Youth for Christ

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Youth for Christ

Youth for Christ (YFC) is a nondenominational evangelistic youth organization. The Youth for Christ movement grew out of fundamentalist dissatisfaction with the perceived liberalism of organizations such as the YMCA. The movement's precise origins are unclear; however, the New York Christian Youth Center rallies begun in 1932 by Lloyd Bryant of Manhattan's Calvary Baptist Church constituted an early and influential example of a Youth for Christ–style program. Unrelated but comparable efforts were in evidence in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Indianapolis, Detroit, St. Louis, Minneapolis and other northern cities in the 1930s and early 1940s, while similar interchurch cooperative youth rallies appeared in the South among the Southern Baptists.

With the coming of World War II the movement picked up considerable momentum. While the various Youth for Christ efforts remained unconnected, its regional manifestations shared a number of important features. Most local rallies revolved around dynamic, young preachers impatient with the methods of traditional revivalism and aware of the tastes and expectations of the developing youth culture around them. Flashy dressers who wore styles favored by teens, they ran tight, well-rehearsed programs and often patterned their speaking styles after well-known radio personalities. Programs were designed to emphasize audience participation and featured humor and skits. Music was key to the emerging Youth for Christ style, with an emphasis on lively gospel songs for congregational-style singing and instrumentation and with vocal arrangements for special music that closely paralleled the era's popular Big Band styles.

Among the most successful of the Youth for Christ organizations was Chicagoland Youth for Christ, begun in early 1944 by Torrey Johnson, pastor of Chicago's Midwest Bible Church. Deluged with inquiries after a fall rally at Chicago Stadium drew a crowd of twenty-eight thousand and nationwide publicity, Johnson and his brother-in-law, evangelist Robert "Bob" C. Cook, dashed off a quick how-to book and took the lead in organizing a temporary Youth for Christ office in Chicago. A subsequent program on Memorial Day 1945 attracted seventy-five thousand to Chicago's Soldier Field, stimulating a renewed outpouring of press attention, including an endorsement from newspaper publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. With this momentum, forty-two delegates from around the country officially organized Youth for Christ at a July 1945 meeting in Winona Lake, Indiana. Johnson was elected its first president, and a young pastor from Western Springs, Illinois—Billy Graham—was hired as YFC's first full-time field representative.

With a new institutional framework, YFC experienced tremendous growth during the next few years. In 1946 it was estimated that there were nine hundred separate YFC rallies scattered across North America, with regular attendance of more than one million. Additionally, YFC teams began extensive work among U.S. servicemen overseas and established a number of YFC branches in other countries.

YFC's growth was not without controversy, however. Many mainline Protestant critics denounced the movement as frivolous, while some conservatives frowned on its incorporation of worldly entertainment values. But in the face of growing juvenile delinquency and the specter of the Communist threat, many church leaders and a number of civic leaders and journalists were happy to back any movement that seemed to reaffirm religion and traditional American values.

In 1948, the same year that Billy Graham enlisted several YFC colleagues for an independent evangelistic team, Bob Cook replaced Johnson as YFC president. Under Cook, the organization's methods and focus gradually evolved as YFC concentrated in the 1950s and 1960s on the nation's growing suburbs, a change symbolized by the 1953 move of its headquarters from Chicago to nearby Wheaton, Illinois. Rallies gradually receded in importance, and the establishment of high school–based Bible clubs replaced work among servicemen. By 1960 there were nearly 2,700 YFC-sponsored Bible clubs in the United States and Canada. During the same period summer camping programs were expanded and Bible quiz teams became a YFC rage, leading to spirited local, regional, and national competitions.

Since the 1960s, the high school Bible club (renamed Campus Life in the early 1960s), controlled through local and regional YFC chapters, has remained the organization's basic strategy. However, since the mid-1960s there has been a conscious effort to keep YFC from being too narrowly identified with white, middle-class youth, and as a result it has—with uneven results—continually sought to extend its work among minorities and economically disadvantaged youth. YFC's organizational peak came in the early and mid-1970s (resulting from the convergence of "baby boom" demographics and the Jesus People Movement) but was followed by steady decline and attendant financial problems during the 1980s. In a move to stabilize its operation, it sold off its long-running magazine, Campus Life, in 1982 and in another cost-cutting effort moved its offices to Denver in 1991. As of 1998 YFC had 127 foreign branches, as well as 224 local chapters in the United States, overseeing more than 2,300 programs in schools, neighborhoods, and juvenile facilities across the country.

See alsoEvangelical Christianity; Graham, Billy; InterVarsity Christian Fellowship; Jesus Movement; Journalism, Religious; Music; Publishing, Religious; Televangelism.


Carpenter, Joel A. Revive Us Again: The Reawakening ofAmerican Fundamentalism. 1997.

Hefley, James C. God Goes to High School. 1970.

Johnson, Torrey, and Robert Cook. Reaching Youth forChrist. 1944.

Larson, Mel. Young Man on Fire: The Story of Torrey Johnson and Youth for Christ. 1945.

Shelley, Bruce L. "The Rise of Evangelical Youth Movements." Fides et Historia 18 (1986): 47–63.

Youth for Christ records, Collection 48, Archives of the Billy Graham Center, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Ill.

Larry Eskridge