as “rock liturgies” to replace the traditional way of worship.  There’s already enough controversy over Greeks allowing pews, organs and bare-headed women in their services, let alone putting in praise choruses!  This has kept us from juvenilizing the faith.

Not that it would be bad for Orthodox youth groups to take some tips from the other churches, though cornball substitutes for the “world” have always been a danger in youth ministries.

(Case in point: Christian rock that sucks, or youth pastors trying too hard to be “hip.”  My youth group respected our youth leader, who made no attempt to be “hip.”  I’ve also known a youth pastor who is young and legitimately hip, because that’s how he is, not a fake.  But my husband had a youth minister who tried too hard.)

Unfortunately, Fr. Bakas does not recognize the good points of adapting youth ministry to teenage culture.  As Bergler pointed out, the Catholic Church did not, either, and paid the price because

They had not learned how to create the emotionally satisfying, entertaining youth environments that would be needed to sustain religious interest among the young in post-1960s America.

We can keep adult worship adult, train our children how to worship in the adult service, but also have more vibrant youth ministries which not only attract the youth, but train them in the meat of the faith.