Saving Civilization

Something happened in the churches of America in the 1930s and 1940s, and that something has changed the church dramatically. It has changed society and our social perceptions.

That something is what Thomas Bergler calls the “juvenilization” of the church. In his new book, The Juvenilization of American Christianity, Bergler maps how in the wake of WWI, the Great Depression, and WWII, American leaders became convinced that the key to the future was the youth. [I don’t know the history of youth ministry well, but if someone knows what youth ministry was like in the 19th or 18th centuries here, speak up.]

Unemployment, lack of high school education, the fanaticism of Hitler’s youth movement … the rise of communism and facism … and something had to be done, and the place to begin was with the youth. What needed to be done? Educate them and convert them, and this would make them both Christian and American.

Do you hear the appeal to youth to save the next generation? Are politics and Christianity tied in your youth ministries? Do youth feel the weight of saving civilization today?

Mainliners saw the future in social action; evangelicals in spiritual conversion; African American Baptists in eliminating segregation; and the Roman Catholics in a philosophy of life that was both Catholic and American. Each of these groups focused on implementing their visions among their youth, and the whole of American society was on board with the need to work with the youth to save civilization. Bergler’s book is tidy, and so he sketches each of these groups’ action:

1. Mainliners, and here he focuses on the Methodists who focused both on winning people to Christ and on a “Christian social order.” That order would be democratic and politically progressive, and their leaders — Blaine Kirkpatrick and Owen Greer — turned a generation of Methodists into social activists for causes that transcended the American way just as it was rooted in democratic, Western, liberal ideals. So they saw problems in capitalism and racism and war.

2. Evangelicalism created Youth for Christ, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and had rallies — rallies that combined spiritual fervor and the American Way (which meant support for the government, much to the dismay of the Christian Century). Names: Torrey Johnson, Jack Wyrtzen, and eventually Billy Graham. Over a million youth were gathered on Saturday evenings across the USA for rallies — and these charted the future for the church and society. Johnson claimed it was 100% religious but it has now become more than obvious that life isn’t that simple.

3. Catholics … the issue was how to accomplish this: by keeping youth Catholic, by making them better Americans, or by mobilizing them to create a society based on Catholic social teachings. National youth programs were established throughout the nation in Catholic churches. Some were more progressive (Bishop Bernard Sheil) and others less so (Monsignor Reynold Hildebrand).

4. African American Baptists did not segregate their youth from their adults, so their approach was intergenerational (and this is explored by Bergler), and neither did the AfrAmerican Baptists see the problem as much to be a youth problem … but they still focused with energies on training the youth in both spiritual conversion, Christian living, and social action.

Here’s the upload folks: “In the name of saving civilization by saving young people, Christian youth leaders juvenilized Christian political action and social concern.” That is, the youth were radicalized, the youth were seen as the idea social activists, and the future was placed on the shoulders of the youth. This meant, inevitably, that the “with it” adults and those who wanted to be part of the action, had to become like the youth.


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  • RJS

    I don’t know. While he may have some insights here this doesn’t seem to capture much of the church I know – from listening to my parents or from my experience. Does the book flesh it out much?

  • scotmcknight

    RJS, I don’t recall the “save civilization” theme, but I came of age in the church in the 60s-early 70s while the critical era for Bergler was more the 30s, 40s, and 50s. But we did have lots of youth group activities, one of which was a Sunday evening (I don’t remember a Saturday evening event) called “Singspiration” or something like that.

  • RJS

    Sure there were youth events and youth camps and such. But I don’t see the kind of underlying theme he seems to develop. Is the point that any kind of focus on youth leads to juvenilization? Perhaps I should just wait until you progress through more of the book to try to see where he is going with this.

  • Robin

    Here are the things we talk about occasionally which I would consider “calling for the youth to save us.” The Young. restless, and reformed movement; the emergent movement; Jonathan Merritt’s focus on environmental issues in the SBC.

    In each of these threads there has been a sense of “we did it so poorly, now we have to wait and let the youngsters learn from our mistakes and do it right.” (Obviously that sentiment expressed concerning YRR would be coming from conservatives, not most Jesus Creeders).

  • I’ve worked in youth ministry for almost 10 years now, and I’m encouraged that someone is actually looking at this dynamic seriously. There are 2 expressions that make me cringe when I hear them in the church because of the undue pressure put on kids and teens as the “future” of civilization. (1) The idea that because xx% of everyone who comes to Christ does so before they’re are 18 (and whatever the % is it’s large) that means that we have to pour all our efforts as a church into converting kids and teens before it’s too late. (2) We need to have Christian kids in the public schools so that they can be evangelizing the non-Christians there (and thereby doubling the efforts to fulfill goal #1).

    These beliefs drive the church to focus the majority of its ministry efforts and resources toward kids and teens, and any youth that become Christians are then expected to evangelize any unsaved parent, any friend or teacher in their school, and (hopefully) become the standard bearers for a Christian revival for the generation to come. At the same time, children and youth ministries in churches are then evaluated by whether or not they are reaching some critical mass of new, young converts for the future. It’s no wonder that if the “magic” conversion age is 18 that once students reach college they find little use for the church until they have kids of their own who they need saved and discipled.

    I’m interested that a book like this is out there because I’ve often wondered how far back this dynamic goes given the relatively short historic existence of the teenager as a social phenomenon.

  • I acquired my degree in youth ministry a little over a year ago.

    From what I recall of ym history, it started as a response to the Industrial Revolution that drew young men to the cities to work. These young people needed education and morals, so churches started Sunday School to take care of both needs at once (and Sunday was the day to do it not because it’s the Christian holy day, but because that’s when the boys weren’t working). It should also be noted that the Sunday School movement began in Britain before it came to America, but that’s beside the point. Youth ministry was reinvigorated when public high schools were created. So the beginnings of youth ministry are generally given a time frame of somewhere between WW1 and WW2, but its roots go a little deeper than that.

    You may be interested to know that many of my fellow class mates in college (as well as myself) went through youth ministry ourselves with the impression that we were the future but not the present–that our time would come but it wasn’t here yet, hang in there guys and you’ll “get there”–and so we were interested in finding ways to empower youth in the present as youth, to show them how capable and valuable they are right now and not just later on when they matter to society.

  • Kaleb

    In the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s children became more autonomous. They no longer had to be workers for the family unit and soon High Schools became the norm. As this trend continued to allow youth not just to be a member in the household who shared responsibility for a portion of the income they were given freedoms including education, social gatherings and ect…Youth were targeted with more vigor by the religious because of not only their potential, but because of the fears of what theses social groups of ‘teenagers’ were doing! They saw youth as a window of opportunity for their own particular agenda and ‘revival’, and at the same time a threat to their own morals. Prior to this sort of youth movement, youth were largely ignored as individuals. Many took advantage of the relatively new phenomenon of the youth social gathering and tweaked it for their own religious purpose.

    The church saw the immense popularity of these youth ‘programs’ and started attaching them to the church as a way to drive membership up from this group. As they did this ‘youth groups’ became more of seperate entities than being involved in the life of the church. Thus you have the youth groups we have come to love and loathe today.

    Picked this info up in a sociology of adolescent course.

  • Phil Miller

    Some of these themes sound familiar to me, but growing up in the AoG, what I heard wasn’t so much that the youth were responsible for saving civilization, but rather, we were likely going to be the last generation before Jesus returned. That being the case we should do everything within our power to make sure we were saved and try to evangelize as many of our classmates as possible. There was a lot of pressure growing up in that environment. In fact, I think I grew up seeing myself something as a failure as a Christian most of the time simply because I was naturally shy, and I really didn’t have any converts in the public school I was in. But now when I look back at it, I don’t think most of the adults pressuring me to do that were really doing it themselves.

    I think there’s a lot of projection going on between adults and kids. Whether they admit or not, I think many adults see working with kids as way to make up for their own failings. We can’t underestimate that dynamic at play in all of this.

  • Luke Allison

    There’s a tension for me here, after working in youth ministry at the same place for the past 8 years:
    1. Our particular congregation sees tons of nominal Catholics and Lutherans “coming back” to church after twenty or thirty years. This requires a somewhat simple or beginner approach in many cases. I’m not sure that this is juvenilization so much as common sense. Frankly, even in the “going deeper” Bible studies and classes, there is not much desire for sustained depth of study or thought. In some ways, we’re actually pushing our students deeper than the adults by emphasizing narrative theology and continually reiterating the big story (constantly drawing them back to the story of Israel and Jesus’ completion of it as Messiah….the kingdom…..cross-like living…..resurrection……repeat!).

    2. As a result of this, many of the students have actually surpassed their parents’ level of thinking about Christianity. I don’t say this to be pejorative against adults, but frankly I’ve seen that many peoples’ faith is frozen in time somewhere back in middle school. Middle school answers don’t satisfy adult problems. So I actually think that, in some sense, the youth ARE the only hope for the church, at least in my midwestern setting. Because the echoes of midwestern common-sense fundamentalism are strong here. I could be wrong. And I’m obviously biased.

  • In my area (eastern Nebraska), I feel like I see nearly a whole generation that either left the evangelical church or has stayed and wants something more than what their parents were satisfied with. Push back wanting something more historically and/or theologically rich. Just feel like this is what I have seen consistently over the past 5 years.

  • Scott Courey

    How do children grow into maturity in Christ? That is the question we have lost. Rather, we ask, “how is the youth group working”? We are asking the “youth group” question b/c of parental and church elder abdication of the larger question.
    Parents and church elders dissociate for 2 hours every Sunday morning “hoping” that something good is happening over in the youth room. If you asked most youth pastors about their relationship with church elders and parents you would not get an encouraging picture.
    Jesus said: “If you love your son or daughter more than me you are not worthy of me”. I”m still waiting for the sermon or book that expounds on how we, as parents, idolize our children. Jesus didn’t say a whole lot about parenting other than this…hmmmmm. We ALWAYS either control or disregard our idols. If Jesus warned against idolizing our kids, are we paying attention to how we do so? And repenting?
    Creflo Dollar may not have choked his daughter last weekend, but I sure hope he faces the reality of his anger toward her and the despair in her heart that caused her to call the cops on him.

  • As a 21 year old wrapping up my BA, I am very familiar with this. I grew up in the Pentecostal tradition, specifically Assemblies of God in Georgia. I heard plenty of youth camp sermons that preached to us as a “generation” that would “be the generation to truly stand up for Christ and change the world,” which was always followed up with (or implied) the notion that the previous generation (or two) had missed it. We were called to be “campus missionaries” to our public schools, filled with evil and immorality, and heard stories of high school students that single handedly changed their school for the better by standing up for Christ.
    When I moved to Florida to attend a Christian university I heard voices that were much more humbling, “you can’t do this on your own, it can only be done through the community of Christ, empowered by the Spirit.” However, in chapel services at the university looked much like the typical youth ministry, lots of colored lights, familiar songs from the latest up and coming worship band, a person coming to speak with jeans and a plaid button up (and has continued to evolve into hipster-esque, and then the really fun guy that dresses like a hipster, but wears a 59/50 fitted sports cap). I then attended young adults groups at churches that looked and sounded the exact same. And when I was searching for a church, most of them looked the same. It was easy for me to remain in what I was used to. A lot of it, I think, has been used in a positive way, and I’m not trying to knock it or the influence it has had in people’s lives. In church, especially as a student of theology, it’s difficult to develop a more mature spiritual life in the church community when I am not pressured to change what I have already been doing by the church atmosphere or what have you. Thankfully through reading I have developed a more robust spirituality than I did when I was a zealous teenager, but I do hope there is change. Really, I think American churches are losing the ability to be a “rite of passage” when a student moves on from youth ministry to the normal services because they are so similar.

  • JoeyS

    For those who won’t read the book but are interested in the content the CT article is a good primer:

    I studied under Tom. He is a church historian (with degrees from UofM and Notre Dame) who has spent a good deal of his career on the history of Youth Ministry. I haven’t read the book yet but am sure the case is made well that YFC was started to “save society” – a goal which it moved from (slightly) as that became less important (i.e. no more Nazis).

  • Adam

    I think he’s got the right idea but is using the wrong language. The environment that we are in has a mentality that says the way to become something is to go somewhere else to become it then come back. We send our kids to church to be christianized. We send our kids to school to get educated. And so on…

    This means the adults don’t actually have to act like adults because we believe that institutions will teach everything needed to become an adult. The problem is that it doesn’t work. Kids learn by watching what adults do. So, regardless of how much churching, or teaching, or whatever happesn, if the adults don’t live it, the kids won’t become it.

  • Scott Courey

    Well said Adam. Agreed. SC

  • DRT

    I have yet to internalize this conversation because it has been so alien to me.

    I am 50, and when I was young the only reason that adults and children were not in the same group was because the children were too young to shut up and sit down, and they generally got that right by 2 or 3.

    I went to Catholic school every day, and the kids who did not had to go and take additional classes on Saturday morning. It was not youth group, it was educating the kids about our religion.

    In the past decade I was in a evangelical church, and I could not understand why the kids are not in the same services as the parents. As long as they are old enough to shut up, which does not take that long, then they should be there, together, as a family.

    I can see having some other educational or group activities, but not during the service.

  • Mark h

    From my experience, 23 years as a local church youth pastor, and now a university chaplain, I would have to say the church was trying to address one problem, and created a whole other set of them. I like Chap Clark’s description better than Berglers when he says we have created adolescent ghettos in our churches through our specialization and expertise. I’m not sure whether the problem is that the adults need to act juvenile, or students aren’t growing up. Either way you look at it, we all recognize that we have a problem, and I think it starts in junior high.

    We aren’t losing university students, we lose them in junior high, they just can’t vote yet. Until we reintroduce ourselves to our kids, this problem isn’t going away. Students modeling adults is always the key, and today, may be the problem.

  • Tom Bergler

    I’m not sure how far Scot has read in the book yet. But in chapter two I argue that all the talk of youth saving civilization was actually a distraction from more important matters going on in the world of adolescents. The rise of universal secondary education and commercialized youth culture was happening at the very same moment (the 1940s) but most people missed the significance of those developments because they were distracted with “saving civilization” by saving young people. Adults don’t always think that youth are about to save or destroy civilization. But as one commenter noted above, adults do tend to project their fears and hopes onto young people. And as another comment mentioned, Chap Clark rightly warns adults to avoid the fallacy of thinking that today’s young people are having the exact same experience we did at their age. Whether it is fear or nostalgia, when adults get too focused on themselves and their issues in the name of helping youth, they often become blind to what is really going on in the lives of young people. Thankfully, because God is at work despite our limitations, much good can be done in youth ministries even when adult leaders are misinformed about what is really happening in their world. But how much better could that ministry be if we were better informed? In particular, whether it is communism, fascism, or the supposed “crisis” of youth leaving the church, extreme rhetoric tends to bully us into accepting whatever solution is being promoted without stopping to ask what the long term consequences might be.