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?