The Gospel Coalition

Thomas E. Bergler in The Juvenilization of American Christianity:
Many larger American churches have remained vibrant by adapting to the preferences of younger generations. Many of those adaptations have enriched the church. In 1950, many people who went to church did so out of a sense of social obligation. While at church, they didn't expect either to have fun or to be challenged to work for social justice. Just as many people go to church today, but now, by and large, they want to be there be there because their faith is providing them with strong feelings of connection to God, to others, and to a spiritual mission. As a result of juvenilization, they are more likely to have intense experiences of God, participate in a service or mission trip, and engage in Christian political activism. Evangelical youth ministries made religious conservatives less dour and legalistic. Progressive Protestant, Catholic, and African American youth leaders eventually won the battle to get Christians to see social and political concerns as legitimate elements of their faith.

Of course these changes came at some cost. White evangelicals invested heavily in young people and aggressively adapted to their preferences for an informal, entertaining, feel-good faith. They ended up with churches full of Christians who think that the purpose of God and the Christian faith is to help them feel better. Liberal Protestant youth leaders seriously misjudged the cultural tastes of young people and underestimated how much effort it would take to form countercultural social activities. They ended up with aging congregations and declining numbers. Roman Catholics were slow to juvenilize their churches and invested less in the spiritual formation of youth than they had before the crises of the sixties. They ended up with thousands of nominal Catholic adherents with relatively low levels of religious knowledge and commitment. African American churches managed to retain a high level of religious loyalty without much juvenilization, thanks to the close identification between racial and religious identities among African Americans. But there are signs that younger generations of African Americans may now be less automatically connecting with the church, particularly in urban areas outside the South.

Although juvenilization has renewed American Christianity, it has also undermined Christian, it has also undermined Christian maturity. First, the faith has become overly identified with emotional comfort. And it is only a short step from a personalized, emotionally comforting faith to a self-centered one. Second, far too many Christians are inarticulate, indifferent, or confused about their theological beliefs. They view theology as an optional extra to faith, and assume that religious beliefs are a matter of personal preference. Many would be uncomfortable with the idea of believing something just because the Bible, the church, or some other religious authority teaches it. And they are particularly resistant to church teachings that impose behavioral restrictions. 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 individual mires in spiritual immaturity. (224-225)



June 9, 2012 at 12:33 PM

I've been watching the recent kerfluffle over the SBC statement on Calvinism, and a statement in this posting resonated with me.

It is always a mistake to "believe something just because the Bible, the church, or some other religious authority teaches it." If we learn nothing else from the history of the church, we learn the Bible can be read an infinite number of ways, to an infinite number of conclusions, and because "religious authority" is invariably connected to secular power, it should always be mistrusted. And that means we should mistrust our own interpretations, not just others'.

The fact that Martin Luther rejected the books of Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation on theological grounds is sufficient proof for that statement, nothing else is needed.

Whenever making any pronouncement from Biblical authority, we should preface our statements with "I might be wrong, and probably am, but I have reason to believe...".

Imagine how different the reaction to the recent SBC statement could have been, if it had contained that simple prefix.


June 9, 2012 at 10:21 AM

What is the difference between "believing something just because the Bible, the church, or some other religious authority teaches it" and "implicit faith" condemned in WCF 20:2?

Chris Julien

June 9, 2012 at 10:18 AM

While I agree that "the faith has become identified with emotional comfort" and "it is only a short step from a personalized, emotionally comforting faith to a self-centered one," I disagree that social concerns are not a part of our faith (as he writes in the last sentence of the first paragraph; am I reading that correctly?). Of course, we should clarify the somewhat amorphously-defined "social concerns," but I think that if Christians do not have an active, reflecting-the-book-of-James kind of faith, then it *is* a self-centered one, and one that does not have its roots in emotional sensationalism, but rather in nominal complacency. And in both instances, I agree: we need to know what we believe, we need to know our theology.

God bless.

Randy in Tulsa

June 9, 2012 at 08:27 AM

I remember commenting that the worship services at the Reformed church we attended for 20 years became increasingly like a "junior high assembly." From this article I see that it was part of a larger movement and a more widespread problem. When the youth are treated by the church leadership as children incapable of handling the mature teachings of the church, it should be no surprise when those youth become adults they are left "mired in spiritual immaturity." When the highlight of the church year is on short term thrills, whether fun ski trips or short term missions, is it any wonder that godly perseverance is in short supply?


June 9, 2012 at 03:41 PM

That is frightening...and, I believe, true. We need to know doctrine so we know what we believe. We need to understand that authority is not bad, but necessary. We need the gospel. What is the advantage of feeling "good" if it is a mirage?

TBR Recommends… « The Blessed Rebellion

June 21, 2012 at 09:44 PM

[...] Here is an excerpt from Thomas E. Bergler’s book, The Juvenilization of American Christianity,†on “feel-good faith.” [...]

Passion Points | Three Passions

June 16, 2012 at 10:24 AM

[...] The Price of a Feel-Good Faith – Thomas E. Bergler (via Kevin DeYoung) 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. [...]


June 12, 2012 at 05:37 PM

Thank you Rose -- I never thought of it that way, and I appreciate your answer.

Todd Van Voorst

June 11, 2012 at 12:30 PM

If God draws more young people to church, awesome! But we can only be sure if it is Him who drew them if we use His means for doing so, grace in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We can get more attenders in any number of other ways, but we will never be able to discern if they are wheat, weeds, rocky soi, etc... if we don't present a watershed event.


June 11, 2012 at 12:24 AM

Keith, are you saying that everything referenced in your "first" paragraph is up for debate? If so, then how do you define Christianity? More to the point, who is Jesus?


June 11, 2012 at 12:03 PM

Interesting discussions here. Human interpretation is by definition imperfect, but at some point we must be confident that the God who took the trouble to save some of His people from their sins, gave us written testimony of what He has done through Jesus. Man can muddle the message in many various ways, to the point of losing the message altogether. Yet Paul did not tell Timothy not to bother teaching what God had revealed to him as truth, but rather to teach what accords with sound doctrine.

That major theologians disagreed on the teaching, contents, and canon of the Bible does not undermine Scripture itself. It's not that new generations cannot learn or retrace the development of the Christian faith over the centuries, or to evaluate some of these teachings anew, for that is a part of Christian formation. But at some point we have to trust that God will build His Church and along with the benefits of salvation will provide His people with a sense of certainty in His nature and our standing with Him. And we likewise have to trust that He has done the same with theologians of past centuries, and that we can place some confidence that God worked through those saints too. This is perhaps sloppily said but hopefully my point is not lost that God desires that his believers be confident.


June 11, 2012 at 11:19 AM

I am thankful that the Spirit has led the church into the truth through the centuries, so that progress is made in our understanding, just as an individual will make progress in his sanctification. Not that we will ever have arrived, but we press forward. Now we understand in part, but we will see Him face to face. Does that make us always juvenile and never mature? I don't think so, but sometimes we do get stuck and keep laying over and over the same foundation of repentance from dead works and do not move on to maturity. There are a lot of ways we do this and a lot of reasons it is done, but often it is because we are enamored of our own thoughts and cannot learn from others.


June 11, 2012 at 10:53 PM

Keith: I do not agree that saying the Church has progressed (I don't think it is continually) in her overall understanding is the same thing as saying new truth is available to the church in later centuries. It is comparable to the individual sanctification of a believer. He does not need to have new truth available to him to understand more deeply or to be more faithful, that is to grow in sanctification. The work that faithful apologists and theologians do in the church is productive work. As problems are identified and addressed, deeper understanding and faithfulness is achieved. The church is reformed and ever reforming, according to the Word of God.

But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. John 14:26

But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. John 16:13

They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion. Psalm 84:7

It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare Godís people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Eph. 4:11-13

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained. Phil. 3:12-16

The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture. WCF 1.10


June 11, 2012 at 08:22 AM

Yes, I think it's all up for debate. Who I believe Jesus to be may very well be different from who you believe Jesus to be: and almost any position within some very wide boundaries is intellectually defensible.

I know what you want to hear: "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."

But, the divinity of Jesus' wasn't nearly as settled in the early Christian church as it is now (the focus of the Council of Nicaea was the divinity of Jesus, because of the teachings of Arianism). Outside the Christian church, it's obviously not settled (Islamic scholars argue the Bible doesn't support Jesus divinity, for example, when Paul refers to God and Jesus in the same phrase, but as separate individuals).

The reason I've ended up where I have is, simply put, because we have been wrong so many times, in such significant ways: St. Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther and John Calvin all held deeply flawed, Scripturally based, views we now understand to be both irrational and morally indefensible. If their exegesis was so terribly wrong, what confidence should we have in ours?


June 11, 2012 at 07:55 AM

That people do not think clearly is not evidence that the Bible is not clear. Our confidence depends on the grace of faith and can at times waver, but we who have received the Holy Spirit believe that the testimony of the Bible concerning itself is true. All that we need for salvation is clearly presented in the Bible, so that ordinary people can receive it. "...our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority (of the Bible), is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts."


June 11, 2012 at 01:26 PM

Dan2, the problem of teaching "sound doctrine" is that nobody knows what sound doctrine looks like. (Or it's that everybody knows what sound doctrine looks like, and none of us agree.)

I believe confidence in salvation can be a truly life-changing belief, and it's arguably religion's greatest gift. Where I see a problem is the other side of the coin: our confidence in another's lack of salvation, usually based on Biblical interpretation.

I'm not arguing people should not be confident in their salvation; I am arguing they should base that confidence on their living relationship with god, and they should be continually and terribly mistrustful of their exegesis.


June 11, 2012 at 01:14 PM

Rose: what I'm hearing you say is you believe Christians have continually progressed in our overall understanding, as the Spirit grants us wisdom. In other words, the "truth" has not been equally available to Christians throughout history: the Spirit makes new truth available to each new century.

How would you show that improvement, that is, how would you demonstrate that our understanding of "truth" is improved over that of a Christian of a few hundred years ago?


June 10, 2012 at 08:45 PM

While I believe there are a few things on which the Bible is clear and authoritative, I think they are rare, and even when the Bible is relatively clear, we should be hesitant to draw lines in the sand. Let me make three points to justify that statement.

First, no matter on what topic you or I say the Bible is clear and authoritative, sometime in the last 2,000 years, a group of devout Christians has, with utter conviction and total sincerity, disagreed, including the virgin birth, physical resurrection, Jesus' divinity, blood atonement, Satan's existence, ordaining women, biblical inerrancy, whatever. You name it, and some people carefully read the Bible, carefully thought about the issue, and then chose a different view from ours.

Second, we have multiple versions of the Bible to contend with, and I'm not talking about minor differences: as I noted in my other post, Martin Luther rejected the books of Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation on theological grounds.

Third, when the Bible is clear, we still reject or "re-interpret" parts: critics inevitably note the places where Leviticus supports slavery, values women as less than men and proscribes the death penalty for breaking the Sabbath, or where Timothy denies women the right to teach.

In summary: no matter of what we are "sure", there is a group of people who thought differently, much of the basis for our surety is questionable (and has been fundamentally questioned by founders of the Church), and when we explain away parts of the Bible we cannot culturally accept, we are forced to admit the cultural lens of the interpretor is fundamental to the interpretation.

Given that set of facts, how can we have confidence we (unlike so many who came before us), have determined what the Bible "clearly teaches"?


June 10, 2012 at 01:13 PM

Keith, where (or how) do you draw the line between what the Bible clearly teaches and what it doesn't? Don't we then end up at "I might be wrong, and probably am, but I have reason to believe... That the only way to eternal life is personal belief in Jesus Christ."? There has to be some things that the Bible is clear and authoritative on, right?