The Search for a Grown-Up Youth Culture

Melanie Ross

Several years ago, I studied a large evangelical congregation that had recently finished reading the book unChristian by David Kinnaman.1 The book’s premise was simple and disturbing: Something has gone terribly wrong with modern Christianity.

The book’s three-year study of individuals between the ages of 19-35 – adults who had spent their formative childhood and adolescent years inside the church – overwhelmingly indicated that they now perceived Christians to be judgmental, hypocritical, and too political. The church’s senior pastor summarized matters this way:

Most young adults who look at American Christianity are not impressed. They look at the music and say, “They’re trying to be contemporary, but this is kind of hokey.” They have a bias against anything that looks presentational and slick, anything that’s too “programmed.” They look at the church and say, “What I mostly see are people who are interested in being successful, having enough money, and living the American dream, all the while baptizing their American dream in Christian language.” The evangelical church ought to be big enough to own these criticisms, to say “You’re right.” We have to admit it, address it, confess it, and work against it.”

On the whole, those in the congregation shared their pastor’s convictions, but were unsure how to respond. The congregation was well aware that a younger generation – disillusioned by mall-like environments and worship that tries too hard to be “relevant” – is leaving evangelicalism in unprecedented numbers. One senior member confided to me, “I feel a struggle right now, both personally and in our church community, about how to reach churchgoers of the 20/30-something generation.”

The problems facing this evangelical congregation (and thousands like it across the country) are not new. In his landmark study, When God Shows Up: A History of Protestant Youth Ministry in America, Mark Senter points out that the concept of “youth ministry” as we know it today is a late addition to the work of the church: “The stories of Martin Luther, John Calvin, Menno Simmons, and John Wesley are nearly exclusively the stories of adults. Not until the late 18th century is there a concerted effort to minister to young people within the context of the church.”2

Era of Angst

The history can only be sketched here in the broadest terms. During the 1800s, a process of secularization began to chip away at the influence that church and home had previously exerted over young people. The 1859 publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, then the 1925 Scopes trial that allowed the teaching of evolution in public schools, caused fundamentalists great angst. Gradually, religious and moral influences, including the teaching of the Bible, were excluded from public schools. The Great Depression shook Americans’ confidence in their economic system.

The traumas of World War II and the Cold War quickly followed, and people began to speak of a “crisis in civilization.” Since Hitler had risen to power with the help of a fanatical youth movement, American adults feared that their unemployed, idealistic youth could be just as easily manipulated by communists or fascists. Parents had reason to fear that their children might see the end of economic prosperity, democracy, and religious freedom. Young people seemed to be especially vulnerable victims of the times, and leaders from both inside and outside the churches began to proclaim that youth held the key to saving civilization. Evangelicals began calling for the mass evangelization of young people as a means of saving the world from destruction.

Saviors of Civilization?

A new generation of evangelicals hoped to meet the challenge with an organization called Youth for Christ (YFC), which rose to national prominence through wildly popular Saturday night youth rallies. The peak years of the YFC rallies came between 1944 and 1950, and continued strongly in many places through the 1950s. In historian Joel Carpenter’s description, these meetings “featured carefully orchestrated visions of innocence, heroism, and loyalty to a global cause, all wrapped in a contemporary idiom borrowed from radio variety shows and patriotic musical reviews.”3

A Saturday night YFC rally typically featured a live radio broadcast, upbeat music that mimicked the big-band styles of the day, brief testimonies by recent converts, and short, fervent sermons tied to current events.

In the quest for excitement and entertainment, many rallies got caught up in novelty. The most outlandish attraction was a gospel horse who “moved his jaws to show ‘how the girls in the choir chew gum’ and demonstrated his knowledge of the Bible by tapping his hoof three times when asked ‘how manyPersonsareintheTrinity?’”4 Opponents criticized the movement for selling out to worldliness and cheapening the faith with gimmicks. Youth for Christ leaders responded that the fate of the world depended upon winning as many youthful converts as possible, by any means necessary. Furthermore, since YFC rallies were not church services, it was fine for them to be entertaining.

Son City

Rally-style Christianity migrated from the stadium to the sanctuary in the early 1970s, when David Holmbo, the youth minister and associate music minister at South Park Church in Park Ridge, IL., and his friend Bill Hybels reinvented youth ministry. Son City, as their program came to be called, was designed to reach unchurched teenagers for Christ. Services were held on Tuesday nights at the church and used every method associated with early YFC rallies – multimedia, contemporary music, skits, relevant preaching – with a distinctively 70s flair. In three years, attendance increased to more than 1,000 youth.

Encouraged by this response, the leadership of Son City decided to implement the same principles on an adult level. Willow Creek Community Church was born. Within two years, services grew from 125 to 2,000 people. In later decades, attendance would swell to more than 17,000, and for the next 30 years, evangelical congregations across the country would imitate the megachurch’s marketing and evangelism strategies. American evangelicals recreated old-time religion in the trappings of youth counterculture, and in so doing inaugurated a new “juvenilized” version of Christianity.5

Juvenilization for Jesus

Juvenilization is a two-edged sword. On one hand, it has kept American evangelical Christianity vibrant. Megachurches reach thousands of individuals with informal, entertaining, fast-paced worship experience set to upbeat contemporary music.

At the same time, it has pushed evangelical congregations like the one cited at the beginning of this article to ask new and difficult ecclesiological questions. Should we start with the most effective means of evangelism possible, and then create worship that is congruent with this process, or should we begin with a liturgical standard in place and evangelize with language that upholds the standard and leads people to it?6 Have we grossly overestimated what is possible in a 75-minute format of worship, while tragically underestimating what we’re doing in a 20-year format of teaching and discipleship?7

It is impossible to predict what worship will look like in 20 years’ time. But the evangelical churches I study continually surprise and delight me as they challenge a new generation to strive for deeper maturity. I conclude with the words of one senior pastor:

Modern church work sometimes feels like the work of producing programs for religious consumers. Sermons can become commodities that people consume and criticize. Children’s ministries can become producers of sports programs and education programs and music programs. Youth ministry can slide into entertainment. But what do you want people to say when they look at our church? Do you want them to say, “Wow! Look at that incredible building! Check out their children’s ministry, their youth ministry, their music!” Or do you want them to say, “You know, there is something about the people in that church. The quality of their lives; the depth of their relationships; the way they seem to know God. I have to hear more about this Jesus they keep talking about”?

Herein lies a timely reminder for every generation.

Melanie Ross ’04 M.A.R,’07 M.Div., assistant professor of liturgical studies, joined the YDS faculty in 2012. She has also taught at Notre Dame, Saint John’s School of Theology, and Huntington University. Her upcoming book this year is called Evangelical vs. Liturgical? Defying a Dichotomy (Eerdmans). She co-edited the 2010 book The Serious Business of Worship: Essays in Honour of Bryan D. Spinks (T&T Clark).


1. David Kinnaman, unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity (Baker Books, 2007).

2. Mark H. Senter III, When God Shows Up: A History of Protestant Youth Ministry in America (Baker Academic, 2010), p. 76.

3. Joel A. Carpenter, “Youth for Christ and the New Evangelicals’ Place in the Life of the Nation,” in American Recoveries: Religion in the Life of the Nation, edited by Sherrill Rowland (University of Illinois Press, 1989), p. 135.

4. Bruce Shelley, “The Rise of Evangelical Youth Movements,” Fides et Historia 18.1 (1986), pp. 47-63.

5. Thomas Bergler, The Juvenilization of American Christianity (Eerdmans, 2012).

6. Todd E. Johnson, “Disconnected Rituals,” in The Conviction of Things Not Seen, edited by Todd E. Johnson (Brazos, 2002), p. 66.

7.  “What Kind of People Are We Forming With Our Worship? An Interview with Isaac Wardell,” Resurgence. Sept 1, 2013.….