TCEC: Christian Juvenilization

We’ve all heard the phrase “We’re not getting any younger.”  And in a chronological sense that statement is true; we age and hopefully as we age, we grow in maturity and wisdom.  But what happens if we as a culture begin to look down on aging, maturing, and growing in wisdom?  What happens when youthfulness is the prevailing cultural value and growing old well is abandoned as an outdated endeavor?

Last summer, Thomas E. Bergler, professor of ministry and missions at Huntington University wrote an article in Christianity Today entitled:

When Are We Going to Grow Up? The Juvenilization of American Christianity

This article highlighted some of the content he published in his book a few months before. One of the things that struck me about Bergler’s observation is the connection between “juvenilization” and so called “emotionalism.”  Bergler demonstrates that even as early as the 1950’s teenagers were talking about faith primarily in terms of how they “felt” about it.  Relatedly,  Spencer writes:

In what must be the most ironic of all possible factors, an evangelical culture that has spent billions of youth ministers, Christian music, Christian publishing and Christian media has produced an entire burgeoning culture of young Christians who know next to nothing about their own faith except how they feel about it (emphasis mine). 

My criticism is not aimed at particular ministry positions or the folks that fill them.  My concern is more about the prevailing spirit of “feelings-based” evangelicalism among our youth which in turn (due to our problem with juvenilization), is a spirit found in our body of adults.  Our emotions are God-given, but they are not to be the primary means by which we determine what is real and true.

I’ve experienced a lot of highly emotional youth worship services and I’ve listened to a lot of emotionally driven messages given by youth pastors.  Looking back, I could probably articulate how they made me feel, but I’m not so sure that I could connect the content of those experiences to a historical faith rooted in things that happened in time and space.  And that’s the big point here, regardless of how I feel about it, Jesus died and rose as a matter of historical fact.  It is that reality (Jesus as the way, the truth and the life), that we are really trusting in. Simply ministering to felt needs will often miss the mark of deeper, more fundamental needs.

In 1Cor. 15:17-19 St. Paul writes:  And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.  Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.  If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. 

Notice that facts about God matter. A  reality that is external to us, but has every implication for us is exactly what Paul is writing about.  It seems that emotionalism is often concerned with only present realities, making Christ our hope for this life, but not the one to come.  If we can’t be grounded in eternal hope we leave ourselves open to an ever fleeting faith dependent upon momentary whims and the prevailing spirit of the age.

So let’s get back to teaching our young people the truth.  Let’s dare to make propositional statements about who God is and what he’s done for us.  Let’s sing praises to his name and experience his presence.  But let us do so as those growing up in maturity, increasingly assured of the Good News, subjecting our emotions to that which is true and real.


3 thoughts on “TCEC: Christian Juvenilization

  1. This series is so good. I’m just eating it up.

    I wanted to add something, though. Juvenilization isn’t just found in emotionalism, it’s also found in ministry training. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard youth pastors claim, “God will use you the most when you are young!”–young being under 25 or 30. The theory goes that youthful enthusiasm for the gospel is more compelling and effective in ministry than a mature, tested faith. When I was about 19, God gave me a vision about the kind of ministry I would someday be engaged in. I thought for sure that vision would be fulfilled before I turned 28. So when my 30th birthday came and still nothing, I felt depressed and questioned God. Then I realized that God has been preparing me all this time–that I wouldn’t have been ready for this ministry at 25 or even 29.

    I wonder how many mature adults in the church feel discouraged and unwilling to step into ministry roles because some in the evangelical culture say they are past their prime. In reality, Christians probably don’t reach their prime for ministry until their 30s or 40s. Instead, we send out kids to minister in a dark and skeptical world, who are “on fire” for God but have no strong foundation in their faith. How are we getting this so wrong??

    • Great insight April, I think I’ve experienced the same thing. A few years ago my wife and I were talking about the general immaturity we experienced in youth ministry circles. At one point she said to me,”I think the appropriate age for a youth pastor is at least 45.” Truth is, with adolescence sneaking into peoples’ 20’s these days, we can’t have children leading children. Enthusiasm is valued over wisdom these days…believe whatever you want, just be excited about it! This reminds that I want to write a series entitled “Where wisdom goes to die”…maybe you could write a guest post?

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