A Sunday school crowded with children is a sure sign of a healthy church.
If the kids are there, their parents are there. And if the whole family is there, the experience of Jesus goes home where Christian faith can blossom as Christian family life to be shared with relatives, neighbors and friends.
That’s the rosy scenario, I realize. Too often, much of the Jesus experience is lost on the ride home from church. But seeing children in church is nonetheless encouraging. There are plenty of places in the Bible – Matthew, Mark and Luke – where Jesus tells us that it is the children who are “the greatest in the kingdomof Heaven.” Children are a big deal to Jesus.
But skip ahead to the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, where in his dissertation on divine love it is clear one must “put away childish things” if one is to truly mature as a Christian. The Bible clearly tells us to both “be as a child” and to “put away childish things.” We are to go from spiritual “milk” as a child to spiritual “meat” as we mature. On the one hand, we are to be as innocent as doves; on the other, as shrewd as snakes (Matthew 10:16). What gives? Are we supposed to grow up, or not?
We most definitely are. The question is: Do we?
Huntington University church history professor Tom Bergler surveys what he considers to be the arrested development of our modern American faith in his thoughtful new book, “The Juvenalization of American Christianity.” It’s a scholarly piece of sociology, not a Bible study. Bergler (BERJ-ler) tracks the last century or so of American Christianity and observes that we are largely stuck in an “adolescent faith.”
Adolescent faith is when Christians put “self-development, my problems and my needs” as the center of Christian faith. Bergler notes that a mature Christian sees his or her faith as a way to partner in the mission of the kingdom: evangelizing and serving others. It means understanding that “maturity” doesn’t mean “perfect,” it means loving God, loving others, being faithful and seeking first to glorify God.
Bergler tracks the development of youth ministries from the 1920s through the Depression, World War II, the Cold War and the turbulent 1960s. In Protestant, Catholic, and black churches, youth ministers met teenagers where they were – and they were adolescents. Hence, the focus became the emotional “me” side of faith and not on a deep commitment to God. That often carries into today’s adult church.
Bergler’s point? All God’s children should have a chance to grow up.