Teenage Forever?

Note: Just in case anyone happens to notice and is wondering … I changed a few phrases in this article, and the title, because I learned it may have caused offense to some. I especially weeded out a couple words that seemed to suggest I might be against trying to be relevant to our modern culture. That certainly is not the case — for instance, I enjoy modern worship music (I listen to it often!) and try to preach my messages in the vernacular of the common person. I don’t think I changed the gist of my article in any way, but maybe these alterations will take some of the unintended “sting” out of it.

Recently I read an article in Christianity Today that addresses what I think is a critical issue facing the modern church: “When Are We Going to Grow Up? The Juvenilization of American Christianity”.  It will take about ten minutes to digest, but I think it’s well worth the time investment.

In the article Thomas Bergler describes how over the past sixty years or so, churches have worked hard to make the Christian faith appealing to young people.  There have been numerous positive benefits of this focus, Bergler shows, especially a revitalization of the church experience that had become stale and irrelevant to outsiders and insiders alike.  Stodgy religion gave way to a personal relationship with Christ.  Boring worship services became energized with lively music and challenging messages, awakening drowsy worshipers.  And no one could argue with the teenager-packed pews.  Grateful parents and grandparents were willing to overlook their loud music and distracting behavior because, after all, they were the future of the church.

Well, Bergler explains, the future is now.  The former youth group members have now become adults.  But while they have grown in age, they haven’t necessarily grown in faith.  In our efforts to make the church adolescent-friendly, we have unwittingly produced a church that is mired in immaturity.  Here are his words:

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.

Pay close attention to that last statement: “Juvenilization has revitalized American Christianity at the cost of leaving many individuals mired in spiritual immaturity.”  What does this spiritual immaturity look like?  People who are unable or unwilling to think about the rich truths of the faith — they just want to feel good at church.  People who jump from church to church complaining they’re not getting their needs met.  People who don’t know how to feed themselves from God’s nutritious Word, living instead on a spiritual subsistence diet of a weekly message at church.  People who seek to be served rather than serve.  Such immaturity seems to have become the norm in the church.

There is good news in all of this.  As I listen, I hear a growing chorus of people crying out for something more.  Greater theological depth.   Less show and more substance in our music and messages.  Less contemporary and more rootedness in our ancient heritage.  And guess where that cry is mostly coming from?  The twenty and thirty-somethings who grew up in our entertainment-oriented youth ministries but are hungry to experience the reality of Jesus Christ who calls them to costly discipleship.  I know this because I hear it from my three young adult sons and their peers.

But what about you?  How do you respond to Bergler’s observations?

About Pastor Dennis

I started following Christ as a senior in high school. My wife Cheryl and I have been married since 1979 and have three grown sons. I have pastored three churches during 27 years of ministry, including my current assignment in Owego, NY. I enjoy reading, running, hiking, and all kinds of music.
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15 Responses to Teenage Forever?

  1. Donna says:

    I feel like my response to your last post fits here. The writer of the article is more articulate for sure, but towards the end of the article, he gets to the heart of what I was trying to express. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Rhea Montague says:

    Interestingly, this somewhat echos the devotionals written 60+years ago by A.W. Tozer that we’ve been reading to supplement our Bible reading schedule. Occasionally we come across one that is so relevant to today I say to Paul, “And that was 50 years ago or more!!” When we stop to consider that the ‘Baby-boomers’ were starting to come of age 60 years ago and demand the right “to do my own thing”, it is not surprising that they then raised the “ME-generation”.

    God is faithful, however, and will preserve His Word and people for Himself until Jesus returns. It’s good to hear that your boys have discovered there is more to church and God’s service than being entertained.

    • Pastor Dennis says:

      Hi, Rhea. I agree with your assessment that it’s the Baby Boomer generation (from which I come) that is responsible for much of the consumeristic, entertainment-oriented mindset in the modern evangelical church. I thank the Lord for the younger generations who by and large are tired of the “show” and are hungering for a way of being church that doesn’t conform to the pattern of the world.

  3. Russ Long says:

    Another good piece Dennis. I’ve been disappointed with the Baby Boomers recently who seem to be pretty pre-occupied with their needs. They are the ones that seem driven by a consumer mindset and first to go when their needs aren’t being met. So evaluation of worship is more about the sermon and the music than the fact that God doesn’t need any of that to be encountered. But self centeredness, while the essence of sin, has been encouraged in our “attraction model” of worship in particular. Being in one place now for 17 years as pastor has brought a harvest that I unintentionally planted the seed for. You are right, maturity is the sign of our effectiveness, and I’m disappointed with some of what I see. On the positive side, I’m making some adjustments. Again, thanks for your thoughts and the reference to the article.

    • Pastor Dennis says:

      Thanks, Russ. I always value your perspective. Yes, it seems that in our desire to make the gospel attractive to outsiders we have diluted it of its power. Now we are left with many people who are unwilling to pay the price Jesus told us would be required of his followers. We need to be willing to do the hard work of planting faithful seed and waiting patiently for growth in people’s lives. As long as we’re after quick results, I think we’ll always be producing people with shallow roots. I’m with you — I’m trying to make some adjustments in these remaining years of my pastoral ministry.

  4. Carol says:

    Yes, yes, yes. Self has overtaken selflessness. As I look at the words of contemporary music – many are I centered and not Christ or others centered. Although, some of the new ones have really great lyrics – what I call depth. When new music arrives – the first thing I look at is the lyric. I don’t believe church services are for entertainment – but for giving us insight, encouragement, a little discipline, knowledge, for us to be Christ to those around us outside of the church. Sorry, my words are not working right today.
    We need workers in and out of the church – people that are not just absorbing, but who are spilling out.

    • Pastor Dennis says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, Carol. I agree that the worship songs we regularly sing form our minds and hearts more than we may realize. I’m not one of those old-timers who despise choruses — I happen to enjoy many modern worship songs — but many of the classic hymns are sources of rich truth. I love how the great Christian songwriters throughout the history of the church have tended to be people who thought and studied deeply about the truth of scripture and put their discoveries into song. How we need more of those “deep hearts” today composing our worship songs!

  5. Amanda says:

    I greatly appreciate this article. As part of that 20 and 30-something generation today, I see so many of my peers caught up in the idea that faith, church, and a relationship with God is all about me, my needs, my convenience, and my preferences. (I have many stories to tell as a church planter regarding this!) I can remember even 10-15 years ago, feeling that same way. In high school in the 90s, I can remember declaring to my parents that their (somewhat traditional Nazarene) church was not truly worshiping God, and my friend’s (more exciting, non-denominational, contemporary) church was. The basis for my assessment? The fact that the music was more upbeat, the leaders wore jeans, and they spoke my cultural language. While I can forgive my teenage self for that lack in maturity and spiritual judgement (ha!), it’s truly dangerous for Christians to get into that mindset that it’s all about me and my convenience. It truly is a juvenile way of thinking, and it’s representative not only of what churches have done, but the direction of American culture in general.

    The fact is, though, we must walk a line. I loved hearing Dr. Gunter’s message at family camp on Sunday night, talking about how we must remain committed to the message while allowing the methods to change. Defining that core message is vital as we churches navigate how to best reach our neighborhoods and communities!

    • Pastor Dennis says:

      It’s great to hear from you, Amanda. I love the hunger of so many in your generation. You are calling the church back to what really matters. Please don’t give up!

      I fully agree with what you say about allowing methods to change while remaining committed to the core message. There seems to be a reactionary element in the church today that wants to go back to the way things were. What they fail to realize, I think, is that the way things were was what helped create a deep restlessness for something more. I don’t want to go back, and I don’t believe God wants us to either. I want to embrace His future that is likely much different than any of us dare to envision!

  6. Larry Warner says:

    Pastor,thanks for your pointing out Tomas E. Bergler’s article “When Are We Going to Grow Up?” and your “Stuck in Cool” comments. Below are some of my perspectives concerning “juvenilization”.
    “Because of juvenilization, American Christianity is doing much better than it should be. Despite numerous cultural, legal, and institutional changes that should have led to religious decline, American churches remain about as full as they were 50 years ago, and most Americans continue to believe in a God who bears considerable resemblance to the Christian God.” (I am not sure that I agree with these statements. My personal observations, particularly in comparison of USA churches with those in Africa and South America, and upon reviewing Nazarene church statistics, USA churches are in a state of stagnancy if not on the verge of decline relative to 50 years ago.)
    And instead of naively thinking we can eliminate juvenilization, we should instead work to tame it by helping local congregations build an intergenerational way of life that fosters spiritual maturity. (I totally agree with this statement, and believe that we should proclaim more of the teaching of James 1:2-5; Heb. 5:13-14; 6:1; 1Peter 2:2-5.)
    “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..……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.” “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…….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.” (I totally agree with these statements. In today’s church and throughout its teaching and preaching, the taking of both elements of the “Greatest Commandment” sincerely and fervently into consideration, or that of the “New Commandment” of John 13:34, 35, or of Jesus’ admonishment of Acts 1:8 is ignored or is given, at best, “second fiddle” status. The transformation from belief to faith through concepts such as obedience, responsibility, accountability, expectations, and consequences are essentially ignored or forgotten, James 2:14-26, Rom. 6:23.)

    Taming Juvenilization

    “Pastors and youth leaders can begin by teaching what the Bible says about spiritual maturity, with a special emphasis on those elements that are neglected by juvenilized Christians.” “Adults need children and adolescents to draw out their committed love and provide concrete opportunities to care for others.” (All, pastors, youth leaders, Sunday School teachers, church board members, all church leadership – elected and volunteers – in fact everyone who claims to be a Christian need to take our teaching (James 4:17; 1Peter 3:15; Hebrews 6:1) to the discipleship level, and not only teach hearing and understanding of the Word, but through word and deed demonstrate and provide opportunities for its application (James 1:22), experience (James 1:25) and internalization (Ecc. 12:9-14).

  7. Janice Goodell says:

    I, too, read the article in Christianity Today. I agree. I don’t remember the contents of any home surveys they took. I was brought up with a mom who made us children wait outside the dining room at 6:30pm until she finished reading her 4 chapters from the Bible each day and prayed on her knees for us and a slew of other people. My father read portions on the Bible each day to us kids while neighbor children pressed their noses on the screen door until our prayer time as a family was over and we could all go to school together. It goes without saying, we were at church every time the doors were opened. I wonder what percentage of Nazarene families have that schedule now.

    Wouldn’t a type of chatechism be a more thorough way to go for children’s religious education? By the time they were through all that earning, they could be awarded a ceftificate, dinner in their honor, any other kind of recognition of a well armed soldier of the cross. Surely the teen agers could enter into some serious discussions about the Christian life. It wouldn’t matter what kind of music or style of church was happening, they would know the basics of Christianity.

    Janice Goodell

    • Pastor Dennis says:

      I think catechetical instruction of children would be a good step in the right direction, Janice. It’s amazing how few of our teenagers or even adults know the most basic stories and truths of Scripture. Sermons alone can’t provide the needed instruction in the “full counsel of God.”

  8. Traci Lane says:

    I don’t normally respond to these; I try to practice my “listening” techniques. I read, I digest, I form my own opinions, and then I listen some more. But the last two posts have spoken to me. Actually, the comments of the last two posts have. I am a middle school teacher in one of the tougher middle schools in the area. I have had a variety of students sitting within my classroom at ONE TIME: from well-to-do-2-parent homes to the homeless, from victims to convicted offenders, from wanna-be thugs to actual gang members, from highly athletic to severly autistic, from above IQ to illiterate. I am also the 30 something generation. Having this unique perspective, I can say this: Youth is not as lost as it seems – it is simply different AND it does hunger to be life-long learners – once you have its attention. They face fears, reponsibilities, and truths that cognitively they can not hope to understand yet must try. So should instruction be kept the same for everyone? Should adults treat youth the same as each other? Should youth rely soley on the wisdom of age? No. Well, not entirely. They need time to grow into adulthood, physcially, mentally, emotionally, and faithfully. That does not mean, I don’t have my 6 yr old daughter sit with me from time to time and listen to Pastor King’s sermon, but how can I expect her to understand his message when many adults in the congregation need time to digest and internalize. That is where differentiated instruction comes into play. It gives her time, support, confidence and a way to accept her faith in only the way a 6 yr old can. As for the church becoming stuck in cool? That would be the leaders’ and adults’ accountability. We, as adults, like familiarity and continuity – we forget how to grow, we forget how to learn, we forget how to change – even though it is inevitable and the only true constant. Therefore, the question that comes to my mind is that are we looking selfishly to have our needs met, or are we looking to have our needs challenged? As a teacher, it is my responsibility to first engage, but then explain and elaborate. The students, the youth, a congregation can only realize what they don’t know through guidance. In summary, adults can learn from youth just as much as the other way around. They need time with us but also without us to find thier path. The church, the faith, Christianity, is not stuck. It is most likely finding its way from engagaing to elaborating – some of us might just be ready sooner than others (oh wait, another example of different groups – ages – needing different instruction while still learning from those differenes? Hhhmmm?)

    • Pastor Dennis says:

      I’m glad you decided to reply, Traci. Thanks for reading!

      I appreciate your observations about differentiated instruction for young people. If I’m grasping what you’re saying, we need to meet children and teens where they are and then slowly, intentionally guide them toward understanding and maturity. That’s why I believe in the value of age-appropriate instruction, but I also enjoy how we give our children monthly an opportunity to sit through the whole service and worship with adults (even if it means sitting through one of my long sermons!) :)

      I like your question: “Are we looking selfishly to have our needs met, or are we looking to have them challenged?” I think that we often don’t realize what our real needs are, so we come to church with our “wants” and then are disappointed when the service doesn’t deliver them. Some of my most crucial (and painful!) times of growth have come when the Holy Spirit told me what I didn’t really want to hear at the time. I’m grateful that He’s more interested in my growth than in my comfort.

      I’m glad you’re part of our church family, Traci!

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