Overestimating Youth Culture

Thomas Bergler’s contention in his book The Juvenilization of American Christianity is two-fold: church and youth leaders overestimated the power of youth and underestimated the effects of accommodating youth culture.

The implication of this contention is that church culture today is deep in that over- and under-estimation.

What’s he getting at? Bergler’s big idea is that the church, from the 1930s onward, began to accommodate itself to youth culture because it saw the future of the church/culture in their hands. He may be right, but the oddest thing about this book is the lack of analysis of what the church was like prior to 1930. In other words, I’d like to know if the second half of the 19th Century had youth focus at all, what it looked like — and I’m thinking that America’s most famous sermon by Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” was delivered to the youth of his church. To convince me historically, in other words, I want some comparative analysis. I’m not saying Bergler’s wrong; I’m saying I don’t know but the case was not made.

That youth culture influenced the church from the 1930s and 1940s onward — an unimpeachable case can be made. At work here at a major level was the increase of high school attendance and the formation of a high school culture, including movies, dating, and sports (which led, of course, to Jan and Dean, the Beach Boys, and Elvis!) — but maybe even more pervasive was a consumerist culture created by marketing items to the “teenager” (a new social label).

Do you think a youth culture builds passive consumers? Does it not produce critical thinking Christians? Are adults today using the youth culture for their own agendas? Where? How?

The issue in the 1940s is reduced to two singular youth culture symptoms: juvenile delinquents (more crime, etc) and “Bobby-Soxers” with girl culture. He examines briefly two newsreels that influenced culture and the church: “Youth in Crisis” (delinquents issue) and “Teenage Girls” (helping construct a girl culture).

Bergler’s point: learning about youth culture was one thing; proposing to mobilize and transform the youth were something else; and using that youth culture to change America — just didn’t happen.

The Methodist mainline youth were not willing enough to be social crusaders and Youth for Christ’s attempt to save the world by “entertaining” Bobby-Soxers didn’t happen. The YFC’s choice to mimic youth culture by forming a Christian culture is for Bergler the big problem. Billy Graham entered cities, interviewed the police etc, discovered the problems, and then proposed the solution in YFC. It sought to be combine fun (accommodating youth culture) with moral strictness by beating the world at its own game. Marketing and business techniques were shaping a new Christian culture. The gospel — and I call this the soterian gospel and salvation culture in King Jesus Gospel — was accommodated as well; simplified. Catholics, too, were not as successful in reaching out as they hoped and formed more of a Catholic ghetto. And African American culture never bought into the youth culture movement as much but did worry about the “worldliness” of the youth — and complained about invasion of jazz into the churches.

Bergler’s perceives the dilemma: adapt to the youth culture and tamper with the faith, or ignore the culture and lose the youth? Adults sought to use the youth for their own agendas and in the process the faith was altered/accommodated.

Big download: The biggest problem with youth culture created “passive consumers with poor critical-thinking skills” (65). He speaks of the “insidious deadening effect of popular culture” (66).

"Yes, there would be another layer of election, unto salvation, whether Bartian or Calvinism, for ..."

Universalism and “The Devil’s Redemption”
"This issue came up in a discussion I was part of at Asbury University this ..."

Universalism and “The Devil’s Redemption”
"Ted--This idea, which one might call election-as-particular-vocation, is generally the way that Wesleyan-Arminians have interpreted ..."

Universalism and “The Devil’s Redemption”
"Short answer: no. equality of outcome is not an obligation of God, because then there ..."

Universalism and “The Devil’s Redemption”

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • A casual look at Young Life, and one can clearly see a fostering of the performance/passivity paradigm. CHIC arenas look like miniature “Willowbackwood” venues. The only mobilization is the draw to the best show in town.

  • As a youth ministry veteran of 18 years and a minister for 31 years, I have to concede there may be a very good point here (although I have not read the book). Overall, his case may be correct. However, I would also say that it is dangerous to paint with too broad of a brush. Many youth professionals I know were and are very concerned about reaching young people and creating serious disciples for Jesus. They viewed their ministry not as accommodation nor as consumer oriented but as ministering to what had become a sub-culture. As Paul served the Gentiles, Peter served the Jews, so youth ministers served young people. Granted, this is not completely parallel. The danger has always been embracing a consumer oriented mindset. This has been manifest not just in youth ministry but in all areas of congregational life.

    This is a very good topic of discussion. Thank you for bringing it up. I’d be very interested in all responses both agreeing and disagreeing with Bergler’s thesis.

  • I will add that both the church and youth ministry embraced an event-driven-building-centric mentality that lent itself to entertainment venues (we just replaced entertaining preachers with entertaining music performers). This trend is still in existence among many churches (mega and otherwise). This approach has been creating passive believers for quite a long time–both adolescents and adults.

  • I don’t see Paul and Peter as “professionals” – however.

  • RJS

    I don’t know if Bergler is right in his historical analysis but I do think, perhaps, the point about a passive consumers with poor critical reasoning skills may have some basis – at least in parts of the church.

    I also think there may be an increased tendency among church leaders to view everyone in the congregation as an immature consumer. And the trend Darryl mentions – creating passive believers – is a vicious cycle. This leads to a distrust of lay leadership and lay teaching. Leaders no longer expect to work with and disciple lay leaders and volunteer coworkers. We don’t expect, encourage, or even allow, people to “grow up” in their faith and expression of faith. Grown-ups are equals and must be treated as such.

  • True. But then again, aren’t “pastors” viewed as professionals? And these days aren’t even “missionaries” considered “professionals”? Part of this is semantics, too. Paul was rabbinically trained, so he was something of a theological professional.

    However, this is a something of a separate issue in my opinion.

  • My last post was in response to #5, Jeff Stewart.

  • And by the by, Jeff, I do not totally disagree with your observation.

  • Bob

    I’m a product of the “juvenilization of american Christianity”. I grew up in a megachurch before the megachurch was a norm in evangelical Christianity in the US. The youth program and then the church as a whole became further obsessed with making things fun and entertaining. The numbers backed up the approach. Growth exploded for every “cool” new program, event, and approach to church. Unfortunately, I’ve seen the casualties of this approach; those who believe more in a cosmic buddy than anything resembling the holy God of the Bible. There is little grounding in the faith. Everything is up for grabs. And as much as I hate to use the term, consumerism is definitely a fair label in this case. Pick the beliefs that fit you and leave the rest on the table. After all, you’re not going to be challenged in a setting where you are calling the shots.

    What is strange about all of this is if you look at churches that fall into this category you’ll see a statement of faith, values, etc. that are orthodox. You’ll hear things that, on the surface, seem correct. But once you get inside and see what goes on, there is something not quite right. Our approach to church is important. I used to think it wasn’t. I used to think it was nitpicking to question a series of concerns that seemed artificial. Who cares if you have a rock show on stage for praise (complete with lights, fog, video montages and plenty of swagger), a full cafe running on Sundays, small groups broken up into the smallest of segments (age, marital status, professional status, tastes/preferences, etc.), events that promise lots of entertainment, fun, and possibly some learning? I used to think it all didn’t matter. Was the Gospel being preached? Yes? Then that’s all that ultimately matters. I’ve learned that not to be the case. I wonder if others have to?

  • Phil Miller

    I’m inclined to agree with much of this analysis. I think it has become more apparent to me as I’ve spent the last year and a half as a church nomad. We moved to a new city in the spring of 2011, and since that time, we’ve been growing more and more frustrated trying to find a church home. It’s not that we believe the perfect church exists – the church we were at before moving was far from perfect, but it had a lot of things going for it. For one, I never doubted the maturity of the leadership, and I never felt that it was trying to pander to people. What I notice in most churches we visit is that there is such an effort into being hip and cool, that it’s sad. I have to think that others see this too. I feel like words like “missional”, “authentic”, and “relational” are thrown around so much they seem to have lost all meaning.

    Really, I see this as the same sort of trend-following mentality that is pervasive in society at large. I’m not against using new songs in a worship service. I’ve played in worship bands for a long time. But I have grown tired of worship leaders thinking that if they aren’t singing the very latest releases, they’re not keeping up. The band barely knows the song before people want to retire it, it seems. How in the world will the congregation ever learn it?

    Honestly, the services that my wife and I have found most meaningful have been at nearby Greek Orthodox church. The liturgy is beautiful and constant, and no one up front is trying to impress anyone (they only barely acknowledge their presence, actually). Yet, I don’t feel I can in good conscience convert at the moment. We find ourselves kind of stuck.

  • Well than Darryl… elaborate.

  • Bob

    Phil, Your observation about Greek Orthodox churches is what I’ve noticed in others moving to Roman Catholicism away from evangelical Christianity. They are attracted to the liturgy and authority they sense there that they’re not finding in their evangelical counterparts.

    My humble suggestion would be to check out a reformed church in your area if one exists. Far from perfect, but it’s closer to what many are looking for in this situation and it doesn’t mean giving up on key doctrinal issues that remain a HUGE stumbling block with Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

  • Jeff #11–exactly what do you want me to elaborate on? That I do not disagree with your statement, that Paul might have been a “professional”, that this is a separate issue? Whether or not we should view ministers as “professional” may be a separate issue. What is meant by the term in any case? That someone has gone through theological or sociological training? Paul went through theological training–I suppose in one sense you could say all of the 12 did too in the sense that Jesus appears to be a very typical example of a first century rabbi–so that would make the 12 and Paul “professional”. Is a professional someone who makes his living at a “profession”. Again, while Paul was “vocational” he did take funds at times and he indicates that Peter was paid. Some elders were evidently paid–these are more parallel to “pastors” than are church planters an evangelists. So in this case they could be seen as “professional”. It really depends on one’s definition.

    Now is this the best way to do things? I don’t know. I’ve been part of a house church for three or four years that did not follow an entertainment model nor a lecture base or a age group division. We did not have paid staff either. It is ready to call it quits. I don’t feel the group has matured nor (less importantly) has grown or significantly evangelized others. They’ve done some good social service to a section 8 community where they are located. But they have not been particularly effective in outreach.

    But again, this may be a different topic.

  • CGC

    Hi Bob and all,
    When it comes to joining with Eastern Orthodoxy, what key doctrines does one have to give up to becoming EO? Actually, when it comes to doctrine alone (sola doctrina 🙂 , I think the EO adds more for all that is lacking in Protestant churches? They have a far richer history, liturgy, discipleship focus, worship with all the senses, and the list goes on and on. But maybe I am missing something here? (I guess somebody could say one would have to give up a certain sola atonement theory, the five solas, individualistic interpretations of Scripture, etc, but these are Protestant appendages and really don’t come from a more robust theology of Scripture much less the history of the church).

  • Bob

    CGC, The lack of sola scriptura would be a big one for starters.

  • Phil Miller

    From a doctrinal perspective, I probably align much more closely with the EO church than with a Reformed church. It’s mainly the closed communion that bothers me in EO. I don’t see a good reason why I should have to by chrismated in order to partake of communion. There’s also the whole matter of the veneration of Mary that while I can understand to an extent, I can’t fully endorse.

  • Rick

    Darryl #3-

    I know of at least one, high profile, megachurch leader that encourages churches to pay attention to what the youth are paying attention to. He notes that those youth will soon be the adults in the congregation, so starting to adapt (or plan to adapt) to some of the trends of youth is advised (in his opinion).

  • #14, perhaps Fredericka Matthewes-Green would be a good source for your question–or Franky Schaeffer. Franky is the son of the late Francis Schaeffer.

    Ms. Matthewes-Green was Episcopal–she and her husband left them and searched to find a group they felt comfortable with–they were not comfortable with Catholicism for many reasons (one was a perceived legalism). The use of icons (when understood properly) may cause some trepidation (or not). I wonder about the doctrine of Theotokos (Mary, the God-bearer). They do not hold to Augustine’s version of original sin (well, perhaps the Russian orthodox have been influenced by Augustine a little more than the Greek Orthodox).

    I am not Orthodox–but I do have relationships with Orthodox believers. The history and doctrine are quite fascinating.

  • #17 Rick: I think I know what you mean. Of course, context is everything and I’d be interested in knowing what he intended to convey with the word “adapt”. There is the need to translate the gospel in contemporary language and to present it in such a way that culturally communicates. However, there is a point where we cross a line. I do believe there is an entertainment-mentality that we would do well to re-think. In one sense everything we do has an aesthetic element–however, I am not comfortable with being so aesthetically driven that we may miss something.

    My question is how do we incorporate a physical-bodily-incarnational understanding of worship without becoming consumeristic?

  • Tony

    I have been a youth minister for nearly eight years and I have a M.Div., M.A. education. I believe that fun events, excitement, loud music, etc. can co-exist alongside of healthy descipleship. One of the keys is recruiting people (staff or lay) with different gifts (Eph. 4) to make a committment to youth ministry for at least a year and letting them disciple each other and the teens. The teens have different personalities, thus will grow more if they can relate to an adult that is like-minded or with a similar spiritual gift.

    Another aspect is challenging the teens to serve in other areas of the ekklesia, not just within the youth ministry. They can go calling, communion meditations, serve children’s church, nursery, community service projects, etc. Having a fun-loving worship service with loud music, lights, skits, etc. helps the teens be themselves in their own environment so they are able to pay more attention when a hard hitting sermon comes to them every week about relevant biblical issues (sex, salvation, porn, attitude, respect, love, forgiveness, baptism, repentance, relationships, evangelism, serving others, spiritual gifts, conflict, drugs, finances, resurrection, the cross, other religions, hermeneutics, etc.).

    This isn’t an either/or issue. A youth ministry can be both relevant to teenagers and discipleship oriented. But, it’s hard work, frustrating, depressing, and humiliating to get it to that point!!! When you start witnessing teenagers give good devotions, teaching their peers about Scripture and how to live holy lives and then baptizing their peers because of the influence they have on them… #totallyworthit!

  • #17 Rick: there is another cultural/sociological issue this pastor brings up. Adapting to the trends of the youth may have the unintended consequence of making young adults think there should be no transition from adolescence to adulthood. Even before adolescence was created in the 20th century there was a clear demarcation from childhood and adulthood–there were particular rituals in all cultures that ushered a child into adulthood. Those rituals have seemed to disappear. Dr. David Elkind brought this up in the 80’s with his books The Hurried Child and All Grown Up And No Place To Go.

    It is possible he was only referring to newer technology which would be something a little different than adolescent “trends”.

  • Phil Miller

    Having a fun-loving worship service with loud music, lights, skits, etc. helps the teens be themselves in their own environment so they are able to pay more attention when a hard hitting sermon comes to them every week about relevant biblical issues (sex, salvation, porn, attitude, respect, love, forgiveness, baptism, repentance, relationships, evangelism, serving others, spiritual gifts, conflict, drugs, finances, resurrection, the cross, other religions, hermeneutics, etc.).

    This kind of brings up another point (I’m not meaning to necessarily dispute anything you said, but your comment made me think of this).

    One thing that I disliked about youth ministry even when I was in high school, was that youth pastors and everything marketed for teens in the church seemed to assume that all teens were basically the same. I’ve hated skits, games, icebreakers, etc. ever since I can remember. I’m an introverted person naturally, so forcing me to “have fun” by playing some stupid game is almost a form of torture. I always thought that most youth ministries were aimed at recruiting the captain of the football team and the head cheerleader. The thinking goes that if those sorts of people get involved, others will tag along. I actually see that same sort of dynamic at play in “grown up” churches as well.

  • Rick

    Darryl #21-

    He did use technology as an example. Youth departments, he thought, were able to experiment more, so it was worth seeing what was working and practical. However, the idea of it working on those future adults was a factor. If reaching future adults was effective by using such and such (technology, service style, etc…), are people asking what are the theological pros and cons? As you mentioned, when does it “cross the line”?

  • Tony

    #22 re: Jesus’ ministry was more focused on bringing in the ordinary and those on the fringe of society. One who manifests a major transformation, including youth, will produce more fruit than a popular jock that has a casual faith. I don’t really like the stereotypes but I know what you’re getting at. I think youth ministers should look at the ministry of Jesus. It should not be some glorified babysitting routine.

    I’m not saying you are like this, but I think that Christians need to learn that the service wont always be centered on their own interests or needs. I don’t think we should target those who are just introverted or just extroverted. The challenge is in targetting everyone. We need to do a better job of “being all things to all people so that we might save some.” However, you are right in saying that not all teens like the same thing. Harvard’s Howard Gardner talks about how people have seven different learning styles. Minister’s and church leaders should be aware of these so that they can teach in such a manner that more people with a variety of learning styles will get something out of the service so that it will better motivate them to serve God and live a holy life. A formal lecture style service isn’t the answer, but could be used on occassion. Services don’t have to be the same every week. Where does the N.T. say that?

  • I think all of this has an underlying question: When does “culturally-relevant” worship become self-centered? And is the event we label the “worship service” even the main point of following Christ?

    My point about looking at adolescent trends with a possibility of incorporating the trends into our assemblies is that we have encouraged teenagers to put off growing up. And in the process have we become less mature as adults? And what is the main character trait of immaturity? Answer: self-centeredness. Most often the divisions and fights I have seen in local congregations over so-called contemporary vs. traditional have been little more than exercises in selfishness–on both sides.

  • Perhaps I should have said the underlying question is: “When does ‘culturally-relevant’ become self-centered?” The discussion obviously goes beyond worship assemblies.

  • Okay – I’ll adjust the “professional” notion. Technically they were. But I still believe that the church is askew with the persistence of perpetuating the platform/pew; performance/passivity paradigm. Youth programs create such a dependance, IMO.

  • Jeff #27–Actually I am in agreement with you, and I like the way you phrase that as “platform/pew; performance/passivity paradigm”.

  • Peter P-P-P-Piper.

  • Phil Miller

    Marketers actually talk about how there is actually less differences now between age demographics than in previous years. What you actually see is kids getting older quicker (from a behavior standpoint) and adults growing old more slowly. You have 12-year-old girls using the same technology to announce she’s getting her braces off as a 65-year-old Congressman uses to announce his feelings on some piece of legislation. So in a way, the whole world it seems is more susceptible to trendiness.

    As it relates to churches and media, I’ve been of the mindset for awhile that by the time a church tries to incorporate newer stylistic elements into a service, they are often old hat to the world in general. And, generally, churches simply don’t have the budget to really compete with what the entertainment industry is producing. So what you get is something that’s sort of a parody at worst or a tribute at best to the real thing.

  • Tony

    Great conversation! Should we stop being culturally relevant? English speaking and singing churches with English Bibles that aren’t on scrolls, and that meet in a building are already trying to be seeker sensitive and culturally relevant. Using the Gutenberg Press instead of scribes is using technology to be more relevant to the culture. Meeting in a building instead of homes or the public square is because of technology & religious freedom in our culture. Using electricity in the building instead of lanterns or the sun is technology. Newer technology has made it easier for us to be in our own culture and still read the Bible, sing praises to God in a comfortable building, give Bibles out to other Christians and the lost w/o them needing to learn Greek and Hebrew. Being culturally relevant has been in the church for the last 2,000 years. I think the heart of those transitions were not to be selfish but to bring more people to Christ.

    Darryl, you’re right, selfishness plays a huge role in church polity. Sad! Youth ministries are trying to be culturally relevant to bring more teens to Christ. Culturally speaking, keeping the church in the 19th century American culture is no better than the 21st. If we are supposed to worship in one culture only, logically, it would have to be the first century Greco-Roman. Though, this isn’t what the “traditionalists” are fighting for.

    Youth programs “can” create a dependence if that is the ministry philosophy of the leaders, but not all youth ministries have that philosophy.

  • Tony

    “But I still believe that the church is askew with the persistence of perpetuating the platform/pew; performance/passivity paradigm.”

    I agree as well.

  • CGC

    Hi Bob and all,
    Well, sola scriptura has meant different things to different people and even can take different shapes and practices when it comes to how we interpret Scripture. Ironically, I would ask, “Where does the Bible teach sola Scriptura?” And what specifically does sola scriptura mean?

    Although I believe there can be a good argument that some people mean the same thing by “prima-scriptura” as some of the Reformers on “sola-scriptura (I believe the term ‘prima-scriptura’ is less problematic a term than the many misunderstandings that get associated with sola-scriptura by some today).

  • Sam

    I find myself agreeing at least somewhat with Berger’s conclusion of youth as passive consumers. There is a fine line between making a message culturally relevant (acknowledging the unique context of a time and place and adjusting accordingly), and compromising fundamental aspects of it.

    During my high-school days, my church youth-group would organize all sorts of events (Sunday-morning bible-study, Wednesday-night get-togethers, paintball days, Sunday-night BBQs, etc.), having biblical lessons interspersed throughout, but ultimately none of them felt significant to me. A great deal of this, in my eyes, had to do with the tone of the events themselves, how they seemed to be treated by the ministers and study-teachers alike. These gatherings never felt like times of fellowship with both Christ and one another, but like church was being used as an excuse for hosting large ice-cream socials (that ice-cream was usually offered only emphasizes the point). How seriously are you going to take a weekly youth-group gathering if most if it is spent discussing new movies, tv-shows, schoolwork, and other items you’d find on a list of conversation-starters?

    In worship as well, there didn’t seem to be a meaningful level of interactivity. Through the years, the youth-ministers I knew at my old church preferred to use the ‘you-sit, we-speak’ approach. Because of this, it never felt like a proper venue where people could be vulnerable, open up, and make themselves known to each other. As is the case with much ministry today, it often felt like I was being talked at instead of being talked to.

    While the logistics of such an undertaking still appear fuzzy to me, it seems clear that the church today needs to genuinely engage with the youth and their questions. Instead of throwing the latest cultural fad with a Christian twist at them, which is ultimately a vacuous gesture, there needs to be genuine dialogue and conversation. Leaders could be more open about themselves and their flaws so students would feel comfortable enough to do the same; bible-study teachers could ask their students if anything in a lesson seems to apply to a current or past situation of their own, not to mention describe the cultural context of certain bible passages to emphasize depth. In any event, something needs to be done, since incessantly catering to the latest trends doesn’t seem to produce committed, critically-thinking Christians.

  • I would be curious to know more about an alternative approach. Youth ministry was created for a reason: as a whole the Christian faith (as expressed in traditional churches) was being seen as less relevant to youth life. To discourage creativity in making the faith more relevant to youth seems to have equally discouraging results. I agree with earlier posts that it is possible to make the faith relevant while also maintaining orthodoxy, making authentic followers of Jesus. Is there a third way, different from doing things the way we’ve always done them or compromising the faith with consumerism?