The Juvenilization of American Christianity (Part 1)

I introduced Tom Bergler’s new book on the influence of youth culture on American Christianity in a previous post (read it here). Chapters 1-7 chart juvenilization  from the 1930’s through 1960’s, then Tom draws the argument together in chapter 8.

Chapter 1 traces the response of various American Christian denominations to what was being called the “crisis of civilization” during the 1930’s. As Tom describes it, “As the traumas of the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War followed each other in quick succession, people started to speak of a ‘crisis of civilization.’ They had reason to fear that their children might see the end of economic prosperity, democracy, and religious freedom” (19). By focusing on the general fear about the youth of the day, Christian leaders focused their attention on young people to catalyze change in America. In doing so, Tom argues, “Youth leaders believed they were catching the wave of the future and channeling the innate power of young people.” However, they were inadvertently building “one of the engines that would drive juvenilization in subsequent decades.”

In addition to advocating to the wider public for the influence that youth can have to revitalize America, during the 1930s and 1940s Christians responded to the challenge of the youth problem in various ways. Evangelical groups like Youth For Christ responded by launching youth revivals. “Youth for Christ leaders considered their movement a success against the crisis of civilization. They modernized revivalism, won respect in the secular press, and appealed to young people by combining entertainment, an appealing spirituality, and the powerful language linking youth and the crisis of civilization” (32). In contrast, Roman Catholics attempted to mobilize youth to save America, “on the battlefield, in the factories, and in their schools” (32-36) and African American Baptists, unlike their white counterparts, focused on social justice but through integrating the youth into the life and mission of the church rather than start new youth organizations (36-39).

Tom describes the overall effect of these efforts during the 1930s and 40s as follows:

Youth leaders and those they influenced got in the habit of thinking of youth, not adults, as the most important reformers in church and society. The people who most often heard this message were the young Christians who participated in the many large youth gatherings of the era. These future leaders learned that youth would always be the most important political and social force in the world, and by implication, not to expect much from themselves or others once they reached adulthood. According to this line of thinking, if adults were to accomplish anything of value in the political realm, they needed to become more like young people (40).

I find Tom’s closing statement to be one of the more interesting observations in the chapter: “From then on, almost any innovation could be justified in the name of saving young people. Who could worry about the long-term impact of youth work on the church when the fate of civilization hung in the balance?”


In light of all this, here are a couple questions for Tom when he has the chance (feel free to pose your own): do you think today’s youth see themselves as forces for change because of the shifts in perception you trace here, or are there are more influential causes for the recent upsurge in youth activism? How does the mission of YFC during the 1930s and 40s shape YFC’s mission today? Should we see this as a strength or weakness?


8 thoughts on “The Juvenilization of American Christianity (Part 1)

  1. The way Americans think about youthful political activism today is still very much a product of juvenilization. Here’s how it works. A few young people become politically active. Then adults tell each other and all young people that this youthful activism is about to change everything. Hopes and fears about youthful political influence expand. Many begin to see symbolic protests by youth as especially powerful. I call this the juvenilization of political activism. I think the fundamental dynamic is still the same today as it was in the past and it distorts our thinking about politics in two closely related ways.

    1. Adults overestimate the number and influence of youthful political activists. This happened in the 1930s and in the 1960s and is still happening today. During the 2008 presidential election, news reports claimed that young people were more engaged than they had been in some time. The Occupy Wall Street and Arab Spring movements have also heightened this perception. But in their recent book Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood, Christian Smith and his co-authors found that American 18 – 23 year olds are not in fact very politically engaged. Only about 4% of their interviewees cared much about politics. And these interviews were conducted during the 2008 presidential campaign! When adults overestimate youthful political influence they either blame youth or rely on them to accomplish change. Neither approach is politically constructive.

    2. The minority of young people who are politically active overestimate what can be achieved by protests, sit ins, etc…This minority group may not do the hard work that would be required to create lasting political change. Meanwhile, the majority group senses that the politics of protest will not bring deep change. They are confirmed in their cynicism about any political involvement. Like other kinds of immaturity, political immaturity undermines patient work toward long term goals.

  2. I think that the mission of Youth for Christ today is similar to its mission in the 1940s and 1950s, namely, youth evangelism. And I applaud all those who are working diligently to reach young people with the Gospel. The club model is very much alive in YFC today. That means that a lot of effort goes into getting young people to attend a fun event that concludes with a brief spiritual message or devotion. It is often through camps or Spring Break trips sponsored by YFC that young people make deeper decisions to follow Jesus. YFC leaders try to disciple their more committed young people through “student leaders” meetings. But I have reason to believe that the number attending these student leader meetings is a small minority of the total number of teenagers involved in YFC. I think that the relentless focus on giving a large number of young people an initial experience with Christ is both a strength and a weakness of YFC, Young Life and many church based youth ministries. It is a strength in that we are putting effort into making significant relational contact with young people and helping them to think about becoming followers of Jesus. The National Study of Youth and Religion found through its longitudinal study that teenagers who had numerous experiential encounters with God were more likely to have a strong faith in emerging adulthood (ages 18-23). But pouring so many resources into fostering these initial experiences can also be a weakness because there is not a corresponding investment in helping young people grow beyond spiritual infancy. Ideally, better partnerships between parachurch evangelistic organizations and church based discipleship programs would be a big help. But there seems to be a lot of difficulty in getting those partnerships to work well in practice.

    Finally, I think that too many youth ministers operate out of the model of cultural engagement pioneered in YFC in the 1950s. Too many church leaders think of cultural forms as neutral and pay little attention to the way that adapting to youth culture subtly changes the Gospel message itself. So, for example, it’s probably fine to sing pop style worship music, but we should be concerned when our worship services look more and more like rock concerts.

    • Tom, I appreciate you following up with responses to my questions. I will be away at a conference this week and should post a review of the next couple chapters next week.

      Enjoy your summer break!


    • I think you’re fair here, Tom, but would love to introduce you to the parts of Youth for Christ that seem to be “salting” our movement these days. I have a mission focusing statement that I like to share, unpacking how it built up within YFC to its present form and meaning: AUTHENTIC CHRIST-SHARING RELATIONSHIPS WITH AND FOR LOST YOUNG PEOPLE. The word “authentic” was embraced as a value when we developed and taught 3Story evangelism, emphasizing how important it is to “be real” with your friends and be transparent in your conversations about Jesus. But our City Life ministry has led us to understand that “authentic” is likely to be linked to meeting holistic needs while sharing the words of the Gospel.

      Suffice it to say, I think we’re pushing toward a culture permeated by prayer, love, teaching and living Biblical truth, unity of God’s people and empowering others to faithfully use their gifts for God. Not only is that a far different description than the programmatic/methodological forms you describe, it’s something with a 30 year shelf life that would benefit the Church…especially if we stay in our sweet spot of working with kids who aren’t yet on the radar screen of community churches.

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  4. Dave,

    It’s great to hear about new things happening in YFC. One of the things I admire about YFC is the relentless drive to keep improving and to be faithful to the call from God to share the Good News with young people. One of my concerns in writing the book and especially the Christianity Today article was that people would think that I see no value in YFC or other Christian youth ministries. Here are two excerpts from the book that people might miss:

    The dedication page:

    “To my students at Huntington University who remind me every day of the value of youth ministry.”

    From the acknowledgements:

    “I would also like to thank the members and leaders of the Methodist Youth Fellowship, Youth for Christ, the Catholic Youth Organization, and Baptist Young People’s Union, most of whom I have never met. . . . I respect each of these organizations for seeking to help young people come into a full experience of the life of Jesus Christ.”

    I believe Youth for Christ and many other youth ministries have done great good. My hope is that I can contribute some guidance as we move forward so that some of the unintended side effects can be addressed.

  5. Tom,

    I’ve been involved in YFC for 48 years, and appreciate what you have written about YFC and the juvenilization of American Christianity. I have not read your book but read your article in Christianity Today just yesterday. I agree in general with what you have said about YFC, but, like Dave, I would like to point out some distinguishing differences.

    I don’t believe that YFC has ever fit into the category of causing kids to become “Moralistic Therapeutic Deists.” From the gitgo in the 40’s we got kids into the Word of God – soon after they gave their lives to Christ. Of course, not all the new believers came to the “Insight” meetings or got involved in a local church, but many did. And many learned whole chunks of the Word through the 15-20 years that we emphasized quizzing.

    Obviously the youth culture is different today than it was in the 40’s and 50’s, but we still find unchurched teenagers hungry for the love and acceptance and peace that comes through knowing Jesus Christ as Savior. In the last 10+ years since the introduction of 3Story Evangelism we’ve trained our kids in the Bible and to be authentic in sharing their faith. There has been a greater emphasis on discipleship and student leadership. We are involved in many juvenile institutions across the country and in many of them we conduct Bible studies – even on a weekly basis.

    The juvenilization in the church comes in with seeker-friendly churches who use the same “light” methods to get adults involved that YFC and Young Life use to get youth involved initially. But many churches are not like that and constantly preach and teach the Word and try to disciple people into a deeper relationship with the Lord. My church here in the Denver area is one of those.

    Yes, many churches today have gone to contemporary worship services with songs that often have a “lighter” theology than many of the old hymns. Singing these songs with a “rock beat” can be upsetting to some of the older crowd, but overall, I’ve seen people in churches and YFC camps and conferences today get more into worship than ever before.

    You’re right – YFC is trying to do a better job, not only of evangelism but of discipleship. We truly desire, and for the most part, we have taken our youth beyond “narcissistic spiritual immaturity.” Thanks for reminding us in YFC and in the church that we truly need to “grow-up” and continually mature in our relationship with the King.

  6. Pingback: The Juvenilization of American Christianity (Part 2) « Theology Forum

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