By Grace You Are Mature: We don’t grow out of spiritual adolescence by trying to grow up, by David Zahl

A response to Thomas E. Bergler’s The Juvenilization of American Christianity

Contrary to what one might think, the people in the congregation who gave him the most headaches were not the older, stodgier types, but rather the younger, ex-parachurchers. They were the ones consistently policing his every word (and each other), demanding something “more.”

by David Zahl

It is easy to forget that when Tommy “Crimson and Clover” James released his excellent record Christian of the World in 1971, there was no such thing as Christian rock. Pop stars didn’t make dramatic confessions of faith, or when they did, they didn’t write rock ‘n’ roll albums about them. Even Elvis had the good sense to make his gospel recordings reverent affairs steeped in Baptist quartet singing, not electric guitars. Rock was a young man’s game, and the church belonged to the adults, who were understandably reticent about “the Devil’s music.”

Fast-forward 40 years, and the tables have turned. Even in more liturgical churches, guitars are the rule rather than the exception, to say nothing of drums. American Christianity has been juvenilized, as Thomas Bergler makes painfully clear.

Indeed, it is difficult to argue with Bergler’s basic diagnosis, especially without resorting to the adolescent forms that he decries. Christianity has been irrevocably cast in romantic terms over the past 50 years; in many corners of the church, “personal relationship” has become an unimpeachable phrase. The kneejerk anti-institutionalism of mainstream American evangelicalism is undeniable. The emphasis on (good) feelings over theology; the obsession with sexual purity relative to other Christian virtues; the subtle and not-so-subtle appropriations of cultural norms, from the use of movie clips in sermons to the blatant commercialism of the “book table”—all these have strangely resulted in a deeper incubation from the wider culture than anyone could have imagined. Would any of us really deny this reality?

Of course,it is almost impossible to write about this juvenilization without sounding grumpy or at least as alarmist as the groups who, according to Bergler, kick-started the phenomenon in the 1950s. Indeed, his careful tracing of the historical antecedents is extremely helpful, especially for anyone involved in ministry. And he makes a laudable attempt to be generous about the invigorating and generally well-intentioned passion of our nation’s youth ministers.

The question, as Bergler points out, is not whether the church has been juvenilized, but whether or not this transformation is good. I personally do not care about the packaging if the message is true. Bergler, like Marshall McLuhan before him, suggests the packaging is not neutral, that it always changes the message. And he is probably right. Are we then to assume that the message that appeals to the young, whether it’s one of political yes-we-can-ism or of personal spiritual and moral improvement, will stray, by default, from the gospel? I certainly hope not, but again, we’ll have to see.

Perhaps Bergler is occasionally hampered by generational baggage, such as when he conflates all of pop culture into one monolithic beast, falling into the same ditch that many other Christians fall into: acting as if they are not somehow a part of the culture themselves. Compartmentalization serves no one, whatever the century, especially when it is based on an inflated view of human nature.

In fact, narcissism is moot if what is being said about “us” has any validity. The gospel message is addressed to people, after all.

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