March 5, 2015
A book review of Thomas Bergler’s 2014 book From Here to Maturity: Overcoming the Juvenilization of American Christianity.
In the Spring of 2012, American religious historian Thomas E. Bergler dropped a bomb on the playground of evangelicalism with his The Juvenilization of American Christianity. In Juvenilization, Bergler lays forth an incisive critique of several Christian subgroups: mainline Protestantism, the Black Church, Roman Catholicism, and Evangelicalism. His major thesis was that, in an effort to try to reach youth for the world in the early-to-mid 20th century, the various groupings surveyed actually served to “juvenilize” their youth and thus poison the well for future theological and ethical development.
While all of the critiques served as fascinating case studies, the chapter that stood above them all was his chapter on Evangelicalism. In it, he offered a withering critique of certain patterns, practices, and innovations that did more harm than good for the evangelical enterprise in the long run. Because of the juvenilization that occurred, the rise of things like the seeker-sensitive movement and other forms of individualistic spirituality would reign supreme within evangelicalism, serving to be a fertile ground for the propagation of Christian Smith’s “moralistic therapeutic deism.” Instead of local churches being a place of formative transformation, the churches began to parrot youth camps and tent revivals — those ministry practices whose original intent was toward pushing youth and non-believers inside the walls of churches. The tail had begun to wag the dog.
Thomas Bergler’s The Juvenilization of American Christianity served as a catalyst for a much-needed conversation and self-assessment for Christians, especially evangelicals. Yet, questions began to be raised about how helpful Bergler’s book was. “After all,” many would say, “what good does it do to raise a criticism but not offer any practical suggestions for moving forward?”
It was that question that animated Bergler to write a follow-up to The Juvenilization of American Christianity. From Here to Maturity: Overcoming the Juvenilization of American Christianity is Bergler’s response to critics who raised the “so what?” question in terms of American Christianity’s juvenilization and what to do about it. Coming in at right under 150 pages, From Here to Maturity is a quick survey over some of the issues and what those looking to do — to turn the boat from juvenilization to maturity — might do about them. The book is not meant to be an in depth analysis, but a “practical guide to fostering maturity in local congregations” and to “help church leaders looking to foster maturity in their congregations” (xiii). This is a welcomed aim and I’m glad Bergler set out to do just that.
Survey of Contents
In his first chapter, “We’re All Adolescents Now,” Bergler runs through some of the issues that he covered in Juvenilization, but goes further by looking at the contemporary scorn that many Americans have toward adulthood and growing up. The chapter is devastating. Not only does he recognize that “growing up” isn’t what it used to be, he also realizes that “both the journey to adulthood and the destination has changed” (4). Through a variety of factors including, but not limited to, early puberty, institutions that target youth specifically, advertising that praises youthfulness and scorns adulthood, delayed marriage, consumerism, and so forth, we see that maturity simply is not what it once was. Not only is maturity something that is no longer desirable, it’s something that many — including the church — don’t even really think about. What’s more: spirituality is conceived entirely within categories of identity creation, individualism, and a “what’s good for me” pastiche spirituality. This is the landscape in which many pastors find themselves ministering.
After exposing the issues, Bergler’s second chapter, “Growing Up Into Christ,” explores the biblical and theological foundations for maturity in Christ. Through exegesis of the relevant texts — Ephesians 2, Philippians 3, Matthew 28 — Bergler shows that the gospel of grace does not free us up to licentiousness or careless living, but calls us to maturity in Christ. “Excluding transformation from the gospel detracts from the glory of God in Christ because it implies that God . . . could not figure out a way to actually fix us to any significant degree” (32). Instead of being Christians who “love the idea of being a child of God,” we should remember that God disciplines us (39). The vision for holistic Christian discipleship, according to scripture, is for disciples of Jesus to love one another, serve one another, and seek to grow up into Christ who is the head of the Church. This is something that should be preached on, called for, and desired by those in the church.
Bergler’s next chapter, “Helping Adults Mature,” is a practical discussion of what it might look like to implement some sort of strategy for Christian maturity within local assemblies. While it’s exciting to see Bergler set forth a system for overcoming juvenilization, for various reasons this chapter doesn’t seem to deliver. Maybe it’s because Bergler is trying to write for a broad constituency, but his transdenominational hopes seem to blunt the force of some of his arguments. For example, in talking about mentor / mentee relationships he speaks of things like “listening to God” and “talking about your spiritual life story.” In discussions such as these, I found myself more confused than helped. In fact, this seems to be one of the central weaknesses about From Here to Maturity: it serves no good to lay out foundational principles with squishy, plastic phrases like “listening to God,” “standing firm,” “practice in community,” or even “missional living.” In fact, for those who have experienced the juvenilizing tendencies within evangelicalism, plastic phrases such as these only serve to further juvenilize, deceiving disciples into thinking they are progressing in sanctification when in fact they’re only offering up empty words and phrases that have a veneer of godliness.
In his fourth chapter, “Reaching the Tipping Point: Youth Ministries That Help the Whole Church Mature,” Bergler focuses his sights specifically on youth ministry and what churches can be doing to change the culture of their youth ministries. Indeed, Bergler asserts that “if I am right about how juvenilization works, then it is crucial for churches to help teenagers catch a vision for spiritual maturity. Otherwise, they may get stuck in spiritual adolescence and become the next generation of mature adults.” (81) This is a noble aim, though it may strike some — especially those approaching congregational life from a more family integrated approach — as an odd way to approach issues of juvenilization by focusing so much on what makes juveniles themselves “stick.” Bergler highlights some of the issues from chapter one and shows that in order to reach emerging adults, there must be a plan of attack. With the aid of social science research, Bergler calls for churches to consider ways in which they, as congregations, can best set youth on a trajectory toward spiritual growth.
In his fifth and final chapter, “From Here to Maturity,” Bergler sets out a four step plan for congregations to move toward spiritual maturity. Through observation of practices, Bergler raises some key issues for church leaders to evaluate. For example, part of the issue for juvenilization in previous generations has been from a lack of consideration about the medium by which one wishes to communicate the gospel. As an example, Bergler explores the nature of music in congregational worship. This proved to be a very helpful chapter, especially when considering the formative nature of practices — for good or for ill. Bergler also has scores of diagnostic questions for pastors and church leaders to consider throughout.
The Juvenilization of American Christianity has proven to be one of the more impactful books I have read in the last five years. In it, Thomas E. Bergler raised issues which helped me diagnose things that seemed to be at variance with orthodox Christianity; for that I am very grateful. While From Here to Maturity raises similar issues it hopes to overcome, I couldn’t help but feel a little underwhelmed. Strangely, it seems that some of the practices that he encourages congregations to undertake would only continue to undermine his central goal: maturity in congregations. It’s possible that by writing to a “big tent” audience some of the language and suggestions he employs seems to blunt his argument.
Instead of focusing so much on principles, maybe it’s that in aiming for maturity we let the words of Scripture confront us as individuals and congregations — each with our own cultural idolatries — and are called to an ethic that shames the wisdom of this world. Maybe overcoming juvenilization, while difficult, stands to be as simple as hearing and obeying Saint Paul’s words when he says, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.” Churches which take seriously the authority and primacy of Scripture will not help but aim at such a goal as simple as that.
Scott is married to his wonderful wife Jessi, and is currently an M.Div. student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He studied History at Texas State University in San Marcos, TX. Follow him on Twitter @scottacorbin.
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