Parachurch youth ministries are gathering them up where mainline denominations began dropping them a decade ago.

The dinner party included some of the cream of the leadership of a major Protestant denomination. Present with their spouses were two professors from a nearby seminary, three denominational executives, and the president of a church-related liberal arts college.

Most were Democrats. They were appropriately committed to massive governmental programs to solve social problems, and to church involvement in the process. They were concerned about world hunger. They shared an intellectual commitment to a simpler lifestyle (“Live simply that others may simply live”) and had somewhat guilty consciences about their own affluence. They deplored the exploitation of Third World countries by multinational corporations, and generally approved various liberation theologies. They were scornful of conservatives in the denomination who accused the World Council of Churches of fostering Marxist movements.

They deplored the “narrowness” of the group of evangelicals now in control of the Student Christian Association on the college president’s campus, and the lack of interest in religion on the part of the majority of students. They shared the frustration of the seminary professors at having to cope with the increasing conservatism of each incoming class, and laughed as one of them jested that they seemed to be training the future leadership of the Orthodox Presbyterians and the Conservative Baptists.

Then the hostess got a telephone call from her teen-aged son, who was attending a meeting of Young Life. The conversation turned to Young Life, and the fine young man who headed up the program in the local high school. The host couple had two children involved, and they were delighted with what was happening. Another couple, one of the seminary professors and his wife, reported that their two sons were also deeply involved in Young Life in another high school in the city. They, too, were pleased about it; the wife wondered with pardonable pride how many mothers had sent two sons off to summer football camp, both with their Bibles packed on top of their sleeping bags.

One of the denominational executives began to talk about the absence of any kind of solid content at the parish youth fellowship his kids attended; it seemed to be largely recreational. Another deplored his inability to get his kids to participate in his congregation’s youth program at all, although he admitted it was so inconsequential and poorly attended that he couldn’t blame them. He recalled the significance of his own church youth group experience when he was growing up, the familiarity with the Bible that came out of his Sunday school attendance, and the spiritual intensity of his adolescent religious experience. He frankly—and sadly—saw nothing in the parish where he and his family were involved that could provide anything similar for his own children. And he wished his kids would join Young Life!

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Major Denominational Youth Programs: The Sixties

These dinner party guests were leading establishmentarians. Nothing could more vividly portray the youth dilemma in the churches of the so-called mainline denominations than their conversation. Where have all the young folks gone? Mainly to Young Life, or Youth for Christ, or Campus Crusade, or Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, or the Sunday evening program of a nearby Southern Baptist church. Or else nowhere. Mainline Protestant parish youth programs, with some notable exceptions, are moribund. Mainline campus ministries play to empty halls. Mainline denominational youth ministry bureaucrats, by and large, are still hooked on the greening of America.

This is our heritage from the sixties. Nowhere in American society did the youth countercultural values of that decade receive a more sympathetic hearing than in mainline churches. And for understandable reasons. The idealism, the activist involvement, the commitment to radical change—all these the mainline groups applauded. We marched alongside the counterculture in the civil-rights movement, and the anti-Vietnam War movement. We had a common cause. Draft card burnings nearly always featured a William Sloan Coffin or Dan Berrigan right up in front of the TV cameras. Youth was the “cutting edge.” Innumerable religious retreats plumbed the theological profundity of Beatles’ songs (especially “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” the tunes of which can still bring on an attack of acute nostalgia for anyone who, like me, was working with young adults during that period).

Many of today’s mainline denominational executives cut their teeth on the counterculture. Radical protest was the norm of their formative years. Today they find a newer generation of young people to be baffling and unsettling, success oriented, nonprotesting, traditional in values.

Another major influence on their own spiritual formation was the human relations movement, which also reached its peak in the sixties and early seventies. Its groupiness, its “touchy-feely” games, its self-discovery and self-affirmation, its simulation and trust-building exercises were the “methodologies” of the period. The fact that they were all methodology and no theology seemed irrelevant at the time. It was a compliment in human relations circles to be called “process oriented,” an insult to be known as “content oriented.”

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Major Denominational Youth Work Today

The above picture may be overdrawn, but it is accurate enough to have affected significantly the current shape of youth work in these mainline denominations. The counterculture is dead, except as the context for denominational youth programs. Campus ministry, especially, has provided it with a last bastion. Mainline campus ministries are often isolated from parish life and accountable only to ecumenical bureaucracies far removed from and independent of either the university administration or the people in the pew. Yet they are still trying to fan the embers of radical protest. And local church youth groups are all too often still playing the trust games or engaging in “value clarification.” Church members, by and large, do not understand what is wrong with youth programs in their congregations, and they are not sure what should be done to fill the vacuum. But they know a vacuum exists, and they want something done about it. No concern is higher on their agenda, as they press church hierarchies for action.

Whatever the answer for mainline churches may be, many young people have not waited for their parents, or the young associate ministers who run the programs in their parishes, or their denominational bureaucracies to find out. Vast numbers of them have found theft own answer outside the mainline churches, in the evangelical, nondenominational youth movements.

Evangelical Youth Movements

Most of the major evangelical youth movements antedate the sixties, but their greatest impact on mainline young people has come since the sixties. Bible study is their stock in trade. They work through young, dedicated, full-time staff workers, who are often required to raise theft own salaries. And in contrast to moribund denominational youth programs, these movements are flourishing.

At the high school level, the largest is Youth for Christ. It operates campus-oriented evangelistic teen clubs at well over a thousand American high schools. Young Life is also a high school (and sometimes junior high) movement, with something over a thousand clubs. In addition, it operates weekend and summer camps. It has recently added an urban Young Life operation for inner-city teen-agers, mostly black, with an emphasis on justice and jobs as well as on its usual spiritual concerns.

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Campus Crusade is by far the largest and most aggressive of the evangelical youth organizations. It is probably the most conspicuous Christian organization on college and university campuses, and it has branched out into a number of other specialized youth and young adult ministries. It has a high school branch, and an extensive ministry to young adults in the American armed forces all over the world.

Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship has chapters on over 800 American campuses. They are student-controlled, although IVCF does have staff personnel. Its style of evangelism is lower key and considerably less aggressive than that of Campus Crusade, and its lifestyle expectations are less legalistic. Inter-Varsity is well known for its Urbana (University of Illinois) missionary conventions. Urbana ’79 undertook to motivate at least a thousand young people a year to enter overseas missionary service for the next five years. The majority attending were from mainline churches, the largest single group being United Presbyterians with 1,104 delegates.

Another predominantly youth-oriented organization is the Navigators, which originated as a movement among enlisted men in the navy during World War II. In recent years Navigators has expanded its ministry beyond the armed forces to other young adult communities, primarily college campuses. The Fellowship of Christian Athletes is an organization of athletes and coaches banded together to influence young people. It sponsors high school “Huddles” and college “Fellowships.” Coaches’ clinics, rallies, and banquets are all widely used in a ministry aimed at personal evangelism.

Although these are the best known, they are by no means the only evangelical youth and young adult movements. Collectively, the independent evangelical youth organizations are by far the most significant and influential Christian youth movement in contemporary American society. Theft influence, however, is reinforced from other sources.

Christian Academies And Colleges

My young teen-aged daughter reported recently that she “can’t stand” the superiority of one girl in her Sunday school class, whose one-upmanship consists of frequent reminders in class discussion, “Of course, I go to a Christian school.” The Christian academies found in most cities are almost without exception evangelical in orientation, and frequently they represent the fundamentalist wing of evangelicalism. At the end of the seventies, between 700 and 800 new private Christian elementary schools or high schools were being launched each year. More than five-and-a-half million students are currently enrolled in private elementary and secondary schools, two-thirds of them in Christian schools.

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What is widely perceived as a decline in the public school system with its emphasis on social goals, the “professionalization” of the educational establishment, the succession of educational fads (“progressive schools,” “whole-child” and “child-centered” emphases, “existential” education, “open classrooms”), the demise of discipline, and the widely documented decline in standard achievement and SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) scores, all have led many to seek alternatives. The traditional upper-class private schools are largely for the rich. The Christian academies, which frequently have higher academic standards than public schools, have provided the only real alternative for the not-so-rich, including many liberals from mainline groups.

The evangelical colleges provide a continuation of the same educational influences at a higher level. They are unlike the Christian academies, to which many children are sent for reasons unrelated to evangelical orientation by parents seeking discipline and academic emphasis; the evangelical colleges are usually chosen explicitly for their religious stance. Parents distrusting the secular scientific world view, and the absence of constraint in the student environment of secular universities and the liberal mainline denominational colleges, have chosen evangelical colleges for their children. Young people of evangelical convictions have chosen them for themselves.

Attitudes And Trends

Reports from nondenominational evangelical youth organizations, Christian academies, and evangelical colleges are not the only source of data on what is happening to young people of mainline churches. The Princeton Religious Research Center, which bases its reports of religious trends on polls conducted by the Gallup organization, reports that the evangelical movement is strong among the nation’s youth. Evangelical gains, “often at the expense of mainline churches,” according to the center, are evidenced by the high percentage of teen-agers (44 percent of those identifying themselves as Protestants and 22 percent of the Catholics) who say they have had a “born again” experience.

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Similar evidence came from a Religious News Service tum-of-the-decade report on increasing interest in religion among college students in the second half of the seventies. The RNS survey saw the trend as conservative, pointing to such indications as the growing popularity of religion courses, with the addition of such courses and of departments of religion by responsive administrations, increasing attendance at religious assemblies, and growing willingness to voice religious opinions in class.

The report noted the popularity of informal Bible reading or study groups in dormitories. Military chaplains have also observed a striking increase in such Bible study groups in barracks, camps, and ships. The Princeton Religious Research Center reported that 33 percent of Protestant teen-agers and 20 percent of the Catholics say they are involved in Bible study groups.

The Princeton Center sees one of the characteristics of youth in the dawning eighties to be a return to traditional values. Except for marked differences on certain social issues (acceptance of the use of marijuana, and sexual freedom), the study found remarkably little difference between the attitudes of teen-agers and college students on one hand, and those of older Americans on the other. This shows a marked swing toward traditional values.

These findings were further confirmed by a 1979–80 survey of students listed in Who’s Who Among American High School Students. It identified a decidedly conservative trend among high school leaders. Though religion has always played a significant role in the lives of this particular group, a striking 86 percent in this survey said they belonged to organized religion, up sharply from 70 percent in the 1969–70 poll 10 years earlier. Three-quarters said religion was an important part of their lives, and 67 percent claimed to have chosen their religious beliefs after independent personal investigation.

What are young people looking for? All too often the liberal mainline establishment envisions them as seeking channels for idealism, for protest, for action aimed at bringing about social change. The youth counterculture of the sixties and early seventies, Christian and secular, was indeed seeking such channels. But it is questionable if even then a significant number of young people were seeking such channels to express a distinctively Christian idealism. Today’s social activists in the mainline church establishment are, by and large, responding to a Christian dynamic. Their meaning structure is a deep faith, acquired often in a more conservative church environment in their youth. But the generation they have produced in mainline churches, where attention is fixed on social change, lacks that rooting in a deep faith. Members of this generation are finding the meaning structure the seek in the evangelical youth movements, the evangelical colleges, and in a turn toward traditional values and conservative religion.

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All these reflect the theological stance of evangelical Christianity. Thomas C. Oden, a mainline seminary faculty member who refers to himself as a reformed liberal, speaks of “postmodern orthodoxy.” He says: “The sons and daughters of modernity are rediscovering the neglected beauty of classical Christian teaching.… They have had a bellyful of the hyped claims of modern therapies and political messianism to make things right. They are fascinated—and often passionately moved—by the primitive language of the apostolic tradition and the church fathers, undiluted by our contemporary efforts to soften it.… Finally my students got through to me. They do not want to hear a watered-down modern reinterpretation. They want nothing less than the substance of the faith of the apostles and martyrs.”

Significance is generally ascribed to trends among young people in terms of what they foreshadow for the adults of tomorrow. A fairly clear picture seems to be emerging. Many of our youth have left us. They no longer see the church as a meaningful part of their lives. But a significant part of those still with us are young evangelicals. In 1979 the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. began for the first time to record the results of a straw vote of the Youth Advisory participants alongside the official action of the commissioners. On a surprisingly large number of issues with an identifiable “conservative” and “liberal” side, the youth vote has been more conservative than that of the adults. Some of these evangelical young people are being shaped in our own congregations, particularly those congregations that make up the evangelical wing of the mainline denominations. But many are finding their meaning structure elsewhere.

Youth for Christ, Inter-Varsity, Christian academies, and nondenominational evangelical colleges are all now playing a part in shaping the new generation in the mainline churches.

Nowhere is the future leadership of the church more clearly foreshadowed than in the seminaries. It was the seminaries of the fifties, sixties, and seventies that nourished today’s leaders on a diet that progressed from Barth to Bonhoeffer to Bishop Robinson and Harvey Cox to Gustavo Gutierrez. If denominational seminaries seemed too confining to earlier generations, the more adventurous went off to interdenominational Yale, Harvard, Union, Chicago, or perhaps to Berkeley. Now the more adventurous are forsaking denominational seminaries to go in the opposite direction. They are going to Fuller and Gordon-Conwell. The largest Presbyterian seminary in the world (in terms of the number of Presbyterian candidates for the ministry enrolled) is Princeton. But the second largest is Fuller. And third is Gordon-Conwell.

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Further, there is evidence that students in the mainline denominational seminaries are coming from conservative backgrounds. Those seminarians whose sense of calling has been nourished in their home churches are coming from the evangelically oriented mainline congregations.

A 1979 study of candidates for the ministry within my own denomination, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S., showed that 44 percent of all candidates came from just 82 congregations—2 percent of the PCUS congregations, with 10 percent of the membership—and that most of these were known as conservative congregations. Student bodies are more and more evangelical. The seminary professor quoted earlier as saying his seminary was training the future leadership of the Orthodox Presbyterians and Conservative Baptists was dead wrong; it is training the evangelical future leadership of his own mainline denomination.

There are some indications that mainline denominations may be getting the message, and that a genuine renewal of youth work may be developing. The early eighties have seen a spontaneous movement among many mainline groups in the direction of the recovery of a pattern of an earlier day with the reemergence of youth councils, youth rallies in local areas, and a growing call for denominational resources with Christian content, rather than just methodology. Whether a real recovery of mainline youth programs is on the horizon remains to be seen, but early signs are encouraging.

Meanwhile, however, the wave of the future is already upon us. Where have all the young folks gone? They’re over at Young Life, studying their Bibles.

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