18 May 2016

from here to maturity: a discussion 1

Thomas E. Bergler, From Here to Maturity. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014. 

In 2012, Thomas Bergler published a historical summary and critique of the adolescent factors that have impacted the contemporary church: The Juvenilization of American Christianity. While the study has gained a good amount of attention, the glaring question that remained following the study was, "Where do we go from here?" Thus, he has published a second volume in the discussion, one that I would like to interact with on numerous points. (The reader will notice that this book was published about two years before this discussion, highlighting the well-known fact among pastors and scholars that you can't always get through your 'book stack' a quickly as you would like.) In 2012 a summary-review of JAC was published on this blog.

In the first volume, Bergler established that, "Beginning in the 1930s and 1940s, Christian teenagers and youth leaders staged a quiet revolution in American church life which can properly be called the juvenilization of American Christianity" (JAC, 4, emphasis in original). Simply stated, this means that a culture-shift began to take place in the generations especially after WWII, changing the way American Christianity is envisioned and put into practice. Although these changes were initiated by those with noble goals and desires, there has been another (mostly unintended) set of consequences: an emerging of Adolescent Christianity, with the expectations that faith ought to be "fun and entertaining" (JAC, 14).

We're All Adolescents Now

With this discussion in mind, Bergler begins this second volume with an outline of the current situation – namely, that we are all caught up in an adolescent Christianity. For those who may have missed the full significance of The Juvenilization of American Christianity, the weight of the current situation is reiterated here. The impact of making Christianity "relevant," especially in playing to the components of youth culture in our society, have been enormous. And this is why discussions around this set of cultural circumstances in the church need to become more frequent, and more serious. "Today, there is less shared understanding of what 'growing up' should include" (4). And, since there is a lack of understanding of what 'growing up' should look like, the church simply isn't seeing much maturity among its membership.

Bergler reviews various factors that impact youth culture and, in conversation with other studies and data, shows that our society is not adequately preparing young people for the demands and responsibilities of adulthood. Even without social-scientific numbers, the casual observer ought to be able to get a sense of anecdotal evidence that this is indeed the case (my observation). In teaching at the college level for the past ten years I have seen many students come vastly ill-prepared for what will be asked of them, often far beyond the scope of academic work. Our nation is seeing an increasing number of young adults who, especially after college, return home, in many cases lacking desire, motivation, or direction to become a responsible adult. What impact is this having on the church? Or, what impact has church-life had on this growing societal trend?

But ours has become a culture of "I'm never going to grow up" rather than stepping up to the responsibilities of living well. In the generations before WWII it was quite common that young boys and girls would take upon the tasks of adulthood for the sake of family survival. In those days a formal education was more of a rarity (no "right" to a college experience), and teenagers were often found taking on the mantle of cultural leadership as quickly as they could – a reflection of the culture. Perhaps there was a bit of growing-up-too-fast mixed in, but if that was the case then the pendulum has definitely swung too far the other direction.

Within the American church this reality is stark: Bergler, citing Smith, refers to modern belief being less of a mature Christianity, and more of a "Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism" (13). Adolescent faith is about emotion and feeling, more than it is about discipleship and transformation. "To keep things in perspective, it is important to note that it is quite amazing that any emerging adults are seriously religious" (15). Indeed, the demands of discipleship are high, but the lack of seriousness by which most within our churches are engaging the endeavor is startling. Bonhoeffer's famous line, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die" seems very much out of place in our context. What is expected of a mature Christian is lost in our culture – left undefined – and therefore an invisible path even to those who appear to be serious about their faith.

And I have seen more than one church that is satisfied with this reality, so long as it means that their numbers and giving are up, claiming that their work is more directed to "introducing people to Jesus" and leaving the work of becoming more serious disciples up to the initiative of the individual (and probably some nod to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, so as to sound spiritual). At the end of the day, this is the culture that defines American Christianity, and the clanging gongs of gifts without the presence of God are becoming deafening and chaotic in our world. What is more, this present generation of American Christianity has now come into its own, and many of our current leaders have never known anything except the entertainment-based, individualistic reassurance that has had such an impact.

"In short, 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).

This is a strong challenge, but one that, in many ways, characterizes the current state of the American church. Sadly, the current cycle of political discourse has not only proven this adolescent presence in the church, but has pushed it further along the path – more Christians today seem to be willing to be shaped by culture than by Word and Spirit. This is not the case throughout the world, which is why spiritual revival is happening outside of this country, and a maturing faith is being fostered elsewhere. The Spirit, it seems, will not wait around for us to get on board when there are others who are willing to be participants in the gospel. But adolescents rarely, if ever, see this far beyond themselves.

It is time to move towards maturity.

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