Youth Ministry in America

[Editor's note: Jon Pahl's thoughts on Jeremiah Wright and the African American jeremiad are posted just below, in the next blog entry. Good time, then, to put in a plug for Jon's recent book Youth Ministry in Modern America, for which he sends the following description--the link below takes you to an excerpt]:

"Youth Ministry in Modern America takes on Joseph Kett's assertion that Christian youth ministries faded away in the late nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries. By chronicling, comparing, and setting in context four twentieth-century Christian youth movements: The Walther League (Lutheran); the Young Christian Workers (Catholic); Youth for Christ (Evangelical); and African American congregational youth ministries (Methodist, Baptist, United Church of Christ), Jon Pahl traces the changes, continuities, and enduring significance of youth ministries in individual lives, and across American culture."

A brief excerpt:

In his ground-breaking 1977 book, Rites of Passage: Adolescence in America, 1790 to the Present, Joseph Kett accurately documented how Christians helped to “invent adolescence” in the nineteenth-century. With consistent disdain, however, Kett dismissed the Christian construction of adolescence as a “self-contained world in which prolonged immaturity could sustain itself,” where Christian leaders limited youthful choices and substituted “adult-led training” in place of voluntary associations of young people. Indeed, Kett argued, “Christian youth organizations of the late nineteenth-century downgraded not only voluntarism but intellectuality and spirituality as well.” Youth ministries were “vapid” and “naive,” by-products of the “intellectual decadence” of Victorian Protestantism. Surely they would soon fade away, for Christian youth ministry constituted “the final act of a melodrama which . . . had exhibited sundry attempts . . . to ‘save’ youth from cities, gambling dens, grog shops, and bawdy houses.”

When he turned to the twentieth-century, Kett saw the “fortresses of morality” that Protestants had built for youth come crumbling down. “Between 1920 and 1950,” thought Kett, “the reformers and clergymen who comprised the original architects of adolescence passed the scene.” A few vestigial pockets of Christians interested in “training” youth remained here and there, but they offered youth only “conformity,” “hostility to intellectuality,” and “passivity.” Indeed, Christian youth ministries were part of a by-gone age, through which young people were segregated into a “separate sphere” that kept them ignorant of the complications of adult life, and that supposedly inculcated in them some mysterious qualities of “citizenship,” “leadership,” or “character.” Such “youth-training institutions” were essentially “negative” in their intentions, and were doomed to fail in their efforts to promote moral purity.

Now, on one level Kett was surely correct. As Sydney Ahlstrom pointed out, the Puritan age of American religious history has ended.
And yet, on another level, Christian youth ministries have not only endured, they have in many cases flourished in the last half of the twentieth-century. How they did so across several streams of denominational tradition is an important and largely untold aspect of American religious history. The history of Christian youth ministry, in fact, opens several windows onto key changes in the cultural history of the United States. More specifically, in sexuality and gender relations, in class awareness and economic status, in acceptance of popular culture and media, and in concern for racial equality and civil rights, youth ministries survived over the past seventy years not by holding to a negation driven purity program, but by adapting a variety of practices to mobilize youth for various causes. That this mobilization brought its own ambivalent outcomes in American cultural history does not lessen the significance of the movement from purity to practices as a whole, or of the agency and significance of youth ministers and young people in history. Youth ministries, at the least, have been telling sites where social change and intergenerational relations have been negotiated.


Anonymous said…
Congrats on the book!!!

Popular Posts