Saturday, November 8, 2014

Baby Boomers Respond to the Juvenilization of American Evangelicalism

Last Sunday was the final day of a 4-week class on recent evangelicalism (since 1960) that I taught at West Shore Evangelical Free Church in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.  The topic for this last class was the history of evangelical youth culture.

I prepped for this session by reading Thomas Bergler’s excellent The Juvenilization of American ChristianityThe book is basically a history of twentieth-century Christian youth ministry in America. It focuses mostly on Catholics, mainline Protestants (especially Methodists), and evangelicals.

Bergler’s coverage of evangelical youth ministry centers on Youth for Christ, the organization founded in the 1940s by fundamentalists (or were they neo-evangelicals?) such as Jack Wyrtzen and Percy Crawford. Some of you may know that Billy Graham was an evangelist with Youth for Christ before he started his own ministry.

Bergler argues that the leaders of Youth for Christ were successful in preaching the Christian gospel to evangelical young people. By making Christianity fun and exciting, and by encouraging teenagers to “take a stand for Christ” in their schools, thousands and thousands of kids became evangelical Christians. Youth for Christ leaders were cool. They used popular forms of music, organized informal “small groups,” tended to be “seeker-friendly” in their approach, and turned the Christian gospel into an attractive commodity. 

Bergler suggests that this approach to youth ministry was high on emotion and light on doctrine.  Youth for Christ preached a feel good Christianity that gave high school students what they wanted, but not necessarily what they needed. He is thus not surprised by Christian Smith’s recent study characterizing 20th century Christian young people as “moral therapeutic deists.” Youth for Christ, he argues, rarely produced “mature” Christians. 

But Bergler takes the argument further. Evangelical adults, many of them the product of Youth for Christ clubs and rallies, are duplicating the Youth for Christ philosophy of ministry in evangelical congregations today. This “juvenile” approach to Christianity is prevalent in “seeker-friendly” megachurches, the evangelical love of “small groups,” feel-good” praise music, and an obsession with celebrities.

As you may recall from my previous posts, my “students” in this class are all evangelical baby boomers.  Many of them had very positive experiences with Youth for Christ.  One family said that they knew Jack Wyrtzen personally and credited Youth for Christ for sustaining their ongoing commitment to the Christian life.  Others felt that I (or perhaps Bergler) was being too hard on evangelical youth ministry.  Sure the theology was shallow and the focus was more on fun than deep Christian thinking, but many insisted that the cultivation of mature Christians was not the primary purpose of Youth for Christ.  The goal of the YFC clubs was to win young people to Christ and then let the local churches handle their maturation in the faith.

As much as I affirmed the way that Youth for Christ changed and transformed young lives, very few people in the room were willing to admit that their favorite youth ministry had been partially successful because it preached a rather undemanding version of the Christian faith.  Because so many people were bothered with how I (using Bergler) portrayed Youth for Christ, I fear that the class may have missed the larger historical point that I (again, using Bergler) was trying to make about how YFC's philosophy of ministry has influenced today’s megachurches.

It was an interesting four weeks. Some of the people in the class seemed to really enjoy it. Others seemed a bit uncomfortable discussing subjects like evangelicals and politics (I used James Davison Hunter’s argument that politics may not be the best way to change the world) or evangelical views of the Bible (I implied that one did not need to believe in biblical inerrancy to be a committed evangelical).

After finishing this class I realized that I am still learning how to bring good historical scholarship to the church.