The 1997 Princeton Lectures on
Youth, Church, and Culture

“At-Risk Youth, At-Risk Church:
What Jesus Christ and American Teenagers are
Saying to the Mainline Church”


Webster's has two meanings for the term "mainline." The one teenagers know is the practice of injecting narcotics directly into the bloodstream to get a quick high. The second definition means the principle route a train takes to reach its destination.

Pick your metaphor. The term "mainline church" was coined when trains, like churches, were a principal means of getting somewhere people wanted to go. Today, teenagers' understanding of "mainline" paints an ominous portrait of who we are as a church: once-­‐able bodies who, after years of steady injections of American culture into our veins, have a dulled sense of who, what, and where we are.

We have reared a generation of teenagers to "just say no" to such behavior, and they're saying "no" to mainline Christianity in favor of visions of vitality elsewhere, many that endanger teenagers. According to a 1991 study released by the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, one in four teenagers is "at risk." The church must work with others to create communities of health and hope for young people.

Young people are also making another point. Their exodus from our pews and programs is a form of "tough love" to our denominations, telling us to shape up, to be who we say we are, and to let Jesus be who we say He is -­‐ the Savior, even of the mainline church.

In our "I'm dysfunctional, you're dysfunctional" world, it is easy to settle for therapy when resurrection is at stake. Maybe being "at risk" as a church isn't bad if it calls us back to the authenticity young people expect, and the Gospel requires. Maybe mainline churches and teenagers have something in common: a need to be saved.

These assumptions unite the lectures in this volume. The lectures in these pages provide an outline of "what Jesus Christ and American teenagers are saying to the mainline church" from the perspectives of systematic theology, practical theology, sociology, education, and American religious history (and futurism).

These lectures point to a theological foundation for ministry with young people that views youth as part of the mission of Christ and not as objects to be "won" for the propagation of the church. We approach this direction with humility and hope. The future of the church, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted when he himself was only twenty-­‐seven years old, depends not on youth, but on Jesus Christ. Still, we are confident that young people are prophets in our midst, and that by attending to the "risk" that accompanies adolescence in 1997, we will be better prepared to take the risk that accompanies Christian faith in any era.

Dayle Gillespie Rounds
Director, Institute for Youth Ministry
Princeton Theological Seminary

1997 Lectures

Shirley C. Guthrie
  • “Something to Believe In”
Sara Little
  • “Youth Ministry: Historical Reflections near the End of the Twentieth Century”
Roland Martinson
  • “Getting to All God's Kids”
Albert G. Miller
  • “What Jesus Christ and African American Teenagers Are Telling the African American Church”
Mary Elizabeth Mullino Moore
  • “Walking with Youth: Youth Ministry in Many Cultures”
  • “Volcanic Eruptions: Eruptive Youth Ministry”
  • “Promises and Practices for Tomorrow: Transforming Youth Leaders and Transforming Culture”
Wade Clark Roof
  • “At-­‐Risk Youth” “Today's Spiritual Quests”
  • “Ministry to Youth Today”
Leonard Sweet
  • “Living in an Ancient Future Faith”
Peggy Way
  • “Youth Ministry: A Celebration and a Challenge”
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Something to Believe In

Shirley Guthrie is the J.B. Green Professor of Systematic Theology at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, where he has helped prepare men and women for ministry for more than thirty-five years. Prior to that, he was the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Rusk, Texas. He is the author of numerous articles and books, including Christian Doctrine, now in its second printing.

I am honored and flattered to speak about "what Jesus Christ and American teenagers are saying to the mainline church." But I am also intimidated by the task, because I don't know what they are saying (much less whether they are saying the same thing).

Over the years I think I have learned something about the promises and demands of the Gospel. But all I can do — all I believe anyone can do — is to keep trying to figure out what the living God we come to know in Jesus Christ is saying and doing, and what we have to say and do in grateful and obedient response in our particular time, place, and situation. I am very suspicious of anyone who thinks he or she can do more than that.

I also think that I know at least a little bit about American teenagers, though it has been a long time since I worked regularly with them — and a long, long time since I was one. My wife and I were like Sarah and Abraham, who had a son later in life, and until three years ago we still had a teenager living in the house with us. Despite my advancing years, I am still invited now and then to meet with groups of young people in churches — especially when they hope I can answer questions their adult leaders can't answer. Some of the students I teach in seminary and some of the adults I meet in churches still behave like adolescents. Beyond all that, I think I know something about teenagers simply because I know something about the larger church and society in which they live. Of course they have needs and problems that are unique to their stage in life, but either in page 2 acquiescence or in rebellion they reflect the values and goals we older people have passed on to them. They are not some weird aliens who have invaded our planet; they are mirrors in which we see ourselves.

But while for all these reasons I think I have some understanding of what are always called "our youth," I would not dream of making blanket statements about what they are telling us — even the middle class white kids most of us know and work with in our churches, not to mention Black or Hispanic kids who live in inner city ghettos, and those of every race and class who have nothing to do with the church. And I am suspicious of anyone else who thinks he or she can make such statements.

So I won't pretend that I know what Jesus Christ and American teenagers are saying to us. I want rather to talk about a deep, often unconscious and unexpressed hunger I find in teenagers (along with their parents and the rest of American society). And I want to talk about what I believe we must say and do if we are to be open to learn where and how the living God in a living Christ is at work to satisfy that hunger — in our own lives as well as in the lives of the teenagers for whom we are responsible.

The Hunger

Sometimes you have to get outside of a situation to discover a perspective from which you can understand what is going on in it. That is what happened to me when I began to think about this lecture. I remembered something that happened last January when I went with a group of seminary students to visit churches in Hungary. Most of the people we met were gray-haired people who, often at great cost, had stubbornly held on to their Christian faith during the forty years when the church was repressed by a communist regime. But one evening in Budapest we were invited to a Bible study group composed mostly of young people. One of our group asked a young woman who was probably eighteen or nineteen why she was there. She said simply, "I go to church because I need something to believe in." She went on to say that the Marxist ideology she had been fed in school and at home had given her something to believe in and to commit herself to, but it turned out to be a lie. And now she was hoping that the church might give her something trustworthy to believe in, to make sense of her life, to give herself to.

Now my guess is that if you took a survey asking the young people (or adults) in our country who still go to church why they go, very few would say that. Most likely they would give all kinds of psychological or sociological reasons. At best, like a boy who went to the big evangelical conference for teens in Washington last year, they might say they go to church to "have fun with Jesus." But I am convinced that in what has been called post-Christian America, as in post-communist Eastern Europe, young people are hungry for something to believe in that gives meaning and purpose to their lives and is worth committing themselves to. And page 3 I am convinced that while they may not go to church in the first place to satisfy that hunger, they will not stay in the church unless we truthfully, honestly, and clearly introduce them to the God who can and will satisfy it.

That is the thesis I want to argue with you, and I want to defend it by telling you three stories that point to three different ways of offering hungry teenagers "something to believe in."

Something to Give Myself To

There was a boy who belonged to a very active church youth group led by a very competent and caring youth leader. The group met every Sunday morning in a Sunday school class that sought to relate Bible study to their lives at home and at school. They met every Sunday evening to eat hot dogs or spaghetti, participate in well-planned recreation designed to include everyone, and at least go through the motions of closing worship. In summer they had swimming parties, went to Six Flags Great Adventure and the beach, and spent a week together at a church camp where there was more community-building, recreation, Bible study, worship, and evening devotions around the campfire. In the winter they went skiing and Christmas caroling at the houses of shut-ins and at an old folks' home. The boy enjoyed it and participated gladly in all these activities.

Then one summer he went with others in the group to a three-week work camp in a poverty-stricken area of central Honduras. It was miserably hot. No air-conditioning. Outdoor privies. A monotonous diet of rice and beans. No place to go for fun - not even a Pizza Hut. They spent all day, every day, doing hard, sweaty, manual work repairing the building and grounds of the mission station where they lived and traveling around the countryside to play with desperately poor children whose language they could not speak. When the group came home, they had to write a brief report of their trip for the church bulletin, and the boy wrote something he had never said before about any of the group activities: "In Honduras I saw the face of God."

A little corny and sentimental, perhaps. But it was a life-changing experience for him that led him to go to college seeking a major that would prepare him not just to make money, be happy, and get ahead, but for a life of Christian vocation.

I am sure that many of you could tell similar stories about service projects in the coal-mining region of the Appalachians, in a barrio in Arizona, or in an inner city closer to home. You know from your own experience that what "turns kids on" and enables them to catch sight of what the Christian faith is all about is not entertainment, fun, and games. Nor is it just a chance to be with other Christian teenagers and to find a place where they are given self-worth. Nor is it even Bible study and worship as such. All these good things have a deep and lasting effect only when they contribute to offering young people what they want and need more than anything else — something worth giving themselves to, the cause of God in the world.

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Most of us already know that. But the problem is that we tend to forget it because we belong to a church that all too often has sought to attract young people (as well as adults) by proclaiming a Gospel that promises to solve all their problems, to enable them to feel good about themselves, and to give them everything they want to make them happy, safe, successful, and well-adjusted. Such a Gospel is only a pious version of the narcissistic, consumer-oriented, possessive individualism that is already alive and well in American society without being sugarcoated with talk about God or Jesus. The only difference is that it is pious self-centeredness, consumerism, and individualism.

I believe that young people (like their parents) will finally become bored and disillusioned with a false Gospel that talks only about what they will "get out" of going to church and about what God will give them and do for them. Especially young people from middle class white families who have already been given so many advantages, privileges, and things money can buy, but still feel empty, lost, and unfulfilled.

Of course young people (like everyone else) are interested in themselves and their own welfare. But I am convinced that we ought to take more seriously what our own experience teaches us: whether inside or outside the church, whatever their race, class, or culture, whether they are consciously aware of it or not, young people are hungry to see the face of God — the living and true God we come to know in Jesus Christ who cares not only for them and others like them, but for the needy and suffering world they see around them. We can help them do that only if we help them move beyond circling round and round themselves and their own needs, problems, and desires, and provide them with real, concrete, demanding opportunities to find themselves precisely as they give themselves to disciplined, sustained (not just once or twice a year) service of God and service of other people whom God loves just as much as God loves them. If we don't do that we will cheat them of what they want and need most, something worth committing themselves to - not a list of goodies God promises to pass out. In other words, the Gospel Jesus proclaimed and demonstrated is true: those who seek only to find themselves (even if they do it by going to church and believing in God) will lose their lives, and only those who deny themselves and take up their crosses to follow him in costly discipleship will find their lives.

That leads me to a second story.

Something That Answers the Big Questions

The youth leader asked me to come talk to the Sunday night youth group about death and dying. I didn't want to do it. "Teenagers are not interested in or ready to talk about that," I said. "They don't want a seminary professor to come give them a lecture in systematic theology."

"You're right about the lecture part," she said. "But two of their classmates committed suicide last year. Two others were killed in car wrecks. Three high page 5 school students in Atlanta were killed in the cross-fire of a gun fight in front of their school. Some of their grandparents and their parents are dying of cancer. Some of them even watch the news on TV and are deeply disturbed by the massive slaughter and suffering in places like Bosnia and Rwanda. They want to talk about it."

So I agreed, and she set it up in a brilliant way. Late one Sunday afternoon we all went to a cemetery near the church and sat down on the grass among the graves. I didn't know where to begin or what to say, so I said, "Well, here we are. What do you want to talk about?"

All the big questions the church has struggled with for centuries came in a flood. What happens when you die? Does a person's soul go to be with God? What is the soul? What's this stuff about the resurrection of the body we confess when we say the Apostles' Creed in church on Sunday? Is the world about to come to an end? Why do some people, like children and young people, die too soon; and others, like some old people, live too long? What about heaven and hell, and who is going where?

Too many hard questions all at once. Questions I didn't know how to answer or didn't get a chance to finish answering because other questions kept piling up on me. Questions to which teenagers especially will not accept easy, glib answers, or answers that simply repeat "what our church teaches." Questions that led to their inviting me to continue the conversation on several following Sunday nights.

Which led to more questions: (1) Kids from other churches keep asking us if we are saved, and whether we are sure we are saved. Do Presbyterians get saved? What does it mean to be saved? How can I know whether I am or not? (2) What should our attitude be toward kids at school who are Jews, Catholics, or Muslims? Is Christianity the only true religion, or are all religions basically the same? (3) What about evolution and creationism, and the fight about what we are taught in our biology text books?

The point is that we sell young people short if we think that all they are interested in is sex, how late they should be allowed to stay out at night, what they should do about drinking and drugs, and how they can get along with their parents and peers. Of course they are interested in such issues. But if we will just give them a chance and listen to them, they will raise all the big theological questions, too — above all the question of whether there is a God who is loving enough and powerful enough to do anything about all the hurt, suffering, injustice, and dying that invade their own lives and the world around them. They don't want youth leaders, ministers — or seminary professors — to give them all the right answers and tell them what they are supposed to believe or have to believe. But they are hungry for adult leaders who are willing and able to help them struggle with theological questions that, under the surface at least, deeply trouble them as well as their elders.

And I am convinced that unless we equip youth leaders and ministers, as well page 6 as theologians, with the resources to help young people with their struggle, we will lose them. They will turn in desperation to others who will be glad to give them all kinds of very questionable "right answers." Or they will just drop out, like millions of others in our increasingly secular society, to live without faith in anyone or anything. Or they will find substitutes for authentic Christian faith in some liberal or conservative political ideology or in psychological self-help techniques that in the long run will disappoint and betray them because their hope is in what we can do for ourselves if we work at it hard and long enough, rather than in what God can and promises to do.

That brings me to a third story.

Something to Live By

From the first grade through high school the boy (he could have been a girl) went to integrated public schools. His high school was 80 percent Black. Early on when he came home talking about other kids and teachers he liked, his mother or father would sometimes ask, "Is he or she Black?" They soon learned better, because the boy would look at them with an exasperated rolling of the eyes and say, "Mom!" or "Dad!" as if the question were completely irrelevant or disgustingly offensive. When he went to college he chose to room with a Buddhist Vietnamese boy, and when he came home it didn't occur to him to identify his friends or teachers by race, sexual orientation, cultural heritage, religion, or lack of it.

Among the things that impress me most about many of the young people I know is their acceptance of diversity and tolerance of people who are different from them. That is not true of all teenagers, of course, but many of them put us older people to shame because they don't just talk about the tolerance and inclusiveness we have tried so hard to teach them. They actually practice them.

But this acceptance of diversity has its downside, too. As with many adults in our country and in our churches, an emphasis on tolerance and inclusiveness has led many young people to a kind of religious and moral relativism that leaves them confused about who they are, what they believe, and how they ought to live. It leads them to ask whether there is any such thing as true and false, right and wrong, and, even if there is, whether it is possible to know the difference.

I believe that if we want to interest young people today (outside as well as inside the church), and if we want to keep them in the church, we have to help them deal with their hunger for something beyond tolerance and inclusivism as such, something that will help them find their way among all the confusing religious and moral options they confront among their friends and in society in general.

It isn't easy. Most of the young people I know don't want — and authentic biblical Christian faith will refuse to offer them — a legalistic, simplistic list of rules and regulations that tell them exactly what they must and must not do.

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Especially when it comes with threats about what God, the church, or adult authorities will do to them if they don't knuckle under. Most of them don't want — and authentic biblical Christian faith does not offer — the one right answer to every theological and ethical question. Especially when it claims that we Christians and our church know it all and that anyone who disagrees with us is wrong. Most of them do not want — and authentic biblical Christian faith does not proclaim — an authoritarian, exclusive, arrogant, and intolerant understanding of Christian faith and life.

But I believe young people (as well as their parents) do want — and that biblical Christian faith does offer—more than just to "love, accept, and include everybody." They want some guidelines that help them find their way between a rigid, know-everything, self-righteous religious and moral absolutism on the one hand, and a sentimental know-nothing, anything-goes relativism on the other. I think they want to hear about a truth-telling, promise-keeping, faithful God who invites and requires God's people to tell the truth, to keep promises, and to be faithful in all their relationships. I think they want to hear about a God and a people of God who do not leave them alone to flounder in a sea of possibilities, but who care enough to set limits and boundaries for their own good, and who promise to go with them on their way, to forgive their mistakes (and love and accept them despite their mistakes), and to help them with all the decisions they have to make if they are to be responsible human beings. I think young people today (not all of them Christians) want to hear about a God and a people of God who care not just about them and their kind of people, but also about others who are different from them, especially those who seem to be left out and rejected by the kind of society America has become.

We cheat our young people of the very thing they want and need most if we do not tell them the story of such a God and help them know and experience in the church what human life looks like that is shaped by that story. If we don't do it, we will do one of two things: (1) We will drive them to the intolerant, arrogant, self-righteous political and religious right or left that claims to have all the answers and tries to force everyone else to live by them, or (2) we will leave them to swim in an ocean of indulgent, permissive relativism in which they are unable to make any decisions at all about what they will be and do because they believe all decisions are equally right or wrong.


You are dead right if you have heard me saying just what you expected a systematic theologian to say: What the church needs more than anything else is ministers, professional youth workers, and lay people who deliberately, explicitly, and programmatically talk about God, and who are equipped with biblical knowledge and theological competence to do it clearly, honestly, truthfully, and in a way that makes sense.

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Of course that is not all we have to do. We have to give teenagers the best psychological understanding and help we are capable of giving. We have to provide a safe place where they can be themselves and be together with their friends. We have to provide wholesome fun and entertainment. We have to learn to communicate with them on their own ground, with the music, language, and TV and movie images that shape their world.

But in the last analysis, there are other clubs and organizations that can do that as well if not better than the church can. There is only one thing we have to offer teenagers that is unique and that they can get nowhere else: talk about the living God we Christians come to know in Jesus Christ, and what God is up to in their lives and in the world around them.

Of course mere talk is not enough. Everything we say about the truth of God in Jesus Christ will fall on bored and cynical ears if youth leaders and youth groups do not bear witness to the truth by the way they relate to each other and what they do outside the group. But if it is really God to whom we seek to bear witness in what we say and do, we have to make it very clear that God's kindness and justice is far more trustworthy, far more unqualified, and far more enduring than the very best we manage to whomp up. And in order to make that clear we have to talk about God, not just about us Christians.

If we do it right — if it really is the truth of the living God and not just ourselves and our personal opinions we talk about — we do not have to be afraid that young people will find our talk boring or irrelevant, or just pious talk they have to put up with in order to be with their friends, get some free pizza, and go to Six Flags Great Adventure.

They will be interested because what we have to talk about is a God who is not the enemy but the friend of just such people as they know themselves to be — people who often feel lost and alone and mixed up and no good. A God who doesn't judge whether they are ugly or beautiful; loners and misfits or cheerleaders and class presidents; rebellious "bad kids" who are always in trouble and cause trouble or good little boys and girls who say and do everything they are supposed to.

They will be interested because the God we have to talk about does indeed set limits, say "No," refuse to let young people (or anyone else) get by with irresponsible, self-destructive, community-destroying behavior — but a God who does this not to rob them of their freedom but to give them freedom. Real freedom. Freedom from the slavery that comes from living only for their own self-interest. Freedom for the common good of all people and the cause of God's compassion and justice in the world.

They will be interested because the God we have to talk about is the God who in a crucified, risen, and coming Christ was and is and will be at work to overcome all the pain and suffering, evil and injustice, and death that keep breaking into their own lives, the lives of their friends and families, and the lives of all those other people who live in our lost, confused, fouled-up world.

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It is not that if we do what we are paid to do, we have to make room in everything else we do to talk about God, as if that were an unfortunate part of our jobs. We can do it — gladly, expectantly, eagerly. Because what we have to show and tell, tell and show, is the Good News that young people are desperately hungry for and want more than anything else. The Good News is that there is something — someone — trustworthy that they can believe in and commit their lives to.