The Juvenilization of American Christianity (Part 3)

With August closing in and the tasks associated with the fall semester looming, I need to wrap up my review of The Juvenilization of American Christianity with two final posts.

Let’s focus here on chapter 6 which profiles an evangelical Christian response to youth culture through the parachurch ministry Youth for Christ (YFC). The following extended quote is helpful because it gives the reader a sense for how Tom interprets the juvenilizing effect of YFC and other, similar parachurch ministries. Please keep in mind that Tom looks primarily at the origins and development of juvenilization and not necessarily at the current practices, method, and culture of organizations like YFC. Several YFC staffers commented on my previous post and wanted to make it very clear that YFC today has matured since the 1950s. I have follow up questions about that, but first to the quote:

Youth for Christ leaders promised teenagers that they could have fun, be popular, and save the world at the same time. But in order to do so, they had to give their lives to Jesus and maintain a pure “witness.” Many teenagers internalized that call to separation from “worldly” corruptions, but in return, they demanded that Youth for Christ leaders provide them a Christian youth culture complete with fun, popularity, movies, music, and celebrities. This combination of spiritually intense experiences, bodily purity, and youth-culture fun transformed thousands of young lives and guaranteed the long-term vitality of white evangelicalism.

But adapting Christianity so well to white, middle-class youth culture brought its share of compromises to the Christian message. The faith could become just another product to consume; a relationship with Jesus might become just another source of emotional fulfillment. And the obsession with teenage bodily purity made it difficult for white evangelicals to respond in love to those perceived to be impure outsiders, such as juvenile delinquents and African Americans (148).

YFCs response to youth culture “set the stage” for the widespread juvenilization of American Christianity. They had, in fact, created a “full-fledged juvenilized version of evangelical Christianity” (174).

It must be said that Tom is charitable and suggests some beneficial consequences of this culture. YFC helped create “an enduring and adaptive way to sustain a conservative Christian identity in American society.” These youth grew up with a sense for engaging cultural forms and have since carried that into the music and movie industry. Further, it provided an alternative version of conservative Christianity for those disillusioned with American fundamentalism.

The heart of Tom’s evaluation seems to be that YFC’s method for reaching youth by making Christianity fun and inviting inhibited their ability to maintain the demands of the Gospel for those who adhere to it. Christianity became a product to consume. Further, the values that attend the cultural forms that were used to reach youth seeped into the Christian youth culture. Have any of you had this experience if you participated in youth ministries such as Youth for Christ or Young Life (my experience with one parachurch ministry during the late 1990s was remarkably similar to what Tom describes about the 1950s)?

I know YFC staffers are reading these posts, so I would like to get your interaction along with Tom at this point. If you have read Tom’s book, do you share his concern about juvenilized American Christianity? Comments on a previous post indicate that YFC works hard to minimize the effects Tom describes. How are you helping young people develop the moral and theological criteria necessary to engage culture wisely and well? Are you finding this successful? What are the challenges? Where are the opportunities?

Tom, I know you are thinking about a follow-up book to Juvenilization, what would you suggest?

10 thoughts on “The Juvenilization of American Christianity (Part 3)

  1. I found this section of the book fascinating. Especially for myself, who was heavily involved in YFC throughout high school, and saw many of these same strategies and approaches employed upon myself and my peers, even in the early 2000s (e.g. the encouragement to carry a big Bible around in the hallways of your school, which indirectly makes the Bible more of a product or a brand than anything else). While I’m certainly grateful to YFC for the impact that organization had on me in my walk as a Christian, it’s interesting to see the personal effects of juvenilization that Tom points out.

  2. Thanks Kent for your thoughts on Chapter 6. I have been sorry to hear that some in YFC misunderstood my critique, especially in the Christianity Today article. I do not intend to give the impression that YFC, Young Life, or any single youth ministry organization is to blame for juvenilization. Rather, a passionate commitment to youth evangelization has led many youth leaders and pastors to ignore some troubling evidence about what American culture is doing to Christian faith. And youth ministries alone could not have produced what we see in American churches today. That required a corresponding change in the nature of adulthood. Youth ministries were the social spaces in which American Christians wrestled with how to adapt to big changes in the culture. These changes, which came from many sources but were first present in youth cultures, were pushing people away from spiritual maturity. Some of the effects of that cultural wresting and adaptation were positive, others were not.

    In the 1940s and 1950s, the leaders of YFC and Young Life argued that in light of their urgent call to youth evangelism, they should be free to make Christianity more youth friendly. They further argued that even somewhat questionable cultural adaptations were OK because their organizations were not churches. They fully expected churches to operate differently and to invest in youth discipleship in ways that their organizations could not. But what happened instead was that church leaders said “Hey, they are gathering big crowds of youth, let’s do what they are doing.” Even all of this might not have been as damaging if it weren’t for the fact that adulthood itself changed and came to look a lot more like adolescence. So now, young people enter into an adolescent spirituality that is hard to grow out of as they age. As a result, churches just keep giving people more of what they should only need at an earlier, evangelistic stage of their spiritual development.

    So on one level, the issue is the gap between evangelism and discipleship, a gap that is at times reinforced by the structural disconnect between youth ministries and the rest of the church. But at a deeper level, there may be problems with how we are communicating the gospel itself. I share with Dallas Willard a concern that the gospel we sometimes preach in American churches does not contain any expectation of transformation. According to Willard, a gospel that says “You will be in heaven when you die if you believe that Jesus took your beating” is unlikely to produce spiritual growth because the person who accepts that gospel has not signed up for any spiritual growth. Youth ministries did not create that narrow view of the gospel, but neither did they do much to effectively oppose it and provide a deeper alternative.

    • Tom, thanks for the reply. What do you think are the aspects of evangelical Christian culture that contribute to the proclamation of a gospel that has no “expectation of transformation,” as you put it. Various contemporary evangelicals have spoken about this, and each have their own angle to address it.

      Having taught at HU for some time now and seen countless young evangelicals come through your classes, what do you see? Is it the worship norms of low-church evangelicals? Is it their doctrine of Scripture and attending practices of reading and preaching? Is it the way evangelism is carried out, which springs from an unstated theology of salvation and conversion? Is it their doctrine of the church and the related understandings of the individual related to the community?

  3. Thank you Kent for putting some good questions out there. As a 40 year YFC staff person, I don’t quite make it back to the 50’s and 60’s personally, but I can speak pretty solidly for everything since then. I’ve spoke at countless retreats and camps, trained new staff and wrote the weekly Campus Life curriculum for most of that time. I came out of a fundamentalist background and do agree that I felt quite liberated by YFC to quit arguing about whether Rock ‘n Roll, bowling and The Living Bible were bad, and just be free to reach lost kids in a fun, relevant way.
    To keep this as brief as possible: 1) When Tom writes “faith could become” and “a relationship with Jesus might become” I don’t believe he allows for the variances in ministry sites, or that there may be many places those possibilities simply don’t happen very often. I realize the quality and effectiveness of YFC varies with staffing and experience, but no more so than the Baptist church on the corner! The Church, capital C is in the battle for effectiveness together. 2) I have found “making Christianity fun” has enhanced the ability of lost students to understand the demands of the Gospel, because at least they are in a room hearing about it. Fact is, they would be clueless about the Gospel otherwise. Combine every youth ministry and no one is reaching millions of youth with any message at all. 3)You ask how we help young people develop the moral and theological criteria necessary to engage culture wisely and well (good question by the way). I’d answer – just like Paul did when taking the Gospel to a different culture. He said “you know how we lived among you for your sake.” Our staff first and foremost pursue and develop relationships with students where they can model what a Jesus follower looks like. Then students learn, week to week, how literally any issue they face in the teenage world, can be related to basic Christian principles. Seems like God has something good to say about everything! They easily make the transition from having a more positive attitude toward God, to having a open heart and mind toward the Gospel as they hear the message. The journey to Jesus is longer and longer, with more barriers than ever for most kids (and adults). That’s the challenge – and the opportunity!

    • Thanks for your thoughts Trent! Can I follow up with #3? As I teach a good number of students who are either involved with YFC or anticipate involvement with similar ministries, one of my learning outcomes is that students will develop the theological and moral criteria to interpret culture wisely and well according to the Gospel. An aspect of this is surely the formation and cultivation of their Christian worldview/narrative/imagination/framework/lens (whichever term you prefer, they all have limitations on their own). Another is the development of that rather difficult thing to name that feels less like science and more like art. I am referring to the practical wisdom that must be applied to real-life scenarios and situations in order that one not only sees the world but lives in it according to one’s Christian imagination. How one does the later, however, springs out from the former. This dynamic has been described by various cultural theories, and I have seen it in my own life and my students.

      It is the formation of this background imagination that intrigues me about Tom’s analysis of the beginning years of YFC. It seems that his concern goes something like this: YFC’s early approach to youth ministry did indeed bring kids in so that they hear the gospel (the point you make under #2), but did it form their Christian imagination in such a way that they have to unlearn or outgrow certain things in order to reach maturity? The worry seems to be that these youth weren’t aware that they have to “grow up” spirituality; the vision they were given of the Christian life simply doesn’t include a vision of growth toward maturity. So, the question for YFC or Young Life or the youth ministry at the local church around the corner (the question I believe Tom is trying to get everyone to ask) is whether the vision of the Christian life includes movement toward spiritual maturity. This would go beyond methods and practices, although those methods and practices are always driven by an underlying theology.

      What are your thoughts about this? Does this ring true?

  4. Kent,
    Absolutely rings true. When you decide to put on a symposium (do they still do those?) on this, I’m there! To “Unlearn” worldview is a huge deal for kids and adults in our post-Christian culture. I ended the previous post with “The journey to Jesus is longer and longer with more barriers than ever. We do our best to help students make informed decisions, over time. But that decision is made, at best, through a very complex, and complicated worldview/narrative/imagination/framework/lens. I have pastored a new church start the past eleven years in addition to YFC. We have effectively targeted the not-recently-churched. In our area they come from a childhood Catholic lens, plus ten years or so of a secularism lens. They think they are doing great if they show up twice a month!
    Really is fascinating stuff!

  5. Hi, I stumbed across this site, and discussion, while primarily researching the types of textbooks available to students of theology.

    The sentence, “the journey to Jesus is longer and filled with more barriers than ever” made me think of a few things. As I am a product of American culture myself, and my exposure to Christianity was the Catholic Church for the first eight years of my primary education; hence I am of the “Catholic and secular lens”, yet things did not turn out altogether poorly for me in the sense of spiritual affairs.

    Paul Goodman, a mostly forgotten poet, writing in the 1960s, (after being heckled while delivering a campus speech) said: “I realized that they did not believe there was a nature of things; to them, there was no knowledge but only the sociology of knowledge. They had learned so well that physical and sociological research is subsidized and conducted for the benefit of the ruling class that they were doubtful that there was such a thing as simple truth…”

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

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