Thomas E. Bergler is associate professor of ministry and missions at Huntington University, Huntington, Indiana, and author of the new book The Juvenilization of American Christianity.
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Grumpy Old Man Syndrome (GOMS) noun: a form of prejudice found frequently but not exclusively in Christian men over 40 that causes them to condemn young people for being young, to reject needed innovations just because they are new, and to cling to unimportant trappings from the past due to their tendency to mistake “we’ve always done it that way” for a sound theological argument. (See also Grumpy Old Woman Syndrome and Jeremiad.)
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In the weeks since the publication of my Christianity Today cover article “When Are We Going to Grow Up? The Juvenilization of American Christianity,” many people have read and responded to what I wrote there. Most of these responses have been positive. Some readers, however, have responded to my argument by declaring me to have a particularly bad case of Grumpy Old Man Syndrome.
Let me be clear. I am no curmudgeon. I don’t blame teenagers and youth ministries for everything that is wrong with American churches today. I don’t think that everything about older people is good and everything about young people is bad. I don’t think all contemporary worship music is bad and all hymns are good. And most importantly, I sincerely believe in youth ministry — I have spent more than a decade training youth ministers — and I am thankful for all the good that youth ministries have done over the years for the Kingdom of God.
My concern goes deeper than debates about particular cultural forms or religious tastes. A traditional, liturgical church can be full of immature believers, while a contemporary or emergent church can be full of maturing disciples. My concern is not for particular styles or methods, although some styles and methods may make it harder to achieve spiritual maturity. Rather, I am asking all Christians and all churches to take a hard look at what they are doing to see if it is really promoting biblical spiritual maturity or if it is instead conceding too much to the immaturity that has come to characterize American culture.
When we create new language, metaphors, and practices to share the Christian faith with new generations, as we must do to some extent, we should be careful that we do not lose anything important in that translation process. As I studied the history of youth ministry, I did not find many church leaders who took this task of generational translation as seriously as Bible translators take theirs. Some groups easily accepted anything that promised to appeal to young people. Other groups fought hard against the wrong things — “No drums in church!” Too few thought deeply about how to appeal to young people while still fostering spiritual maturity in Christians of all ages. I think all Christian churches have theological resources that are up to the task. But the history of youth ministry shows that these resources have not always been used.
Even applying one simple insight would help: cultural forms are not neutral. It is not just what we say, but how we say it that communicates. It is one thing to use drums and electric guitars to accompany singing in Christian worship. It is quite another to put the band front and center and add all the trappings of a rock concert. In so doing, we make it much harder for worshippers to keep at bay all the mental and emotional baggage they have been conditioned to bring to the cultural practice called “rock concert.” Similarly, we may decide it is fine for people to wear jeans to church. It’s not really a battle I think is worth fighting in most cases. At the same time, we must ask ourselves: how can worshippers experience bodily that they are entering a special time set apart for God that is not primarily about their comfort? Why do we dress up for weddings, dates, and pop culture award shows, but never for Sunday worship?
I don’t presume to tell churches and their leaders what to do in these matters. Different theologies and different judgments about culture will produce Christian communities with different practices. Rather, I am trying to provoke all of us to ask questions like these:
- What messages are we sending about spiritual maturity through what we do and say?
- Which of our practices are likely to produce mature disciples of Jesus and which are likely to leave believers mired in immaturity?
Grumpy Old Man Syndrome says “young people are ruining my world.” A better understanding of juvenilization shows that it is not young people but immaturity that is the problem. And that problem touches all of us. Young people have more justification for being immature than those of us tempted to indulge in GOMS. At least young people often recognize that they have something to learn and know that they are not done growing. Too many adults use their age as an excuse to stall out in their spiritual development or to avoid investing in young people. Adults engaged in defensive power plays and who are not interested in partnering with rising generations in the church are displaying the kind of immaturity that young people rightly criticize. So let’s all lay GOMS to rest and return to our shared work of building one another up into Christ (Ephesians 4:14-16).