Youth Ministry in Modern America: 1930 to the Present

By Eskridge, Larry | The Catholic Historical Review, July 2001 | Go to article overview

Youth Ministry in Modern America: 1930 to the Present


Eskridge, Larry, The Catholic Historical Review


Youth Ministry in Modern America: 1930 to the Present. By Jon Pahl. (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers. 2000. Pp. xvi, 248. $16.95 paperback.)

The Lutheran theologian and church historian Jon Pahl, associate professor of American Religious History at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, is an exemplar among the small-but-growing-number of scholars seriously examining the role of youth culture within twentieth-century American religion. He is the author of a masterful centennial history of the Lutherans' late Walther League, Hopes and Dreams of All: The International Walther League and Lutheran Youth in American Culture, 1893-1993 (Wheat Ridge, 1993). A labor of love published by a Chicago-based Lutheran social ministry, it was deserving of the wider platform which a quality university press could have provided.

Pahl's new book, Youth Ministry in Modern America: 1930 to the Present, grew out of an assignment for a Lilly Endowment-funded project on spiritual formation in modern America. Contrary to the implications of its comprehensive title, however, the book is in no sense a thoroughgoing history of youth ministry in the American church, but rather an extended historical essay infused with generous helpings of theological discussion. Pahl examines the evolution of youth ministry within four streams of American Christianitymainline Protestant, Roman Catholic, evangelical, and African-American Protestant-by looking at, respectively, the Walther League, the Young Catholic Workers (YCW), Youth for Christ (YFC), and congregational youth ministries within various black Protestant traditions. In Pahl's analysis the story of these traditions' varied approaches to the problems of adolescent identity and the riddle of youth culture reflects a gradual move away from "purity" (defined as attempts to shelter youth from meaningful engagement with cultural problems and certain "adult" roles and behaviors) toward "practice" (defined as churches' engaging teens in active "experiments and risks" with adult roles and responsibilities). Those who accommodated this process-in this telling, YFC and African-American Protestants-prospered and survived. Those who did not, such as the Walther League-which fell prey to haggling over Sixties-style culture and politics-and the YCW-victims of a growing bureaucratization and emphasis on study-shriveled and died. …

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