Thomas E. Bergler is professor of ministry and missions at Huntington University in Huntington, Indiana. His book The Juvenilization of American Christianity (2012) was featured in Christianity Today and won an award of merit from Christianity Today.
From Here to Maturity: Overcoming the Juvenilization of American Christianity has a simple goal: to help church leader develop spiritually mature people (xiii). Bergler starts his book by assuring church leaders and members alike that spiritual maturity is not an unattainable standard of perfection in this life, a common misconception which hamstrings progress toward spiritual maturity. Instead, he defines spiritual maturity as achieving “a set of core competencies in Christian living” (xiii).
Before launching into his plan for developing spiritually mature Christians, Bergler first lays out the present situation of American Christianity. Chapter one focuses on the idea that adolescent beliefs, practices, and habits have become standard and acceptable for believers of all ages (2). Young people today are taking longer to grow up and mature emotionally and behaviorally, and that juvenilization has leached into spiritual maturity, too. Bergler maintains that a young adult’s faith is either a moralistic, therapeutic deism (in which God simply wants people to be good and to feel good while God himself remains largely in the background of a person’s life) or a “whatever works best for me is what I believe” kind of faith (14, 16). In other words, Christianity today is severely lacking in both doctrinal depth and sanctified behavior.
Bergler continues in chapter two with his definition of the beginning, ending, process, and content of spiritual maturity. The beginning of spiritual maturity is the gospel of Jesus. Bergler clarifies that the gospel isn’t just “me plus a little Jesus.” Instead, the gospel is transformative – it changes our lives both now and in eternity (29). Bergler is a bit unclear as he talks about the ending of spiritual maturity. While most WELS pastors would say there is no finish line in spiritual maturation, Bergler makes a distinction between maturity and holiness (48). He maintains that there comes a point where a believer is officially “spiritually mature” and now starts to grow in “holiness,” becoming more and more like Christ. It seems like a distinction without a difference, but Bergler maintains that distinction. Bergler also offers the content of spiritual maturity, such as knowing the basic truths of the gospel, displaying discernment, being connected to the body of Christ, living a life of love, and growing to become more and more like Jesus (49).
Chapter three is Bergler’s plan for helping adults Christians become spiritually mature. He suggests using the Vision, Intention, Means model. To quote Bergler, “Vision means to see the kind of person God wants you to become…Intention means choosing to do whatever it takes to allow God to change me into the kind of person described in the Vision…Means are the spiritual disciplines that believers undertake in order to receive God’s grace to change into the person God wants them to become” (58). While Bergler’s phrasing might give a confessional Lutheran pastor pause, the basic idea of seeing the goal, making a plan, and using the right tools to become more spiritually mature is sound. Of particular help is Bergler’s emphasis that Vision is key to attaining spiritual maturity (64), that corporate spiritual disciplines are vital in producing mature believers (66), and his practical tips for implementing a Vision, Intention, Means model in a congregational setting (67ff).
Chapter four is about developing youth ministries that help the whole church mature. Why the focus on youth ministries? As Bergler puts it, churches who help teenagers mature tend to be good at helping everyone mature (88). Of greatest interest in this chapter is Bergler’s list of best practices for producing spiritually mature teens and adults, including a breakdown of the roles of parents, pastors, families, and congregations (88-90). Bergler strongly recommends a “two birds, one stone” approach to maturity by using a combination of youth-specific and intergenerational activities (91), and this reviewer sees wisdom in that approach.
Chapter five is all about a process congregations can follow as they move forward toward spiritual maturity. That process is simple: assess your current level of spiritual maturity, create a plan, implement a plan, and monitor progress as the plan is executed (113). Bergler offers many helpful questions church leaders can ask as they assess the current level of spiritual maturity in their congregations (114). He also emphasizes the importance of having a congregational culture of spiritual growth, especially in the corporate worship services (121ff). As a case study for moving a congregation to spiritual maturity, Bergler examines what he calls “slow dance with Jesus” music. This example doesn’t seem to be randomly chosen; it feels more like the author is getting on a soapbox and detracts from his main point.
Does Bergler accomplish his purpose in writing this book? Yes and no. He certainly raises awareness about spiritual maturity. However, he seems to have a mutating definition of maturity. For example, he defines spiritual maturity as serving others (21), obeying God (22), and something which must be outwardly visible (23). While Bergler might be providing different examples of what he means by “maturity,” the shifting definition can leave readers confused. Bergler offers several helpful resources, such as survey questions congregational leaders can use to gauge the current level of spiritual maturity (114), specific practices churches can use to help young adults mature (102ff), and suggestions for how to develop a congregational culture of spiritual maturity (121ff). On the flip side, Bergler’s advice sometimes comes across as vague or incomplete. Perhaps he realizes that every congregation is different and overly specific advice won’t be helpful, but this reviewer found much of his advice to be common sense (see 135 for an example).
Readers should watch for some doctrinal issues in this book. Bergler at times seems to elevate sanctification over justification (31, 32). On top of that, Bergler claims that “the reading, study, and preaching of the word of God cannot by themselves transform people from spiritual babies to spiritual adults” (53). Taking his words in the kindest possible way, Bergler seems to be admonishing Christian leaders to be proactive in promoting spiritual maturity, but his statement can easily be taken to mean that God’s Word is not efficacious enough to transform people. Readers of this book must also watch for statements about decision theology (61), universalism (112), and inaccurate statements about the means of grace (124).
This book could be used in a congregational setting, but is not a “must have” for WELS pastors. It is helpful in getting church leaders to think proactively about the spiritual maturity of their people, and it has some helpful “starting point” questions for churches looking to improve the spiritual maturity level of their people. However, the negatives of this book, combined with the author’s wordy writing style, make this book a bit of a slog. For such a short book (only 142 pages without the appendices), it was a chore to finish. From Here to Maturity offers a few helpful nuggets, but is probably not more than a “read it once” kind of book.