The Juvenilization of American Christianity


Pop worship music. Falling in love with Jesus. Mission trips. Wearing jeans and T-shirts to church. Spiritual searching and church hopping. Faith-based political activism. Seeker-sensitive outreach. These now-commonplace elements of American church life all began as innovative ways to reach young people, yet they have gradually become accepted as important parts of a spiritual ideal for all ages. What on earth has happened?

In The Juvenilization of American Christianity Thomas ...

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Pop worship music. Falling in love with Jesus. Mission trips. Wearing jeans and T-shirts to church. Spiritual searching and church hopping. Faith-based political activism. Seeker-sensitive outreach. These now-commonplace elements of American church life all began as innovative ways to reach young people, yet they have gradually become accepted as important parts of a spiritual ideal for all ages. What on earth has happened?

In The Juvenilization of American Christianity Thomas Bergler traces the way in which, over seventy-five years, youth ministries have breathed new vitality into four major American church traditions -- African American, Evangelical, Mainline Protestant, and Roman Catholic. Bergler shows too how this "juvenilization" of churches has led to widespread spiritual immaturity, consumerism, and self-centeredness, popularizing a feel-good faith with neither intergenerational community nor theological literacy. Bergler's critique further offers constructive suggestions for taming juvenilization.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Bergler, a professor at Huntington University, calls the current state of American Christianity consumerist, self-centered, and theologically ignorant. He attributes these characteristics to an excessive focus on the needs of adolescents that eventually leads to congregations filled with spiritually immature adults. The book primarily details the history of church youth programs in the African-American, evangelical Protestant, Methodist, and Roman Catholic traditions, showing similarities and contrasts, such as how and why Catholics and Methodists failed to hold on to youth, while evangelical Protestants retained youth at the cost of restructuring the entire church community and culture to accommodate them. Bergler’s hypothesis about the juvenile nature of contemporary American Christianity and its roots in youth programs beginning in the 1930s is only weakly supported, as he ignores other cultural trends that may contribute to today’s church culture. Yet the book is still a fascinating exploration of the places where Christianity and youth culture have intersected, and will certainly be provocative both for the casual reader and for clergy, who may also appreciate the book’s practical suggestions toward a solution for this problem. (May)
From the Publisher
Larry Eskridge
-- Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals, Wheaton College
"One of the key themes within the American church since the 1930s -- and particularly since the 1960s -- has been the change in how congregations approach youth ministry and youth culture. The Juvenilization of Christianity by Thomas Bergler explores the wide-ranging ramifications of this revolution across the denominational spectrum, examining not only its impact upon young people but also the larger implications -- positive and negative -- for the entire church. Anyone really trying to understand the dynamics of American Christianity must read this book."

George Marsden
-- University of Notre Dame
"The Juvenilization of American Christianity provides a fine history of one of the most significant revolutions in twentieth-century Christianity. . . . Anyone concerned with the church and its ministries can learn from reading this book and reflecting on the changes that Bergler describes."

Rebecca de Schweinitz
-- author of If We Could Change the Word: Young People and America's Long Struggle for Racial Equality
"In exploring previously unexamined relationships between youth, politics, culture, and Christian traditions, Bergler greatly enriches our understanding of Christian youth programs and American religious history."

Publishers Weekly
"A fascinating exploration of the places where Christianity and youth culture have intersected. . . . Will certainly be provocative both for the casual reader and for clergy, who may also appreciate the book's practical suggestions toward a solution."

Walt Mueller
-- Center for Parent/Youth Understanding
"Juvenilization is a long-overdue call to question our means, methods, and message. . . . Bergler shakes us awake and helps us see what's really happening in our youth ministries and churches."

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802866844
  • Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
  • Publication date: 4/20/2012
  • Pages: 291
  • Sales rank: 319,306
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Thomas E. Bergleris professor of ministry and missions at Huntington University, Indiana, where he has taught youth ministry courses for eleven years. He has considerable firsthand experience in various youth ministries and serves as senior associate editor for The Journal of Youth Ministry.
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The Juvenilization of American Christianity

By Thomas E. Bergler

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2012 Thomas Bergler
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8028-6684-4

Chapter One

Youth, Christianity, and the Crisis of Civilization

All politics today is youth politics. The Doom of Youth, 1932

No part of the population is affected more vitally or occupies a more essential position in time of war or world crisis than youth.

A Program of Action for American Youth, 1939

Youth ministry as we know it today, with its power to shape the future of American Christianity, was born in an hour of world crisis. 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.

Young people seemed to be both key actors in the international political drama and especially vulnerable victims of the times. So an amazingly broad spectrum of leaders both inside and outside the churches proclaimed that youth held the key to saving civilization. Most Americans not only nodded their heads in agreement, they opened their wallets to fund new youth organizations.

By capitalizing on fears about youth and the crisis of civilization, Christian youth leaders and young people were able to launch some much-needed reforms in their churches. Young people pioneered racial integration, created new and exciting methods of evangelism, and gained a newfound sense of their own political power. These changes were at first restricted to youth environments, but they would eventually reshape the lives of adults as well. Although they may not have single-handedly saved civilization, the Christian youth leaders of this era did help thousands of young people become stronger, more active Christians who made a difference in their society.

Youth leaders believed they were catching the wave of the future and channeling the innate power of young people. They were also building one of the engines that would drive juvenilization in subsequent decades. In a world of impending doom, who could argue against doing whatever it took to Christianize and mobilize the young saviors of the world?

The Crisis of Civilization and the "Youth Problem"

The Great Depression and World War II created significant suffering and new temptations for young people, but adults too easily assumed a close connection between these problems and the possible shipwreck of their civilization. For one thing, unemployment hit young people hard. As of 1936, an estimated 4.7 million Americans between the ages of 16 and 24 were unemployed. This number represented about one-third of all the unemployed in the country. In 1932 a railroad policeman in El Paso estimated that he saw 200 transients come through each day, at least half of whom were under twenty-five years old. The problem of indigent youth took on a threatening racial and sexual significance with the arrest of the Scottsboro boys in 1931. This widely publicized incident happened among the swarms of young people who were wandering from city to city by catching illegal rides on freight trains. Two young white girls accused nine African Americans of raping them. Although the boys were convicted, years later it would become clear that the accusations were false. African American and white parents had radically different interpretations of the case, but all found it deeply troubling.

Adults responded to the threat of unemployed, unsupervised young people by pushing them all to go to high school. Ironically, this new expectation that most teenagers should go to high school made the dropout problem seem worse than it had before. In their dreams about the possible benefits of a high school education, most adults chose to ignore the way that they were using schools as a place to warehouse young people and keep them off the streets.

But keeping kids in school was not enough. Adults also worried that unemployed young people would get in trouble during their leisure time. One 1942 curriculum designed to lead high school students through a study of the youth problem contained the following exercise: "Study the life of the French nobility during the 75 years preceding the French revolution. Was there a fruitful and creative use of leisure?" In hindsight it seems ridiculous to think that the young men hanging out on street corners or the young women trying to pick up soldiers would somehow lead America down the path of bloody political revolution. But at the time no one batted an eye at such outrageous ideas.

To be fair, anything seemed possible in a world in which a tyrant like Hitler could rise to power with the help of a fanatical youth movement. Many feared that communists or fascists could manipulate unemployed, idealistic young Americans just as easily. The Student Strikes for Peace in 1934 and 1935 and youth marches on Washington organized by the American Youth Congress seemed to confirm these fears. Some believed the AYC was a "communist front" and viewed its activities with alarm. President Roosevelt addressed the young people who marched on Washington and scolded them for listening to political extremists. The American Communist Party was at its zenith of strength during the Great Depression, so fears about it were not entirely unfounded.

Whether or not young Americans were about to sign on with the communists or fascists, many adults insisted that something drastic had to be done to properly direct the political power of youth. Literature on the "youth problem" proliferated with titles like How Fare American Youth?; Youth a World Problem; The Lost Generation: A Portrait of American Youth Today; Christian Youth and the Economic Problem and even Doom of Youth. Adult fears about the fate of America came to rest squarely on the shoulders of young people.

Preaching the Youth Problem

Christian youth leaders seized the day and proclaimed that they held the key to saving youth and civilization. In the process, they also convinced themselves of the political power and apocalyptic significance of young people. Mainline Protestants proclaimed that the world was doomed unless Christian young people would devote themselves to social action. Participants in the 1935 national youth conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, heard talks with titles like "The Church and the World Crisis" and "Youth and World Trends." In the latter address, Dr. Ivan Lee Holt described conditions in Europe and Asia where he had seen "armies of fighting youth who are willing to give their lives in mad devotion to the cruel policies of dictators." Like many adults of the era, Holt used these young people as a double warning to Americans. On the one hand, American youth needed to be careful not to be duped by demagogues. At the same time, they should imitate the intense devotion of Communist and Hitler youth. Many in attendance assumed that young people would lead the way in transforming the world, and that the rest of the church might need to scramble to keep up. As Sterling F. Wheeler, a senior at Southern Methodist University, put it in his speech at the same conference, "youth today realizes that the Church offers the greatest promise, youth stands ready and eager to live faithfully, fight courageously, yes, to die for the Church if need be. But youth is not willing to sit idly by and do nothing in the face of world crises!"

Evangelical Protestants insisted that only mass evangelization of young people could save the world from destruction. At the founding convention of Youth for Christ International in 1945, Rev. Torrey Johnson warned that if they failed in their task of world evangelization, "we who are here will be held responsible for the greatest tragedy in human history — we are headed either for a definite turning toward God or the greatest calamity ever to strike the human race." He called for an all-out evangelistic effort directed at postwar Germany to prevent that country from going Communist. He reassured the delegates that "if Hitler could make the youth in a nation move with his program, God, by the Holy Spirit, ought to be able to get the same youth into a program of His kind and it has to be done." The secret to saving the world, Johnson insisted, was to "challenge young people with the job that needs to be done around the world."

African American Baptists used the specter of angry young men to argue that adults needed to get rid of segregation and discrimination before it was too late. In 1934 George E. Haynes, Executive Secretary of the Federal Council of Churches Department of Race Relations, addressed the National Baptist Convention on the topic "The Crisis Confronting the American Negro and the Negro Churches." Integral to his diagnosis of the crisis was his concern that "our young people will no longer accept the soft pabulum" they had traditionally been fed in church. Instead, they were becoming increasingly open to communist propaganda. Unless the church led society in offering real-world solutions to the economic crisis, chaos and tyranny might overtake America. Sounding a similar note in 1945, William H. Jernagin, President of the Sunday School and Baptist Training Union Congress, warned that "Johnnie G.I." would not put up with the old injustices. He proposed a comprehensive program of reform that included anti-lynching legislation, voting rights, and federal employment regulations.

Roman Catholic Bishop James Kearney gave an especially revealing speech in 1937. While participating in a radio panel on the potentially boring topic of "The Organization of a Youth Program," he felt the need to give an electrifying warning. "We are blind to what is happening around us if we do not see that we live in a truly critical and crucial age in which changes are being brought about that will control course and direction to ensuing generations — or perhaps even centuries," he said. Kearney articulated what many Americans felt when he described a future offering two contrasting paths. One led to "liberty, economic security, and human dignity," the other to "state control and regimented slavery in the economic, social and spiritual order." What would decide the outcome? His answer was clear: "the character of the ensuing age will be determined by the philosophy of life which we give to the young people of this present generation." Kearney drew a parallel between adolescence and the crisis of the age. The young person faced the "hottest stage" in the warfare of life "when he is assailed by a tumultuous confederacy of lawless passions and desires; and it is in that awful crisis, that period on which, like a pivot, may hang his triumph or defeat, he needs all the aids of religion."

The battle for the future of civilization became quite literally the battle for the souls and bodies of youth. One reason young people acquired such symbolic power during the crisis years was that the potential, peril, and confusion of adolescence seemed to parallel the distress of American civilization. Whatever the truth behind such sentiments, many Americans heard these messages and started to agree.

Christian Youth Work Gains Public Influence

Through their relentless campaigning, Christian youth leaders influenced the public conversation about the youth problem. The American Council on Education established the American Youth Commission in 1935 to study the problems of youth in light of the "long-continued world crisis." In 1939, the AYC issued a report that included praise for the role of religion in solving the youth problem: "for moral action, there is only one rational basis, namely, the conviction of our accountability to the Power that gave us being. The brotherhood of man is an idle dream unless there is a recognition of the fatherhood of God." The report went on to observe: "it is significant that every attack by contemporary tyrannical governments on human rights has begun with an assault on religion." Although the economic needs of youth had to be tackled, the report concluded that "a program for strengthening the nation that looks to youth and to the future will in itself be a source of vitality and of spiritual strength even though physical accomplishments are still to come." In other words, youth programs could at least protect youth and teach them good values, even if they couldn't solve the problem of unemployment. The report called for an all-out effort to help youth, because "national survival" hung in the balance. Even this non-sectarian panel of youth experts believed that religion would play a crucial role in saving the nation by saving its youth.

The reports of the American Youth Commission were widely quoted by those concerned about the youth problem and prompted the establishment of the National Youth Administration. The NYA tried to provide job skills and political indoctrination for young people who were out of work, while keeping them off the streets and out of trouble. Compared to other New Deal departments, the NYA never accomplished much and its programs remained tiny. The better-known Civilian Conservation Corps impacted more young people. But whatever their scope, the very existence of such programs confirmed that at the highest levels, Americans saw the "youth problem" as important.

Because theirs had been some of the most persuasive voices proclaiming the youth problem and offering solutions, Christian youth leaders gained new power to influence public policy and new respect in society at large. Catholic educator George Johnson played a prominent role in the American Youth Commission. African American Christian educator Mary McLeod Bethune served as the Director of the Division of Negro Affairs for the National Youth Administration. NYA staff member Charles Taussig courted Protestant youth organizations and hoped to start a "democratic education" program in churches to indoctrinate youth in the politics of the New Deal. Even fundamentalist leaders like Jack Wyrtzen could wield political influence at times. When a local military officer refused to release his men to attend Wyrtzen's Saturday night youth rally in New York City, a quick appeal up the chain of command straightened things out. The Hearst newspapers and several national news magazines portrayed the fledgling Youth for Christ movement as a potential answer to the problem of wartime juvenile delinquency. On one occasion, President Truman praised Youth for Christ as just what America needed.

Christian leaders did more than just revel in their newfound respect. Across the spectrum of American churches, concerned leaders founded new youth organizations between 1930 and 1945. The National Council of Churches put new efforts into their United Christian Youth Movement. Mainline Protestant denominations founded new youth ministries or reorganized their national youth programs with an eye toward youthful social action. Evangelical Protestants founded new interdenominational youth organizations like Youth for Christ and Young Life, which used innovative methods to evangelize the young. Roman Catholics founded the Catholic Youth Organization, Young Christian Workers, and Young Christian Students. They also created a Youth Department in the National Catholic Welfare Conference. African American Christians did not found new organizations, but their efforts to help young people garnered new support from both church members and outsiders as a result of national concerns about the youth problem. Not since the late nineteenth century had there been so many new Christian youth programs. Considering the scarcity of resources during the Great Depression and the national mobilization for World War II, it is amazing that so much time, effort, and money went into Christian youth work.

Christian leaders agreed that they needed to solve the "youth problem" if the nation was to survive its "crisis of civilization." But they did not agree on how best to protect young people from evil influences or mobilize them to save the world. The powerful drive to save the world created space for a rich variety of religious innovations. Young people and their leaders found themselves able to ignore their critics and do things they had never done before. Some actively tried to rebuild America using Christian economic and political principles. Others tirelessly preached the gospel so that young people would be converted to Christ. Still others tried to provide recreational and educational programs for young people in order to turn them into productive citizens. These innovations strengthened the churches and convinced both adults and young people that youth really were politically powerful.


Excerpted from The Juvenilization of American Christianity by Thomas E. Bergler Copyright © 2012 by Thomas Bergler. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: We're All Adolescents Now 1

1 Youth, Christianity, and the Crisis of Civilization 19

2 Misreading the Signs of the Times: From Political Youth to Trivial Teenagers 41

3 Social Prophets or Silent Generation? The Failed Juvenilization of Liberal Protestantism 67

4 The Black Church and the Juvenilization of Christian Political Activism 92

5 Why Everyone Wanted to Get out of the Catholic Ghetto 119

6 How to Have Fun, Be Popular, and Save the World at the Same Time 147

7 Youth, Christianity, and the 1960s Apocalypse 176

8 The Triumph and Taming of Juvenilization 208

Notes 230

Index 267

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