Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

The Juvenilization of American Christianity: Cult of Youth

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

The Juvenilization of American Christianity: Cult of Youth

Article excerpt

Cult of Youth

THE JUVENILIZATION OF AMERICAN CHRISTIANITY

By Thomas E. Bergler

Eerdmans

281 pp. $25

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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."

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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. …

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