Thomas E. Bergler's The Juvenilization of Christianity

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J. Dean

Puritan Board Junior
The Juvenilization of American Christianity: A Review
J. Dean

It's getting harder and harder to find books that stand out as stellar enough to recommend to everybody you know, and this is just as true in the Christian book scene. While good Christian books are not unheard of, it's not that often that a book comes out which ends up being so good that you want to run out and buy a copy for every pastor and youth worker you know.

So when I say that Thomas E. Bergler's new book The Juvenilization of American Christianity is a must-read book for pastors and laymen, I don't make such a statement with light frivolity. This book really does need to be read by pastors and laymen, particularly those involved with a church that is considering a larger push on youth outreach, or perhaps is toying with the idea of switching from a traditional worship service to a more contemporary one. Bergler brings the church face-to-face with its recent history regarding youth programs, and his chronicled account coupled with his own evaluation of today's youth-oriented ministries and churches gives us plenty of material to consider before we run after the latest and greatest fads and trends.

Summary
Beginning with the decade of the nineteen thirties, Bergler examines the youth-oriented movements of four denominations/organizations: the Methodists, the Roman Catholics, the African American Church, and the evangelical movement comprised of elements from the fundamentalist churches. He notes how the tone of the era was one of looking to the youth for the future salvation of the nation with regard to the political and social ways of life, and explains how the four above groups dealt with youth outreach in order to work for this goal.

Using compelling data, Bergler demonstrates that each of these movements, though differing at points as to stated objectives, nevertheless began to adapt more and more of the faith to the adolescents, while tracking the results of these measures all the way up into the decade of the sixties. These changes brought about victories here and there with regard to some matters (such as the influence of the youth in the elimination of institutional racism and racial segregation) but also came at a cost of damaging the faith in the lives of adolescents and the church in general, through a "juvenilization" of the faith: a tailoring of the faith to young people that remained adolescent in maturity and content even into adulthood.

Strengths
Bergler's book is as well documented as one could ask for in a book tackling a topic such as this. His research is methodic and analytical, presenting the actions taken by the above organizations, as well as displaying quotes by leaders within the four movements which clearly state the intent of the youth programs undertaken, including evaluations by these same leaders as to the success or failure of their tried methods.

In addition, during the historical review of the various movements, Bergler treats each incident with a well-presented objective neutrality. While at times he can and does insert his thoughts and opinions from time to time about the circumstances and situations in each of the movements during the different decades, he most often allows the evidence to speak for itself, saving the bulk of his final verdict for the last couple of sections of the book.

Finally, Bergler deals with each of the movements in a very charitable manner, attributing to each movement the best of motives, and lauding them with genuine praise in the successes achieved, while at the same time delivering his well-formulated verdict: that the juvenilization of American Christianity, while carried with good intentions and bringing about beneficial results at times, has in the long run done more harm than good to Christianity in America. He is careful to state that not all of the juvenilization aspects are necessarily bad, but just as quickly warns that the current youth-centered culture is bringing about an emotionalized, shallow faith.

Weaknesses
While Bergler does a very good job with his documentation, he notes little if any significance in difference concerning the core doctrines of the four movements, particularly with regard to Roman Catholicism and its radically different understanding of soteriology in contrast to the other three groups. This may be an assumption on his part that the reader is familiar with those differences, but such an oversight is rather unfortunate; in part because it is important that the gospel be fully defined, as getting the gospel wrong is more than just a secondary theological point, and also because the soteriological differences may be a more significant contributing factor than some may think. While Bergler does point out the differences in the groups regarding the priority of conversion in youth outreach as seen by each group, he seems to gloss over this point, and gives the impression that conversion as a priority was more incidental than potentially causal in the success or failure of youth outreach programs.

Another weakness is that of Bergler's conclusion: not the conclusion itself (which I found myself nodding with in hearty agreement) but the length given for the conclusion. In light of the in-depth history of the four movements given, perhaps Bergler should have dedicated more pages to his evaluation and proposed solutions, as the final evaluation and recommendations felt too rushed and brief. Bergler gives sound advice and commentary in this part, but his relatively small space reserved for this portion of the book left something to be desired.

A third, less serious, weakness is that of the scope of Bergler's study. To be fair, Bergler covered a great deal of relevant information, and his study seemed to be directed at the more prominent elements of the youth movement. But it would have been nice (especially for me regarding my interest) to have seen Bergler deal with lesser known denominations and movements, such as the Lutherans and the Calvinists. Though these two groups in particular (and others) may not have been in the cultural spotlight in the same way as the four groups discussed in the book, it would have been a nice idea for Bergler to give some space to them and record their involvement (or lack thereof) in the juvenilization movement, and how such activity/inactivity affected them.

Conclusion
Still, even with these weaknesses, this book is perhaps one of the best in dealing with the topic of contemporary Christianity. Bergler set out to bring us the recent history of youth movements and their impact on the modern church, and he did so with a masterful work. This book is relevant and engaging. It will call for the church to work with the youth but will also call for the youth to work with the church. Bergler recognizes (as should we) that the youth are an important part of the church, but that they are not the be-all-end-all of the church, and that we are to call the church into maturity, beyond adolescence and into spiritual adulthood.
 
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