The newest issue of Christianity Today arrived with the cover story, “Are We Going to Grow Up?: The Juvenilization of the American Church.” It bemoans the trend over the last 60 years that the American Church has pursued youth and used youth culture to produce Christians who are self-centered, undisciplined in their faith, and focused on a “me and Jesus” faith. The author, Thomas E. Berger, believes that the desire to reach youth has resulted in youth culture permeating the church in various ways that now means most adults in the church are really still youth – they lack the maturity and depth of faith needed to become real disciples.
Berger cites the various ways that African-American, mainline and Roman Catholic Churches all pursued the baby boomers with less than stellar results. He then looks at the conservative evangelical movement and believes that this sector of Christianity successfully wooed baby boomers in larger numbers by adapting worship to look more and more like youth rallies with a tone that, in his mind, permeates most of evangelicalism today – from Christian radio, TV and music all the way to how Sunday worship looks and feels. And Berger is clear about his perspective – American Christianity needs to grow up.
While there may be some truth to his premise that we have an immature faith as a base for today’s American Christianity, I found that he missed the heart of the reason that I believe that much of this has happened and why I think this is perhaps at least one key to the mainline church helping to renew a different and more mature faith.
Evangelicalism succeeded in drawing people to its brand of Christianity by using youth culture. But it kept these participants in a perpetually youthful (and immature) faith by wimping out on the content. While mainline churches lost their audience and have consistently tried to regain it – often by adopting the same outward tactics as evangelicals – the evangelical church was forced to create an alternative to the modern world that placed the world in the position of foil or even dangerous opposition. The advent of Darwin, the reality about the age of the earth, problems with literal seven day creationist thinking, and a gazillion other issues meant that “serious” Bible study had to ignore much of what everyone pretty much knew was true out there. Fundamentalism, overt and covert, became a necessary protection for religion to maintain the charade. Many Christian colleges ignored much of the world’s knowledge and designed their own curriculum based on a fantasy-filled view of the world (Liberty University still requires medical students to take a class on seven day creationism, hidden in the history department, in order to become a medical doctor). And that meant no longer having a “childlike” faith that was trusting and open but instead having a “childish” faith where faith means believing a bunch of stuff that everyone already knows isn’t true. Serious biblical scholarship was limited in what could be talked about and all that was left was a personal, “life-changing” faith that ignored much of the Bible for the sake of avoiding ambiguity. Uplifting moralism and the pursuit of happiness (with an occasional service project thrown in for good measure) was all that was left.
Today’s leaders in mainline and progressive churches have a real opportunity (dare I say calling) to get out of their seats and lift up a more robust, engaged, real and in the end more biblical faith than the truncated one that most American Christians have. This is a chance for those faith traditions that have taken the insights of today’s world seriously to shine, shout and encourage a more vibrant and real faith life. Such a move would allow for the painful wounds of fundamentalism to be replaced with a more hopeful faith that allows God to be God in today’s world rather than trying to protect God from it.
I’d be open to the thoughts of others on this. What do you think?