In 1945, a million American teenagers all over the country took to gathering on Saturday nights to praise Jesus. Youth for Christ, the evangelical organization that engineered these “rallies” in hundreds of churches and auditoriums, played boisterous music and encouraged audience participation, transforming worship into feel-good entertainment. A 26-year-old pastor named Billy Graham barnstormed across America on behalf of Youth for Christ, telling audiences that Christianity was not all doom and gloom. “The young people around the world today who are having the best time are the young people who know Jesus Christ,” he declared.
These meetings initiated a startling trend, writes Thomas E. Bergler, a professor of ministry and missions at Huntington University, a Christian college in Indiana: The most successful American churches of the last half-century, primarily conservative evangelical Protestant ones, adopted Youth for Christ’s methods. Falling in love with Jesus, often with the encouragement of catchy music and uplifting sermons, took pride of place at the altar. Firm belief and religious duty receded in importance. Americans, Bergler observes, preferred to clap their hands to the beat and “feel better about their problems” than profess a selfless Christian creed.
In The Juvenilization of American Christianity, he explains how evangelical youth ministries, by attempting to beat American youth culture at its own game, pushed churches to champion sensational and self-centered models of worship. In the 1940s and early ’50s, secularism and moral permissiveness seemed to menace the youth flock. Bobbysoxers danced to swing and melted to the voice of Frank Sinatra. Teenage crime rates jumped. Grownups fretted about the “youth problem.”
To insulate youngsters from temptation, evangelicals attempted to devise their own teenage counterculture. Outfits such as Gospel Films churned out Christian movies glorifying Bible clubs and evangelism, while infectious Christian pop music carved out a niche in youth worship and in the recording industry. In later decades, youth ministers were encouraged to dispense with onerous Christian jargon and passé church furniture such as the pulpit. Not even the Bible was off limits; in 1966, Youth for Christ rolled out a paraphrased teenage edition. Evangelicals deemed these changes to be small compromises in the quest to purify society.
Churches that failed to cater to youth tastes lost worshipers. The Catholic Church was particularly hard hit; many Catholics who came of age in the tumultuous 1960s and ’70s either lapsed or left. Mainstream and liberal Protestant denominations such as the Methodists concentrated on social justice and other left-wing causes, which did little to animate most teenagers, and thus failed to fill the pews. Black churches, incubators of the civil rights movement, faced a different problem: Some young followers drifted toward radicalism and away from the tutelage of church elders who preached nonviolence. Others felt that adults in the congregation were simply out of touch with their needs.
Evangelical teenagers reared in the feel-good faith were unfazed by social upheaval and sexual revolution. As adults, they craved worship thrills of the kind they had experienced as kids. Many of these Christians have never really grown up, Bergler maintains. Their beliefs are in constant flux; emotional needs outweigh religious commitments. As discerning consumers, they expect their church of choice to be comforting and entertaining. Bergler, whose own Christian faith informs the book, argues that churches sorely need more mature adherents who are set in their beliefs, awake to both salvation and suffering, and versed in duty and doctrine.
Bergler delivers his message with grace. He avoids cynicism and concedes that young-at-heart worshipers have given American Christianity new life. The problem, he says, is that the most successful evangelical churches embrace the characteristically American obsession with consumption and personal satisfaction when they should be cultivating an otherworldly faith. His book is a jolting reminder that, even in a country as religiously observant as the United States, the Gospel directive to “seek first the kingdom of God” remains a tall order.
Cullen Nutt is an assistant editor of The Wilson Quarterly.
Reviewed: The Juvenilization of American Christianity by Thomas E. Bergler, Eerdmans, 281 pp.
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