Youth Ministries

Youth ministries–or religious programs and organizations for adolescents–are among the most notable institutional innovations in the modern history of religion. They have involved millions of young people as members, especially from among Protestant Christianity in Europe and the United States, but also from other Christian denominations around the globe as well as JUDAISM, ISLAM, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Of course, religious leaders have always tried to communicate their beliefs and practices across generations. RITES OF PASSAGE and coming-of-age rituals are ancient. But focused religious attention to a group of young people located in age between childhood and adulthood developed along with the notion of ADOLESCENCE, and shortly after SUNDAYSCHOOLS, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The earliest religious youth societies appeared in Europe, but youth ministries grew most dramatically in contexts of religious voluntarism and pluralism, such as existed in the United States. Observers had long noted the predominance of young people among converts at American religious revivals. As some American religious leaders began to note an absence of young people among active members in the late nineteenth century, the revivalist strategy of targeting youth for conversion became a pattern for more enduring programs and organizations. The most notable organizations to develop this strategy were the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), founded by George Williams in 1844 in London, and the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), founded in Boston and New York in the 1850s by women such as Mrs. Marshall Roberts and Lucretia Boyd. Both youth movements were connected in sometimes general, sometimes quite specific, ways to local Protestant churches. They also established numerous links with business and industry, and occasionally with labor. Both movements also sought to engage youth in wholesome activities such as recreation, missionary endeavor, and education, and to protect young people from what experts considered unsavory elements in cities. Over the course of the twentieth century, the Ys developed a tripartite focus on programs for "body, mind, and spirit," and offered a wide range of social services for young people, including several radical initiatives in the 1960s. In the last decades of the twentieth century, both the YMCA and YWCA largely transformed themselves into family-serving recreational centers with services for individuals of all ages, regardless of religious affiliation.

As their organizational structure suggests, the YMCA and YWCA movements were initially committed to a rigid separation of the genders. The same was true of ethnicity. African-American young people were segregated by the Ys into separate but not equal facilities until the 1940s, and much longer in some settings. This rigid gender and racial separation was characteristic of the early years of many youth ministries, and often provided occasions for women and minorities to lead organizations in ways that, ironically, overturned the assumptions of white male superiority that had led to the segregation. Consequently, segregation softened considerably over the decades, as did the evangelical zeal and Protestant dominance of the Ys. The YWCA especially eventually embraced an ideology of ethnic and cultural pluralism as part of a "global women's movement," as Judith Weisenfeld and Nancy Boyd have documented. The Ys also spawned, beginning in the 1920s, a number of other significant Christian youth movements and agencies that were very influential in the global ecumenical movement, such as the World Christian Student Federation, the Student Volunteer Movement, and the youth bureau of the World Council of Churches (see Ans van der Bent's From Generation to Generation). These movements often linked missionary activity with political activism of a "progressive" stripe, as young people began to confront the global consequences of European and American colonialism.

Along with the emergence of the YMCA and YWCA in the late nineteenth century came many other Protestant youth ministries. Some of them welcomed African Americans, although most traditionally black denominations also developed their own youth boards and bureaus. The nondenominational Christian Endeavor was the largest of the numerous Protestant youth ministries. Christian Endeavor began at Williston Congregational Church in Portland, Maine, under the direction of Dr. Francis E. Clark, on February 2, 1881. By 1887 the organization boasted seven thousand societies with five hundred thousand members, mostly from Presbyterian and Congregationalist Protestant churches (the so-called mainline churches) around the globe, although members were also drawn from other denominations. The structure of Christian Endeavor established a much imitated pattern: weekly meetings for prayer, devotions, education, and recreation in local societies (usually a congregation), a publication, The Christian Endeavor World, annual conventions or gatherings, and a board of directors. Christian Endeavor was also distinguished by its pledge, which committed young people to daily bible reading and prayer, active membership in a local congregation, and missionary activism. Christian Endeavor continued to operate into the twenty-first century, although membership declined dramatically as particular denominations developed their own in-house youth boards, publications, and offices.

If Christian youth ministries began as ventures among mainline Protestant groups, evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants after World War II founded many enduring nondenominational youth ministries. Youth for Christ adapted the well-known revival format into radio broadcast rallies for young people at sporting arenas around the country in the 1940s, featuring up-tempo white gospel music and testimony by war heroes and sport stars. Billy Graham was the first traveling evangelist for Youth for Christ. Young Life was another enduring evangelical youth ministry begun in the 1940s, but it was quickly followed by Campus Crusade for Christ, Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Youth Specialties, Group Publishing, and many others.

These Protestant youth ministries in the United States shared many features and a common historical trajectory. They generally began in urban settings, triggered by the migrations of young people to cities for industrial and other specialized work. They were organized in conjunction with local congregations, and established networks through national conferences, publications, and SUMMER CAMPS. They originated to meet needs among young people for employment assistance, housing, education, recreation, and spiritual fellowship, but were quickly tailored by religious leaders to specific agendas. They were generally middle class in mentality and morality, proved strongest in the Midwest, and increasingly took on the trappings of a profession as trained and certified youth ministers began to be placed in congregations in the 1950s and after.

By the twenty-first century, youth ministries and ministers were conventional features of religious traditions in the United States, with institutional presence in buildings, denominational offices, publications, congregations, web pages, and campgrounds. Through their missionary activity, some youth ministries have spun off or collaborated with international organizations committed to social justice and environmental causes, akin to the Peace Corps. Among the most notable to engage youth in this way are the youth and campus chapters of Habitat for Humanity, the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, the Lutheran Volunteer Corps, and the youth internships and other programs of the Mennonite Central Committee. All in all, GLOBALIZATION has become a contested topic among the leaders of Christian youth ministries in the early twenty-first century. Of course, conversion-oriented missions also continue among some Protestant youth ministries and among Mormons, whose two-year mission requirements for college-aged young people and daily "seminary" programs for youths aged fourteen to eighteen continue to be supported by broad social pressures among Mormons.

Among Roman Catholics, youth ministry has often been connected to parish-based catechesis, or education to prepare for the sacraments of confirmation, communion, and marriage. Nevertheless, specific organizations and programs, such as World Youth Day, have also developed among Catholics to target particular groups of young people. In the United States these organizations and programs grew slowly and sporadically in local venues, due in part to the competing ethnic enclaves into which Catholics tended to cluster after immigration. The Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) was the first movement to bridge some of these groups into a pan-ethnic youth-serving organization. CYO began in the 1930s under the leadership of Bishop Bernard Sheil of Chicago, initially as youth BOXING leagues, but eventually spinning off into a range of ministries, and continuing in some locales into the twenty-first century under Archdiocesan auspices. The Young Christian Workers (YCW) and the Young Christian Students (YCS) were part of the international Catholic Action movement that revitalized mid-twentieth-century Catholicism, and drew thousands of lay Catholic youth into particularly formative programs until the energy behind that movement was absorbed in the reforms of the second Vatican Council (1962–1965).

Outside of the United States, church–state unity or religious and ethnic homogeneity lent youth ministries a different political dynamic. German youth movements, and especially the relationships between both Protestant and Catholic youth groups and the rise of National Socialism, have been closely studied, as have the connections between YMCA missionaries and traditional religious and political practices in Japan (see Mark Roseman and Jon Davidann, respectively). Elsewhere, relationships forged between the international missionary activity of youth ministries and cultural developments were complex and variable. One recurring phenomenon is the appearance of young people in new religious movements, such as the flourishing Pentecostalism across the Southern Hemisphere. Religious youth have also often been implicated in religious extremism and violence, although historical causality is anything but clear in these cases. What is clear is that some malleable but durable myths or cultural conventions about the life stage known as youth, with young people represented as both problems (devils) and with potential (angels), have become cross-cultural currency, and that the international presence of Christian youth ministries played a role in the construction and dissemination of these conventions.

It is therefore not surprising that what began as an innovation within Christian traditions has also spread to other religious groups. For instance, Jewish youth have organized throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, most notably in the B'nai B'rith Youth Organization and B'nai B'rith Girls, but also in Hillel, a campus-based organization, the Federation of Zionist Youth, and others. Muslim youth have founded the World Assembly of Muslim Youth, the Muslim Youth of North America (affiliated with the Islamic Society of North America), and the Muslim Student Association, among others. Buddhist youth could by the late twentieth century participate in a range of activities through the Dharma Realm Buddhist Youth organization and the World Federation of Buddhist Youth, and Hindu high schoolers could join the Hindu Students Council. Many local synagogues, temples, and mosques also ran programs tailored specifically to adolescents.

The significance of these youth ministries for the history of childhood cannot be measured singly, but some broad generalities may pertain. Throughout the twentieth century, youth ministries clearly extended the span of childhood and solidified middle-class desires and status across traditions. They often had links to business. Connections with labor were less frequent. Youth ministries have also tended to be bastions of conservative gender and racial ideologies, although they often unwittingly provided space for experimentation in gender roles, and sometimes explicitly encouraged leadership among women and racial minorities. Usually intended to preserve religious traditions, youth ministries have also been marked by fuzzy ideological boundaries, and have been located on the social margins of official traditions, thus allowing ecumenical and interfaith experimentation on the part of young members. Generally nationalist in politics, if not colonialist or imperialist, youth ministries have also multiplied opportunities for young people to gain international experience, and thus have indirectly (especially in the late twentieth century) promoted multicultural awareness, when they have not motivated religious extremism.

All in all, little evidence remains to support the judgments of Joseph Kett that youth ministries vanished in America during the late twentieth century, or were only banal and culturally confirming. In fact, the significance of these movements deserves careful historical investigation in both local and international contexts, in discrete periods. Recent studies have clarified that the organizations nurtured future leaders for religious groups throughout the twentieth century, and that they sometimes radically reshaped traditions and cultures through visionary leadership and through the agency of the young people who joined them.

See also: Organized Recreation and Youth Groups; YWCA and YMCA.


Bergler, Thomas E. 2001. "Winning America: Christian Youth Groups and the Middle-Class Culture of Crisis, 1930–1965." Ph.D. diss., University of Notre Dame.

Boyd, Nancy. 1986. Emissaries: The Overseas Work of the American YWCA, 1895–1970. New York: Woman's Press.

Coble, Christopher Lee. 2001. "Where Have All the Young People Gone? The Christian Endeavor Movement and the Training of Protestant Youth, 1881–1918." Ph.D. diss., Harvard University.

Davidann, Jon Thares. 1998. A World of Crisis and Progress: The American YMCA in Japan, 1890–1930. Bethlehem, PA: Lehigh University Press.

Kett, Joseph. 1977. Rites of Passage: Adolescence in America, 1790 to the Present. New York: Basic Books.

Mjagkij, Nina, and Margaret Spratt, eds. 1997. Men and Women Adrift: The YMCA and the YWCA in the City. New York: New York University Press.

Myers, William R. 1991. Black and White Styles of Youth Ministry: Two Congregations in America. New York: Pilgrim Press.

Pahl, Jon. 1993. Hopes and Dreams of All: The International Walther League and Lutheran Youth in American Culture, 1893–1993. Chicago: Wheat Ridge.

Pahl, Jon. 2000. Youth Ministry in Modern America: 1930 to the Present. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.

Roseman, Mark, ed. 1995. Generations in Conflict: Youth Revolt and Generation Formation in Germany, 1770–1968. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Senter, Mark H., III. 1992. The Coming Revolution in Youth Ministry. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.

Van der Bent, Ans J. 1986. From Generation to Generation: The Story of Youth in the World Council of Churches. Geneva: World Council of Churches.

Weisenfeld, Judith. 1997. African American Women and Christian Activism: New York's Black YWCA, 1905–1945. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Zotti, Mary Irene. 1991. A Time of Awakening: The Young Christian Worker Story in the United States, 1938–1970. Chicago: Loyola University Press.