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?