Spirituality

Beware the juvenilization of American Christianity

A marketing strategy designed to attract young people is being passed off as a form of evangelization

Would you allow your teens to sign up for a group that promised to teach, “How to Have Fun, Be Popular and Save the World—All at the Same Time!”

If you were skeptical, you might hesitate; if you were desperate, you might jump at the chance. A parent at wit’s end might say, “If it keeps my kids off the streets, sober, clothed and out of harm’s way, I’d drive them anywhere!”

And what if the group making such an extravagant claim were faith-related? Would that make you more or less skeptical? Or might you hear yourself saying, “If they can get my kids to go to Mass without being dragged by the elbows, then I’ll sign them up!”

Having talked to lots of parents, I can understand the desperation, but I’d like to encourage a bit more skepticism. I raise this issue because of ads I’ve seen recently for various forms of “youth ministry” in parishes and at high schools and colleges. The ads seem to have common elements: “Have FUN with FUN kids in a FUN place doing FUN things with LOUD music and FUN speakers and get a T-Shirt!!” There will be a few photos of kids sitting in folding chairs crying, and a few photos of kids with their hands up in the air—both postures to indicate that some kind of praying takes place amidst all the fun. There may also be a photo or two of a chapel of some sort, as well as some highly stylized depictions of John Paul II, Mother Teresa or the Divine Mercy. (If the ad is aimed at college students, there might be a reference to talks about climate change, social justice or mission trips.)

I’m not quite old enough to be a curmudgeon and I’m really not a grouch by temperament. I don’t object to people having fun. My concern is the juvenilization of American Christianity being employed to attract young people who have been “Sesame Street-ed” into believing that anything worthwhile must be entertaining. In other words, a well-intentioned yet nonetheless harmful marketing strategy is being passed off (sincerely, I assume) as a form of evangelization.

Thomas Bergler warns: “At their best, youth ministries attract and at least temporarily retain teenagers who might otherwise leave the church. But the relentless attention to teenage tastes ends up communicating that God exists to make us feel good. Christianity operates as a lifestyle enhancement…And increasingly, Americans of all generations take it for granted that emotional fulfillment is one of the main purposes of religious faith…So juvenilization has made the process of finding, maintaining and submitting to religious truth more problematic…Americans of all ages not only accept the Christianized version of adolescent narcissism, they often celebrate it as authentic spirituality.”

In other words, the illusion that Christianity is actually a “play-date” with religious decorations attached, while temporarily stimulating to young people, is affecting the rest of the Christian community. Excitement and novelty become the hallmarks of “authentic” faith and worship. This leads to a threefold problem.

First, it exalts the adolescent and trivializes the sacred. Second, it distracts the folks who should know better from handing on the fullness of the faith. Third, perhaps worst of all, it leaves our young ill prepared for the next stage of their lives. We are promising them a perpetual playground when they should be preparing for a spiritual battleground. Giving children what the world tells them they want rather than what the Church knows they need does not serve them well and does not glorify God.

The root problem is that we have elected to outsource the spiritual care of our children to the “professionals.” Families as a whole and parents in particular, have handed over to others the responsibility of ensuring that their children know and live the faith into which they were baptized. Odds are that their parents themselves were not given many resources for Christian maturity when they were coming of age. (I write this as someone who at age 15 thought the Broadway play “Godspell” was the height of Christian culture.)

What is to be done? I will paint in broad strokes now, and fill in the details in future columns over the next few weeks. For now, let me offer four recommendations. First, let’s admit that we can’t give what we don’t have, in this case, spiritual maturity. Second, let’s admit that what our young need from us are the means and models of mature Christians. Third, let’s admit that a lot of “youth ministry” is more “youth” than “ministry.” Fourth, let’s admit that we can’t live or hand on the fullness of faith if our worship is empty.

When I write next, I will speak of the dangers of treating worship as entertainment. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.

Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ

 

Father Robert McTeigue, SJ, is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus. A professor of philosophy and theology, he has taught and lectured in North and Central America, Europe and Asia and is known for his classes in both rhetoric and medical ethics.  He has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry and religious formation and now works in seminary education.