There is ample evidence that American churches are failing to spiritually train mature Christians. Surveys reveal that Christians in America are just as likely as their non-Christian peers to engage in premarital sex, give a meager 3 percent of their income to charity, and are perceived by nonbelievers as more judgmental than loving. The prevailing theology among American Christians might best be described as Moral Therapeutic Deism, which according to sociologist Christian Smith, imagines God as “something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he’s always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.” This view is far removed from the God of the Bible, who confronts our sinfulness and commands a life of sacrificial service in the name of Christ.
In his new book, The Juvenilization of American Christianity, Thomas Bergler offers an explanation for these damaging characteristics of the modern church. He attributes the principal problems to juvenilization, a process by which religious characteristics of adolescents became considered appropriate for adult Christians. These characteristics include self-centered thinking, an emphasis on personal relationship with God, emotion as a sign of authenticity, a focus on exploration, a strong desire for life application, and a quest for personal transformation.
Bergler’s thesis emphasizes the harm of Christian youth movements that focus too much on entertainment value rather than on traditional Christian practice and doctrine. But he overestimates the degree of blame these movements deserve, giving scarce thought to plausible alternate explanations. The prevalence of Moral Therapeutic Deism among today’s teens probably has more to do with the 50 percent of Americans in the mid-20th century who believed in God but did not attend church than with the teenagers caught up in Billy Graham’s revival meetings. An increasing discomfort with exclusivist religion might be more the effect of the proliferation of religious diversity than of an adolescent affinity for pluralism. Moreover, the church is not the sole institution suffering from juvenilization; many social commentators have remarked on the problematic prolonged adolescence of Americans in general.
Not only does Bergler ignore these alternative explanations of the challenges the church faces, he misplaces his concern by attributing problems to the newer model of seeking a “personal relationship” that involves “falling in love with Jesus.” In reality, such relational language is ancient. We find it in the Bible in Hosea, Song of Songs, and Revelation, and many historical saints described their pursuit of God with romance metaphors. What makes this language somewhat problematic today is that in the culture at large modern, juvenilized Americans associate romance only with the initial feelings of attraction and longing, instead of taking a holistic view that includes commitment, care, and service to another. Love becomes solely an emotion, instead of a choice. But even restoring better concepts of relationship would be insufficient to correct the most significant failures of the juvenilized church.
The church’s failure at orthopraxy (right practice) looms larger than Bergler’s worry about its wandering from orthodoxy (right doctrine). Barna Group polls show that the generations between 1965 and 2002 overwhelmingly perceive Christians as anti-homosexual, hyperpartisan, hypocritical, insincere, and sheltered. This suggests not that Christians of earlier years strayed from doctrinal truth, but that they undermined their ability to share this truth by failing to love their neighbors with the sacrificial love of Christ.
Bergler proposes that the solution to virtually all of the ills he explores is to better integrate multiple generations of Christians so that the presence of older Christians can catalyze spiritual growth among younger Christians. But generational integration will not automatically lead to a restoration of Christian kindness daily through sanctification and participation in the love of Christ. In emphasizing Christians’ role in administering God’s kingdom—rather than simply saving souls—the church should not abandon evangelism, but should put it in its proper place alongside stewardship, charity, forgiveness, patience, hope, and sacrifice—all in service of her Lord.