In the second part of my review of Juvenilization I focus on chapters 2 and 3 which survey the response to youth culture in the 1940s and 1950s (read previous posts here and here). Chapter 4 treats the political activism of the black church during the 1960s, and there are interesting resonances between that and the activism of today’s youth. Let’s hold that discussion until the next round.
Chapter 2 highlights what Bergler calls the emerging dilemma of youth work which faced the American church during the 1940s and remains today: how do we cast a vision for social change to youth within our churches without accommodating the message of the Christian Gospel to youth culture? To illustrate the emergence of the dilemma, Tom paints a detailed historical picture of the all-encompassing social world of the high school and its enticements of youthful consumerism and the various attempts of church youth leaders in various denominations to address the situation (Mainline Protestants, Evangelicals, Catholics, and African Americans).
Tom’s attention to detail is impressive, and this should be required reading for anyone wanting to grasp the situation in American youth work today. His careful attention to history demonstrates the importance of understanding the past in order to act wisely in the present. He summarizes the effect of the church’s focus on youth as follows:
The newly labeled ‘teenagers’ would from now on be increasingly seduced by the siren song of high school social life dominated by fun, sports, dating, movies, music, and fashion. While adult values and youthful tastes have often clashed over the centuries, what was changing was the relative balance of power between the two and the length of time between puberty and full adult status….
Tom walks through the Methodist response to this new dilemma in chapter 3, and his evaluation is mixed. Tom discusses several issues, but for the sake of example we could just mention the issue of racism. On one hand, Methodist youth leaders correctly identified the problem of racism and acted to galvanize youth to change their culture, but on the other hand they did not foster “the sort of social justice spirituality needed for long term effectiveness” (91). What young people were hearing and experiencing at “hip” youth rallies, camps, and retreats was in serious discontinuity with their experience of church back home.
I am interested in Tom’s comments about “social justice spirituality” and what he would say are the necessary practices for creating and sustaining it. For example, what practices are required in a faith community to foster and feed the imagination of young people to engage the social justice issues that are pertinent for their setting?
Particularly in light of the way activism has recently become hip within American Christianity, what must happen on a local level to shape the imaginations of young people to sustain real, lasting engagement in social issues? There is more to participating in God’s advancing Kingdom than buying Toms and riding your bike to work (fads that fade when they become uncomfortable and costly), so what do you think local churches can do today to shape and sustain that imagination? What are the practices through which that imagination is formed and sustained?