Wisdom Culture & the Juvenalization of American Christianity

“Fools despise wisdom and instruction.” Proverbs 1:7

Churches are busy with many good endeavors, but seeking and passing on wisdom seems to have fallen down the list of priorities. According to my teacher, Scot McKnight: “People today care less about growing up or gaining wisdom and far more about staying young, maintaining relevancy, and dressing according to latest youth fad.” Scot is challenging my doctoral cohort to reestablish a “wisdom culture” in our churches today.

He sites the research of Thomas Bergler in The Juvenilization of American Christianity (2012) and From Here to Maturity: Overcoming the Juvenilization of American Christianity (2014). Here’s how Bergler describes its development:

Beginning in the 1930s and 1940s, three factors combined to create the juvenilization of American Christianity.

First, new and more powerful youth cultures created distance between adults and adolescents.

Second, in an attempt to convert, mobilize, or just hang on to their teenage children, Christian adults adapted the faith to adolescent tastes. As a result of these first two factors, the stereotypical youth group that combines fun and games with a brief, entertaining religious message was born. In the years since, this model of youth ministry has become a taken-for-granted part of church life.

Finally, the journey to adulthood became longer and more confusing, with maturity now just one among many options.

The result was juvenilization: the process by which the religious beliefs, practices, and developmental characteristics of adolescents become accepted — or even celebrated — as appropriate for Christians of all ages.

In the vacuum left by the loss of wisdom-seeking in the church, what kind of a faith culture is emerging in its place? Bergler doesn’t mince words but honestly describes a reality all too familiar to us laboring in church leadership:

They value a “relationship with God” above all and like the idea of “falling in love with Jesus.” They don’t see much value in the rules, strict reliefs, or structures of “religion,” although they like going to church if it helps them feel closer to God. They are largely uninformed about the teachings of their churches and may even see doctrine or theology as enemies of authentic spirituality. They like the sense of belonging and acceptance that they find in their congregations but are not very open to being corrected by fellow believers. Their God is always there to help them feel better about their problems, and this is one of the chief benefits they see in their faith. They like the idea of spiritual growth, but they may not know much about how to grow and may rate themselves more highly than they should. They are drawn to religious experiences that produce emotional highs and sometimes assume that experiencing strong feelings is the same thing as spiritual authenticity. They see themselves as in charge of their own search for a satisfying sense of religious identity. In short, American Christianity looks a lot like we would expect it to look if many Americans were stuck in a Christianized version of adolescent narcissism.

Ouch. We have work to do, church leaders.

For those like me who believe the church needs to work overtime to place wisdom-seeking and rugged character formation at the heart of our teaching task, where does one begin? A great place is to dig back into the sages of our rich Jewish heritage — the Old Testament, Jesus himself, and the apostles like Paul who were steeped in a “wisdom culture.” Scot McKnight does a little of this in a nw book on Paul as Pastor and his chapter on ‘Paul as Sage.’  I’m thrilled for the opportunity to be digging deeper into education and formation in the ancient world as part of my doctoral thesis.

My research at the moment is probing into the areas of ancient discipleship practices — especially in Jesus’ ministry — with a special focus on the nature and significance of teacher-student relationships. I’m curious to know how important it is to be committed to a particular teacher, willingly submitting to their wisdom and authority, desiring to master and imitate their teaching, their way of life and personal character.

Jesus had an intimate, personal relationship with 12 committed students who stayed with him for 3 years in close proximity. Many of us today have no personal relationship with our most influential ‘teachers’ but only know them as disembodied voices coming into our earbuds via a sermon podcast or YouTube video. How important is teacher-student relationship in faith formation? Is it all really just about the raw content that be downloaded or streamed?

These are some of the questions I’m exploring these days, desiring to create a church culture where teaching is not just naked facts but embodied wisdom learned in the context of personal relationships. More to come!

What are your thoughts on the so-called juvenalization of American Christianity and its effects? Do you agree that we are in need of recovering a “wisdom culture” in our churches? If so, how might we proceed in this task? 

This was originally posted in 2017. We have spent the past year casting a new vision for Christian teaching and soul formation at MainStreet Covenant Church. We are providing more holistic growth pathways and bringing in spiritual guides for workshops and spiritual direction for those who really want to put in the work it takes to grow. Here’s 4 upcoming workshops to kick off 2020.

2020 Brochure (dragged)

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