A few years ago, a member of a successful church in our community tried enticing me to visit on Sunday morning. For obvious reasons, I declined. He was undeterred and turned to upselling the experience: “If you want to grab a good cup of coffee on a Sunday, our church has just hired new baristas,” he told me enthusiastically. “And we are accepting credit card and debit payments at the counter!”
According to him, the coffee was better and cheaper than a local competitor. What an offer, how could I refuse?
“I like the coffee at my church,” I replied. “Best free cup of fair-trade coffee on James Street North.” He gave me a funny look, and that was the end of the conversation.
Christianity has become juvenile; or more specifically, Americanised Christianity has become juvenile. Such is Thomas Bergler’s thesis in The Juvenilization of American Christianity (Eerdmans, 2012). A captivating title, and a thought-provoking thesis. His working definition is that “Juvenilization is the process by which the religious beliefs, practices, and developmental characteristics of adolescents become accepted as appropriate for Christians of all ages.” Bergler is no slouch, his credentials check out: professor of ministry and mission at a major Evangelical University, former youth pastor, and editor of a ministerial journal.
Bergler admits his research has sparked controversy and backlash. Nevertheless, as a person who exercises reserve when tuning into political news from south of the boarder, I found it a timely and welcome read. As we will in time emerge from a global pandemic, one that has exposed the dark, interconnected world of global business, from Jeffery Epstein to Prince Andrew, from Ottawa to the WE scandal, the adage, ‘follow the money,’ is leading.
The symptoms of juvenilization help make sense of the current situation, and why it’s better-for-business to cater to juveniles than promote adult maturity. Here’s a nutshell tour.
First, adolescence is a developmental stage, not a destination. Adolescent behaviour is marked by a certain fascination with hero worship, self-exploration and personal transformation, all of which are perfectly normal and acceptable parts of identity formation. Problems occur when those traits considered normative for adolescent development become normative expectations for adults too. In the religious world, let’s just call the manifestation of this symptom the ‘glorification of spiritual searching.’
Second problem: the stable characteristics of the mature, biblically-based adult Christians are seen as ‘boring’ and ‘stuffy,’ rather than heroic or desirable. The very thought of ‘maturity,’ ‘wisdom,’ and ‘stability’ are replaced by an over-emphasis on ‘feelings,’ ‘passion,’ and ‘emotion.’ According to the author, this can adversely affect mission and ministry in the world because “the desire to gather a crowd can easily push leaders to compromise the message of the gospel and downplay spiritual maturity.”
Which brings us to a third point: consumerism. What is the real religion of Americanized Christianity? Right. Mature, stable, wise adults are less prone to over-consumption and compulsive spending than those who are constantly chasing the tail of their feelings, passions, and emotional well-being. Mature, discerning, conscientious adults are less prone to knee-jerk consumerism. In short, juvenilization is good for business, maturity is not.
The Juvenilization of American Christianity is a compelling read, imbued with an honesty that might make you cringe. But Bergler’s incisive thesis does not stand alone in its cultural critique. Anglican authors with similar theses worth attending to: John Milbank’s 2008 article, “Stale Expressions: The Management Based Church,” and Justin Anthony-Lewis’, You are the Messiah and I Should Know: Why Leadership is a Myth and Probably a Heresy (Bloomsbury, 2013). All are counter-intuitive critiques of the Americanisation of contemporary Christianity, and the seductive lure of a business-is-best model of religion lurking in the shadow
So, how do you like your coffee?