Enduring Myths of Youth Ministry: Lessons We Can Learn from Our Catholic, Mainline, and Evangelical
By Tom Bergler Posted on October 04 2009
Youth ministers like to flatter themselves that they're constantly in touch with the latest trends in youth culture. Unlike other ministers, we aren't bound by old methods or ideas. We're always innovating to reach a constantly changing youth population, and we often fall prey to many enduring myths of youth ministry. Many of these myths have been around since at least the 1950s. These myths didn't prove entirely true even back then, but that hasn't stopped us from repeating them and making ministry decisions as if they were gospel.
On the other hand, like any good story that has endured the test of time, these myths hide grains of truth. Learning a few lessons from the realities behind the myths can help us be wiser, more effective youth ministers.
Myth #1: Young people and youth culture are constantly changing in fundamental ways.
Reality: Superficial change is constant. Fundamental change is rare.
Overall, this is good news for youth ministers. We don't have to make fundamental changes in our ministry as often as some experts say. But there's a downside too. It can be very hard to tell the difference between fundamental and superficial change, and bad ministry decisions often result.
In the 1940s and 1950s, two fundamental changes hit young people: adults made them into high school students and consumers.
It was in the 1940s that for the first time, the majority of young Americans attended high school. Adults thought they were shaping young people and preparing them for life. But cramming them together into the overcrowded schools of the 1950s gave them a chance to come up with their own peer-driven goals, priorities, and practices—their own youth culture.
Adults wanted strong citizens to defeat communism. They got bobby soxers, juvenile delinquents, and rock ‘n' roll. The schools of the '50s and the youth culture teenagers created may seem tame by today's standards, but the fundamental trend was set.
From then on, all young Americans would spend their teenage years in age-segregated environments isolated from the "real" world. In these artificial environments, the voices of peers often drowned out the voices of parents and teachers.
Each school or region might have had its own youth subculture but for the second fundamental change occurring: adults discovered young people as a national market for consumer goods and entertainment.
Early on, the producers of clothes, makeup, movies, music, and TV learned that they needed to carefully investigate teen tastes. So a feedback loop emerged, in which advertisers and entertainment companies tried to pick up on trends among youth, repackage them, and sell them to the masses. And they seldom cared if the products were good for young people, so long as they were good for the bottom line.
It may seem like a long way from Elvis to Eminem, but the cultural and financial dynamics are nearly identical. A white artist and his backers make big money by marketing a black art form to white teenage audiences, with any controversy along the way only serving to boost sales.
From the 1950s on, to be a teenager in America was to be bombarded with advertising and lured by adult-produced entertainment.
The Christian Response
What were Christian youth leaders doing while these two fundamental changes were underway? Some were naively ignoring them; others were naively adapting to them. They made these mistakes because they got distracted by other trends they viewed as fundamental, but weren't.
The leaders of the Methodist Youth Department thought they saw a groundswell of political activism among young people. After all, a group of students had marched on Washington in the late 1930s. At national conferences and regional camps, young Methodists protested racial segregation and pledged themselves to peace.
But repeated calls to "sacrificial service" had a hard time competing with the fun of high school and youth culture entertainment. In their excitement over a supposed trend toward political activism, the leaders of the Methodist Youth Department put too little effort into local programs (as opposed to curriculum materials) that could help young people sustain a countercultural value of service.
So it's not surprising that, at the local level, not much activism happened and youth leaders were bewildered when the idealism and volunteerism of young people declined during the '50s.
Meanwhile, the leaders of the new Youth for Christ movement saw a youth revival on the horizon that would lead to the evangelization of the world in their generation. Young people seemed to be flocking to the Saturday night youth rallies that sprang up in cities across the country during World War II. These rallies included testimonies from famous athletes, servicemen, and other celebrities, as well as radio broadcasts and live music that imitated the popular big band and crooner styles of the era.
The crest of this exciting wave came on Memorial Day in 1945 when some 70,000 people gathered at Soldier Field for a Victory Rally sponsored by Chicagoland Youth for Christ. Although it was a work of the Holy Spirit, the Youth for Christ movement was also a self-conscious attempt to market Christianity to teenagers.
Early on, Torrey Johnson and Bob Cook published a manual that told leaders how to combine prayer, dramatic preaching, clever marketing, and appealing entertainment into a powerful lure for high school students. In the 1950s, YFC leaders added high school Bible clubs, talent competitions, and even a Christian hot-rodder's club. YFC preachers told students that they could stand up for Jesus, have fun, and be popular with their friends all at the same time. One YFC member even compared the thrill of knowing Jesus to swooning over Elvis. YFC leaders justified this youth-culture Christianity because it was saving souls and "bringing the Bible back into the schools."
But over time, YFC clubs tended to lose their evangelistic edge and become pale imitations of the surrounding high school culture. At one point YFC President Bob Cook exhorted his fellow leaders, "Stop merely inviting Christian youth to come and listen to a charming program!"
Youth leaders need to learn to distinguish between fundamental and superficial changes in the lives of young people. Fundamental changes affect the majority of young people, develop slowly, and change slowly. Most of the things that get identified as fundamental youth culture changes are really short-term trends. Those who mistake short-term trends for fundamental changes will often make bad (or at the least, misinformed) ministry decisions.
As the Methodists found out, high school life and teen consumerism make social service hard to sustain, so we can't rely on the superficial ups and downs of teenage enthusiasm. As YFC leaders found out, those who adapt too well to high school youth culture in the name of promoting a youth revival may find their grand goals made captive and their gospel corrupted. One reason the youth leaders of the '50s missed some of the fundamental changes going on was that they got caught up in the "youth in crisis" talk of their age. Between 1930 and 1950, Americans got blasted first by the Great Depression, then World War II, and finally the Cold War. Many called this rapid-fire set of challenges a "crisis of civilization."
Some adults started to see young a people as key players in this drama. They saw communist and fascist youth movements in Europe, and youth unemployment, political activism, and juvenile delinquency at home.
What if young people gave into despair or got duped by the communists? It would mean the end of the American way of life.
Myth #2: Teens are in crisis and our ministry strategy is the only one that can save them.
Reality: Young people need a lot of help to grow up well. But cries of "youth in crisis" generate more heat than light and can become manipulative.
The Christian Response
Christian youth leaders grabbed this talk of young people and the crisis of civilization to promote their work. Some mainline youth leaders claimed to be building a "Christian social order" free of war, poverty, and racism. Meanwhile, the rank and file of young mainline kids got down to the business of normal high school life and didn't seem at all worried about the crisis.
The leaders of Youth for Christ insisted that the crisis justified their use of entertainment for the sake of youth evangelism. Since the world could end at any moment by nuclear war, the priority was on evangelism by any means necessary. They also claimed that their evangelistic youth rallies were solving the problem of juvenile delinquency, even though it's very much up for debate how many kids from "the wrong side of the tracks" ever made it to a YFC rally.
Similarly, the leaders of the Catholic Youth Organization claimed that by providing sports and other activities for urban young people, they were preventing communist influence.
All this talk worked well for raising money and launching new organizations, but it also created a credibility gap. Was keeping kids busy with sports really keeping them out of the clutches of the communists? Was providing entertaining evangelistic rallies for middle-class teenagers really saving the world from communism and preventing juvenile delinquency? Was bringing a few kids together for one week a year to pass political resolutions really building a "Christian social order"?
Even worse, crisis talk caused adults to put unfair pressure on young people. Mainline, Catholic, and evangelical youth leaders all regularly criticized Christian teens for not being as dedicated as their communist counterparts. But was it really fair to hold up communists as role models? Similarly, in articles like "You Could Be a J.D." YFC leaders tried to keep Christian kids on the straight and narrow by making it sound like every moral slip was a step on the slippery slope to teenage criminality.
Young people often complained during the 1950s that adults focused too much on the bad behavior of a minority of teenagers. Adults had been seduced by the talk of "youth in crisis."
We must guard the integrity of the claims we make to promote our ministry. We make sure we can truly connect the dots between what we're actually doing with young people and some future outcome in their lives or in society.
We also shouldn't base significant ministry decisions on weak evidence of a supposed crisis or other trend and then use superficial analysis on how to solve it. There was little danger of American teenagers becoming communists or juvenile delinquents in the '50s. But there was a lot of danger that they would dilute their faith into a Christianized version of the consumer culture growing all around them.
Finally, if we thunder too loudly about "youth in crisis," we may alienate young people who don't see themselves in our portrait of their generation and don't like being pressured to support our crusade.
Myth #3: Young people are powerful.
Reality: Young people have little real power while they're still teenagers. The power they do have to shape the future isn't as easily controlled by adults as the grownups tend to think.
Teenagers are subject to adult authority everywhere they go, whether home, school, church, or the mall. They can't vote, get married, work full-time jobs, or exercise other adult rights until they reach the prescribed age of adulthood or become legally emancipated from their parents or guardians. Thus, talk of teens as "powerful" must serve some purposes other than describing reality.
"...Nothing Very Dangerous..."
Methodist youth leader Harold Ewing spoke on the National Council of Churches radio show "Church of the Air" on September 6, 1953. He talked of the power of the atomic bomb but insisted, "The greatest stockpile of power in the world today is the power-potential in the lives of young people." He told the young members of his audience, "In you lies the power to change the world and make it the world of your dreams—or the power to bring the world toppling down about your ears."
Ewing, like many other youth leaders since, was trying to use the supposed "power" of teenagers to both inspire young people with their potential and to convince adults to sponsor his work of properly channeling that power. But hype about the power of young people can lead to disillusionment.
At a Methodist youth conference, Harold Bremer suggested to his fellow delegates that perhaps adults considered all their political activity just "a necessary safety outlet for the enthusiasm of youth knowing full well that it will end there and nothing very dangerous will happen."
A "Fifth Column"
Another reason youth leaders want to see young people as "powerful" is because they can't get other adults in the church to go along with their programs, so they're hoping to use teens as a kind of "fifth column" within the church.
The staff of the Methodist Youth Department during the 1950s saw themselves as launching a campaign to liberalize church and society, beginning with young people. That campaign failed in part because teenagers could only work for unpopular causes like racial integration when they were at camps and conferences that took them out from under the watchful care and restrictions of their home communities.
Youth for Christ leaders claimed to be saving America by evangelizing young people, but in the process they were changing the face of evangelical church life by creating new expectations among teens. The teenage evangelicals of the 1950s and 1960s turned out to be powerful not so much by evangelizing the nation, but by reshaping church life through their preferences. Evangelical church life is more entertaining, informal, emotional, and open to popular culture today than it was in the 1950s because young people convinced youth leaders to give them what they wanted. Then, when they grew up, these same Christians remodeled the church to look more like their youth groups.
Power in Weakness
There was one dramatic example of the political power of Christian young people in the early 1960s. African American high school and college students played a key role in the civil rights movement by participating in sit-ins and other demonstrations.
In Birmingham, Alabama, high school and even elementary school students faced down police dogs and fire hoses; and photos documenting this abuse moved the nation. Their efforts were inspired and coordinated by black church leaders, and their Christian faith sustained them through the suffering to come.
In this case, the very dependency and lack of power of teenagers helped them to do something that would've been harder for adults alone. As people without property or standing in the community, young people had less to lose and so were less vulnerable than their parents to legal and economic pressure from whites. But even in this case of youthful power, there were some unintended consequences for the church. Some young participants in the movement came to reject the church as just one more obstacle to the march for racial progress.
Young people don't normally have the power to reform society while still teenagers. If we tell young people they have lots of power, they may become disillusioned. So we need to give them a realistic appraisal of power and how they can prepare themselves to use it well. On the rare occasions when young people do gain political power, it may not be good news for the church.
In addition, youth leaders need to be aware of ways they may be using talk of youth power to avoid resolving conflicts and disagreements among adults in the church. We need to avoid using this talk as a way to delegate our problems to the next generation.
On the other hand, young people do have the power to shape the future of churches by their preferences. So youth leaders need to pay attention to ways that they're catering to the preferences of young people, because what happens in youth groups today will happen in the church as a whole tomorrow.
Myth #4: Youth ministries can easily protect young people and simultaneously mobilize.
Reality: Protecting and mobilizing teenagers can sometimes be combined but are competing priorities that demand hard choices on the part of youth leaders.
"...Not a Bad Ghetto..."
Young Catholics of the 1950s could easily spend every hour of the day in Catholic churches, classrooms, club meetings, sporting events, or dances. They sometimes even lived in Catholic neighborhoods. Catholics achieved what many protestant fundamentalists and evangelicals aspire to today: a powerful network of institutions and relationships that shielded their young people from perceived negative influences.
As Garry Wills, a prominent Catholic author later put it, "It was a ghetto, undeniably. But not a bad ghetto to grow up in." Catholic educators and youth leaders saw their jobs as keeping young people Catholic in a hostile society. This commitment could sometimes appear overly defensive.
Mary Gordon remembered that the nuns who taught her talked as if all Catholics were under constant attack by "communists, Jews, Protestants, or atheists" as well as "pornographers, intellectuals, and sociologists, almost without distinction." Church leaders warned young Catholics against "mixed marriages" to non-Catholics and condemned the evils of "petting" and going steady.
The Legion of Decency published reviews that told Catholics which movies they could and could not see. Good Catholics attended confession and mass weekly, which served to keep them on a short moral leash.
Growing up in the "Catholic ghetto" put a permanent stamp on a young person's identity. But by not providing many opportunities for service and influence in the outside world, these youth environments sometimes seemed claustrophobic and obsessed with sexual purity.
At the opposite extreme, mainline denominational youth department tried to mobilize young people for social service while all but ignoring the need to protect them. National conferences concentrated on inspiring young people with a dream of recreating society but ignored the day-to-day struggles of being a Christian in high school.
Sunday school curriculum materials sometimes addressed teenage temptations like petting, reckless driving, and the obsessive pursuit of popularity. But the advice was usually to replace these negative activities with work for "worthwhile causes." Little effort went into providing an alternative social and spiritual environment that could sustain a Christian way of life centered on service, because the assumption was that most young people would naturally choose social service over youth culture indulgence if only given the chance.
Even though youth attendance at Methodist and other mainline churches grew during the '50s, it didn't keep pace with the growth of the youth population, foreshadowing the dramatic numerical declines of the '70s.
Focusing on the Small
Methodists succeeded in mobilizing a handful of social activists, but never built the mass movement they'd envisioned. In contrast, two Catholic organizations, the Young Christian Students and Young Christian Workers, intentionally resisted the pressure to become mass movements, preferring to intensively form a handful of future church leaders.
Leaders formed young people into cells that followed a threefold pattern of "observe, judge, act." Under the guidance of a priest or other adult advisor, young Catholics in these organizations would investigate the needs of their community, evaluate these problems in light of the Gospels and Catholic social teachings, and devise specific actions that they could perform as a group to make a difference.
Rather than focusing on solving the distant problem of nuclear war, they figured out ways to work for justice in their schools and workplaces. These movements were intentionally small, but they made a big impact in their communities and produced highly trained leaders for the church.
Using the powerful evangelical concept of witness, the leaders of YFC managed to mobilize and protect young people at the same time, although this success came with some hidden costs. Youth for Christ leaders condemned dancing, rock music, drinking, smoking, going to the movies, petting, and going steady.
But they cast the negative task of avoiding these activities as a positive way to be a powerful witness for Christ, thereby making an impact on the world. Youth for Christ sermons, films, and magazine articles made much of teenagers who stayed pure by avoiding dancing or other contaminations and through their witness "won" their friends to Christ.
Like virginity, a pure Christian witness could be easily lost, but not easily restored. YFC member Jerry Oas advised young people to avoid even the religious songs that made it to the top 40 charts in his day because these songs could "draw Christians into a place where they would not go and to do things to ruin or cheapen their testimony."
On the other hand, Christian teenagers demanded a fair exchange for all of their abstinence. The leaders of Youth for Christ found themselves providing alternative forms of entertainment, such as banquets (complete with "kings" and "queens") to substitute for the prom and Christian records, movies, and celebrities to substitute for worldly ones. In the process, they legitimized an entertainment-oriented version of Christianity that later infiltrated the Evangelical church as a whole.
Protecting young people works best when it's connected to at least symbolic ways for them to influence society. Youth for Christ and evangelical youth work more generally have grown and attracted many young people over the years precisely because they've found ways to make young people feel they're making a difference in their world by keeping pure. Protection without any visible means of influence on society becomes confining and may push teens away from the church, as many a disillusioned Catholic who grew up in the '50s would tell you.
On the other hand, genuine mobilization of young people for any substantial impact on their peers or on society is much harder than most youth leaders think. True mobilization of teenagers for service takes such a significant investment of time and training that it cannot usually be done for the masses. Those who rush off to change the world may find they have no troops following them because they undervalued the less glamorous work of protecting and nurturing the faith of those in their charge.
Methodist youth leaders thought they were mobilizing a social action army when really they were presiding over the long, slow exodus of young people from their church. All youth leaders should value protecting and evangelizing the children of church members. All should be realistic and strategic about how much they can do to mobilize those young people to impact others.