The Juvenilization of American Christianity (Part 2)

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?

2 thoughts on “The Juvenilization of American Christianity (Part 2)

  1. Kent,
    I think you are raising an important question, “what does a social justice spirituality look like?” Here are some initial thoughts.

    First, I think we need to work on making social justice and care for the poor more than just experiences to consume. I think mission trips and service projects are great. But I am concerned about the kind of preparation that happens before we do the work and the kind of reflection that happens during and after it. Frankly, I think a lot of us find ways to fit these episodes of service into our existing mental and emotional frameworks such that they do not transform our basic orientation to our lives. A social justice spirituality might not be very comfortable at times. It certainly would be less self-focused than the typical American therapeutic approach to faith. For example, I know a Christian family that worked to make servanthood central to their family identity. At the end of dinner at their house, the father asked his son to clear the table. “Why?” he asked. “Because you’re a servant” his dad replied. This reply quickly ended any argument because the groundwork had been laid. Everyone had embraced that identity and modeled it in their daily lives. And they rooted that identity in their theology of who Jesus is and what he wants of us.

    Second, I notice that people who seem to thrive in a lifestyle of service to the poor and work for justice seem to have a different spiritual orientation than I often do to the people they serve and the work they are doing. It is not just about what the world sees as results or success. They have a different scale of significance. They often comment about how much they see of God or learn about God through the people they serve. They take joy in those interactions as much or more than in the “big” accomplishments of their ministries. They tend to make much of Mt 25 and truly believe that they are giving Jesus that food, water, clothing or companionship. They go deeper than the kind of helping that makes them feel good. They enter into the suffering and hope that must become part of anyone who perseveres in serving God in situations that will not be 100% “fixed” in this life. They have a Hebrews 11 spirituality that is able to see things that are not yet present and live in confidence that those things are real, embracing whatever may come in life in the meantime.

    One practice I have seen is for people to truly engage the poor, to listen to them, to make eye contact, to use appropriate touch. For example, I heard recently about a church that took their young people to a meal ministry. The youth leaders required the teenagers to do more than serve food. They had to look the people in the eye, greet them warmly, and ask them some questions about themselves. The youth found that very stretching, but helpful. Even better would be to have a guided discussion after the service in which issues of faith hope and love are raised. And don’t let people get away with the cliche “even though they don’t have anything, they are so happy!”

    Finally, I heard Jim Wallace use an analogy that I have borrowed with good effect to help people understand what it means to work for justice and why it is important. He said, “There is only so long you can stand at the side of a river pulling out drowning people before you ask, ‘What is happening upstream?'” That analogy brings alive the need to look at how systems might be hurting people. And that example illustrates a deeper need. To foster a spirituality of social justice, we probably need to discover or develop some metaphors that will help us get where God wants us to go and will sustain us for the long haul.

  2. Pingback: The Juvenilization of American Judaism? | The Book of Doctrines and Opinions:

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