by Thomas E. Bergler
Wm. B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Mich. 175 pages
REVIEWED BY ANDY NAGEL
How will we attract the young people?” If you’re around a church for any period of time, you’re bound to hear this question — asked with brows-a-furrowed and hands-a-wringing. In this 2012 book, “The Juvenilization of American Christianity,” Thomas Bergler documents (and laments) that since the 1930s, American Christianity has been occupied with “the young people,” adapting and accommodating in various ways to draw and keep the upcoming generations. Ironically, the church’s attempt to attract youth has rendered the church itself spiritually juvenile, unable to even articulate — much less pursue — a coherent vision for spiritual maturity. Bergler’s thesis in that book, while presenting a somewhat flat analysis, paints a discouraging picture of spiritual maturity in our time: “We are all adolescents now.”
In this follow-up volume, Bergler seeks to offer a positive proposal towards spiritual maturity. He isn’t asking how to attract young people, but rather how to help people grow up into Christ. After a brief summary of his first book, Bergler helpfully argues that if we don’t know what spiritual maturity is, we are not likely to arrive there. He skillfully considers biblical treatments of themes of growth, development and maturity making the important conclusion that spiritual maturity is “far from being the end point of spiritual growth, spiritual maturity is the base camp from which the ascent of the mountain of holiness can begin in earnest.” Thus, spiritual maturity is defined as basic competencies of the Christian life; habits and characteristics that should be expected, pursued and developed by everyone who is growing in Christ.
To set a vision of spiritual maturity as definable and attainable is so important for our time, when some churches’ spiritual formation lacks depth and others’ lack relevance … but virtually all lack an organizing vision. Unfortunately, as the book moves to practical application, things get fuzzy again. While acknowledging the importance of local contextual consideration and adaptions, Bergler’s suggestion is the adoption of Dallas Willard’s VIM Model, outlined in Willard’s “Renovation of the Heart.” But if the reader is not already familiar with this model, she will probably not gain useful clarity from reading Bergler’s summary of it. Bergler’s original and laudable call to a clear and communicable vision of spiritual maturity ends as a mentoring model that sounds a bit more like some hellish corporate mission/vision retreat than an organic growth in Christlikeness: “A general vision of spiritual maturity should be further subdivided into individual vision statements, with only one element of spiritual maturity as a focus of growth at any given time.” Sigh … .
Still, pastors and Christian educators need to give careful thought to the question of spiritual maturity that Bergler is raising. If we are asking the questions he is asking and pursuing the goal he has set out for us, the church will be stronger, healthier, and — ironically — more attractive to the very young people who are looking for examples of the Christ-like life lived maturely and well.
ANDY NAGEL is associate pastor of discipleship and missions at Central Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, Maryland.