May 14, 2007
How Teenagers Transformed the Church (Part 1)
The rise of youth culture 50 years ago explains the shape of the church today.
Seeker churches, emerging churches, ancient-future churches, mega-churches, house churches, Boomer churches, Gen-X churches. There is a debate occurring in American evangelicalism about the future of Christianity and what form the church should take within our culture. But is it possible that these divergent philosophies of ministry actually originated from the same source? In the coming days Angie Ward will be sharing multiple reports about the emergence of youth culture, and youth ministry, in recent American history and how this phenomenon gave rise to both the seeker movement and later the emerging church.
The end of World War II ushered in the beginning of the baby boom: 76 million American babies born between 1946 and 1964. As these baby boomers grew up, they gave birth to their own youth culture. The advent of youth culture gave rise to a new profession: youth ministry.
Fast forward nearly 40 years. Some of those youth leaders have become some of the nation's most influential pastors. Meanwhile, many of their former students have themselves gone into ministry, not without their own adolescent rebellion in the form of a movement toward ecclesiological deconstruction. And now a third generation of youth, the millennials, is just beginning to make their mark on the church.
Youth ministry has significantly altered the course of American church history. The youth group of today is the church, and its leaders, of tomorrow. How did this shift occur, and what can we infer about the future of the church based on current trends in youth ministry?
By the mid-1950s, the first wave of baby boomers was nearing adolescence. In 1955, Warner Bros. Pictures released Rebel Without a Cause, the landmark film featuring misunderstood teenager Jim Stark, played by James Dean. If Rebel launched the youth culture, Elvis Presley solidified it a year later when "Heartbreak Hotel" sold 300,000 records in its first week.
Meanwhile, innovative Christian leaders were expanding the boundaries of traditional ministry through the inception of organizations which sought to reach teenagers outside the walls of the church. In 1938, a young seminary student in Texas named Jim Rayburn began a weekly club for high school students who had no interest in church. Three years later, Young Life was born.
Rayburn is perhaps best remembered for his assertion, "It's a sin to bore a kid with the gospel." Young Life club meetings featured singing, a skit or two, and a simple message about Jesus Christ. The idea was that faith could be life-changing and fun.
Over the next three decades, dozens of para-church ministries sprang up across the country. Christian camps emphasized the adventure of the Christian life. Radio ministries took advantage of the technology's expanded popularity to spread the gospel over the airwaves. Saturday night evangelistic rallies challenged young people to commit their lives to Christ. These rallies then spawned local youth clubs, which provided regular spiritual follow-up and encouragement. Preachers such as Billy Graham (Youth for Christ), Jack Wyrtzen (Word of Life), and Percy Crawford (Young People's Church of the Air, Pinebrook Camp) became household names to Christian teenagers of the era.
Yet while these para-church organizations flourished from 1935 to 1967, the church was not ready for the shift toward a youth-driven culture. "The post-war baby boom caught the church without a strategy for dealing with the sudden influx of people whom the media began to call ?teenagers,'" writes Mark Senter in his book, The Coming Revolution in Youth Ministry. And when the church finally did begin to change, it was through the influence of para-church leaders.
In the late 1960s, two Youth for Christ youth workers, Jim Burns and Mike Yaconelli, realized the tremendous untapped potential of churches to reach teenagers for Christ. Burns and Yaconelli borrowed money from their relatives and self-published their first Ideas book for youth workers. In addition to selling the books, they began holding seminars to show leaders how to use them. Youth Specialties was born in 1969.
At the time, only a few large and usually urban churches even hired youth directors. At best, youth ministry in the church was seen as a stepping stone to "real" pastoral ministry, usually a senior pastorate and one's own pulpit.
The founders of Youth Specialties worked to convince church boards and senior pastors that youth ministry was vital to the health and future of the church. As a result, over the last 38 years Youth Specialties has been almost singularly responsible for the professionalization of the field of youth ministry in the church.
Tic Long, Youth Specialties' President of Events, has been with the ministry since its early days and remembers its first National Youth Workers Convention in 1970. "When youth workers used to get together before then, it was always at camps. When we did the first convention, we said, ?Let's go to a hotel, let youth workers get a mint on their pillow, and tell them, you are in a profession that is not just a stepping stone.'"
In the early days, Long remembers, Youth Specialties' focus was youth programming: "How do you develop a program, how do you get people resources, how do you run a meeting, how do you lead discussions and do special events?" Long said.
The efforts of youth ministry pioneers like Yaconelli, Burns, and Long began to bear fruit in the local church as youth ministry rose in importance in many churches. But the first generation of church youth workers also began to have a noticeable impact on the Church at large, as they began to take their innovative approaches beyond the walls of the youth room and into the sanctuary.
Angie Ward is a pastor's spouse, leadership coach, and founder of Forward Leadership. She lives with her family in Durham, North Carolina.