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.

May 14, 2007

Displaying 1–10 of 14 comments

T. Suzanne Eller (Suzie)

June 05, 2007  7:50am

As an author and a speaker for teens, and youth culture and parenting columnist, I find that teens are incredibly hungry for truth, and to be challenged to go beyond "my best friend God" and living in the pew. There is a chasm between teens who never heard about God, but who have heard about church and who have a negative view of Christians, and those who feel that they want to make a difference outside the church walls. Ministering to teens means that we reach each of these, but recognize that we can't lump teens into any one group by age, but simply take each teen to the next level in their faith. I know that there are some teens (as referenced above) that want "their tummies rubbed", but that is because that is what we have given them. Perhaps it we, as youth workers, who need to reach higher, individualize our teaching for the 15 year old who has never experienced God or a family who lives by faith, as well as to the 15 year old who longs to move into leadership or active ministry in his community or church. Just my two cents, T. Suzanne Eller

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Howie Snyder

May 24, 2007  7:20am

Very interesting. Thanks! What I find missing in many histories of youth ministry is the impact of Dan Spader and SonLife Ministries in the Mid-west, particularly in the 80s. Many histories focus on the impact of Youth Specialties out in the West, but miss the impact of SonLife in the mid-West. The idea of the ministries' name itself came from a combination of Son City and Young Life. For my denomination and others, SonLife had a huge impact in it's youth ministry development.

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May 23, 2007  3:45pm

Wow, it seems that the bulk of the responses felt the need to confirm a correction!? I personally refer to the current generation of 14 to 24 year old folks the "rub my belly generation." It seems that if services are not packaged to an exact formula, youth just aren't being "fed".(so they say) The truth is when we are hungry we will find something to eat. It seems that we would be more likely to find a little meat if we all took a little more time to consider the B-I-B-L-E! So often "life lessons" are taught and institutional truths/traditions are the focus of our time together. The entire church should take a close look at what God actually calls all us to. As far as youth ministry being a stepping stone, that will only change when youthworkers break the mold.

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May 17, 2007  3:49pm

I would suggest that the rise of youth ministry has merely made stylistic changes, not transformation. When I think of transformation I think of substantive changes that reflect obedience to scripture driven by the Holy Spirit. Youth ministry panders to the same old self-centered attributes of the flesh that the institutional church has maintained (and loved) for generations. 1. Church time must be done in the styles of your personal preference or you can't "worship" or "get anything out of it". Adult saints go with this in mind, so it's no surprise the youth follow suit. God designed his church to be mutually relational ACROSS all boundaries, sex, nationality, economic status, color, cultural, AND age. God's people can be inter-generational. "Love one another" is unconditional of any of these flesh driven boundaries. In my opinion, the key reasons church gathering time is so style sensitive is because: 1. It's crowd oriented, not personal relationship oriented. (The size of the group matters here.) 2. It's hired expert oriented, not simple believer oriented. God's people systemically outsource their participation responsibilities to hired experts. In the current system most of God's people have no concept, interest or confidence that THEY can do all the building up God wants. (See Col. 3:16, Heb. 10:24,25) The way it is now, almost every stylistic alternative must have it's own meeting. No one values the styles or needs of anyone other then those in their own categorie. Youth are merely doing the same old shallow mold with different frosting. Transformation ALWAYS requires systemic change-moth->butterfly kind of change. God's people can do it, but only if they will think deeper than style issues.

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Travis Deans

May 16, 2007  2:13pm

very good reading! keep it coming!

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May 16, 2007  12:47pm

Sadly, youth ministry is still used as a stepping stone for people looking to climb the ministry ladder...

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Angie Ward

May 16, 2007  12:15pm

Thank you for pointing out my error – you're right, of course, it was Wayne Rice who co-founded YS with Yaconelli. My sincerest apologies, and thanks.

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Ryan Hartsock

May 15, 2007  3:38pm

I'm interested in how the future will unfold as stats continue to look more dreary for youth coming into the church.

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mark oestreicher

May 14, 2007  9:20pm

yes, eric is correct. it was mike yaconelli and wayne rice who started youth specialties. jim burns was a southern california youth worker who got tapped by YS to do seminars at some of those early conventions, and later started his own ministry, the national institute of youth ministry, which later morphed into jim's current radio ministry, homeword.

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May 14, 2007  5:50pm

I am so glad there is going to be a series on Youth Ministry here at Out of Ur. That being said, the facts seem a bit off. As Eric said in a previous comment, Wayne Rice started YS with Mike Yaconelli not Jim Burns. All three were very influential in shaping youth ministry. A few random thoughts. It's interesting to say that rise of youth culture 50 years ago is what shaped what the church is today. When it reality it has been our response (both good and bad) to a new people group (adolescence) that has actually shaped the church. It's also interesting to not that a growing number of youth pastors and pastors are frustrated by what has become the norm for churches as they relate to teenagers. I'd suggest that youth culture is a symptom of a grander wave of change that impacted our response. That wave is affluence. Youth culture is in essence the american marketing machine dividing up the population into target markets with Teens, tweens, etc being a few segments. This marketing has created the phenomenon of "age compression" among other things. Youth culture only has traction if there is money to spend and there wasn't money to spend until after WW2. Movie like Rebel only mirrored what was happening in culture at the time. As someone who supports Sr. Pastors in their ministries to families I'm looking forward to hearing more in this series and hoping that will be benifitial to the church. Thanks again for talking about youth ministry here.

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