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of Adolescent Narcissism?
A Review of
From Here To Maturity: Overcoming the Juvenilization of American Christianity.
Paperback: Eerdmans; 2014.
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Reviewed By Paul D. Gregory
I’ve been involved in church my entire life. I attended Sunday school as soon as I graduated nursery. I was present at youth group on Wednesday evenings and spent Sunday morning and evenings playing in church bands. I served three years on an elder board and another five leading a local outreach ministry. Yeah, I’m well acquainted with church life. Now you may be asking, “Why should I care about your ecclesial pedigree and how does it pertain to this book review?” Let me briefly explain. My church involvement has provided opportunities to experience individuals enter and exit church. I’ve experienced individuals who were “on fire for God” fizzle out and never be heard from again. I’ve met the church hoppers – those who enter and leave your church every three months – who leave upset, once again, at the youth, lead pastor, or “irreverent” teachings from the pulpit. If honest, I have to admit that some of these scenarios might have been justified; however, many were not. And some result from what Thomas Bergler calls the Juvenilization of Christianity or a lack of spiritual maturity.
One of the author’s main points in this book is that many Christians in America have a juvenilized faith. This type of faith, is better described as a “…self-focused, immature faith” (25). It is a faith characterized as overly-relational and therapeutic. Individuals tend to value the utility of their relationship with God (“What can He do for me?”) and love being in church with others who hold similar values. However, the same individuals tend to be less interested in strict beliefs contained in the structure of their religion. Bergler sums up his thoughts by saying “American Christianity looks a lot like we would expect it to look if many Americans were stuck in a Christianized version of adolescent narcissism” (25).
Importantly, this juvenilized version of faith is not solely a product of the church; rather it also stems from the greater societal changes occurring that have simultaneously decreased the duration of childhood and lengthened adolescence, all of which have extended the time one enters full adulthood. So this issue is much more complex than merely changing our ways inside the church building. One of the compounding problems, however, is that the church has welcomed this structure into their own programming both for kids and adults.
A good part of Bergler’s book is dedicated to explaining the process by which individuals can attain spiritual maturity. Bergler writes that Christians need to (see p. 27): (1) comprehend the transformative nature of the gospel; (2) be seized by a vision of the gospel as desirable, attainable and clear; and (3) comprehend the actual process of growth that leads to spiritual maturity. First, there is a necessary internal change that should occur in one’s life when he/she follows Christ. We often hear Christians talk about how their faith in Christ makes them feel; however, real spiritual maturity begins with a transformation where our own selves die in order to be filled by God. Second, many Christians need to develop a better understanding of what it means to mature in Christ. It is not focused on obtaining a state of perfection; rather “…the mature are those who are actively putting off the old self and putting on the new self in many other ways” (42). And third, the process of growth that leads to spiritual maturity doesn’t occur alone. Maturity occurs when individuals are nurtured by a collective spiritually-mature group. It is during this process that individuals model what they see from others close to them. However, Bergler is quick to point out that actual growth results only come through God.
Bergler devotes a chapter to the tipping point to spiritual maturity. That is what is the timing involved in one transitioning into a spiritually mature Christian (the same question can also be asked regarding the tipping point for a church group). Bergler reviews youth research and states that spiritual maturity is more likely in churches that “…prioritize the spiritual nurture of young people and build an intergenerational culture of spiritual maturity” (p. 111).
Bergler’s final chapter (From Here to Maturity) provides the reader with an effective and efficient guide for churches to increase their spiritual maturity. Churches that want to expand their spiritual maturity should (See 113): (1) evaluate their current level of spiritual maturity; (2) create a plan for growth; (3) implement that plan; and (4) monitor and make changes to that plan as needed. Bergler provides several resources in the form of questions that can be used to determine the level of a church’s spiritual maturity level. Creating a plan for growth refers to pinpointing one area for improvement and then brainstorming action steps needed to reach that level. Implementation of specific ministry steps from that list is the next step. Again, Bergler includes several pages of key questions and topics to assist the reader here. And last a church should always continually evaluate itself and make changes where appropriate.
Thomas Bergler’s From Here To Eternity is a small but robust analysis of the state of many churches in America. One thing I admired is this book is not based on anecdotes from the author; rather much of what Bergler writes here is based on academic research conducted in numerous fields of study. Might he be misguided or wrong on some of his analyses? Sure. But he’s definitely right more than he’s wrong.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com