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?