Thomas E. Bergler, From Here to Maturity. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.
One of the challenges that has been presented by Bergler is that "a significant number of Christians do not regard growing up in Christ to be an intrinsic part of what it means to be a follower of Christ" (27). We might be tempted to go even further, especially those of us who have encountered this sort of attitude in the contemporary American church: Do very many Christians even know what it means to be a "mature" follower of Jesus? (that is to say, would they even recognize such language?
The data would certainly suggest that many do not have an adequate understanding of the premise of being a mature Christian, let alone the desire to make such a journey. What is worse yet, there has been a large portion of the American church culture that has been pleased to cater to this shallow faith, rather than pushing believers towards something greater. The answer for this is simply: numbers. Our culture values success that is defined in certain terms, and churches that have big buildings with a lot of people in attendance and a healthy budget fit the American Consumerist version of success, which has been plopped right inside the attitude of the local church despite the gospel's incompatibility with such thinking. To this end many churches have been willing to play their part in the market, designing a church experience that attracts the crowds.
Crowds are easily attracted; disciples are hard to find.
Let's stay with this idea for just a moment: if crowds are the measure of success, then wouldn't the churches around Joel Osteen and Benny Hinn be considered the better congregations of our culture? Doesn't their "success" set a template for how the local church should operate? Indeed, many throughout the years have sought this precise course of action, and most church conferences sell the same message with more evangelical names, but the pattern still exists. There is much to say about church size and church growth dynamics, but my point here is that playing to the crowds does not make for spiritually mature followers of Christ – Jesus himself experienced this when the multitudes had decided to walk away: the closer he came to the cross, the fewer were his companions.
The worst case I have personally witnessed to this phenomenon was a billboard church advertisement I once drove past. It had some cool artwork and flashy design, the name of the church in bold letters across the top, with the promise: WE WON'T TRY TO CHANGE YOU. Now, I don't know what it was that this particular message was intended to answer (it seems to me some issue was in the mind of whoever sent that one through), but my initial reaction to this was, "Then, what's the point?!?"
By contrast, the life of the believer is, by definition, a life of transformation. "The proper response to the good news of the Kingdom of God was to become a follower of Jesus. When Jesus called disciples (followers, students, apprentices), he called them to spiritual transformation" (29). There is an intrinsic summons to becoming in this call, and again Bergler's study here reminds us of Bonhoeffer's famous, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." As Jesus said, "Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it" (Matthew 10:39). Becoming a mature follower of Jesus is not an optional add-on for the Christian: "spiritual maturity is central, not incidental, to God's plan" (41).
A fellow from the leadership of a local megachurch once spoke to an acquaintance of mine, claiming that they do not spend much time emphasizing discipleship. When questioned on this, the leader claimed that their church was there to "introduce" people to the gospel, and that that's what they were good at doing, but those who were interested in becoming more seriously committed could choose to pursue such an endeavor on their own desire. In other words, this entire church, considered as a national influence on evangelicalism, is structured to the lowest-common-denominator of the church experience. And they are known for putting on a good show, and having some noted programs. But what is lacking from their community DNA is the transformative experience of the gospel. And, as the data would back up, they have a great number of people in attendance who are not becoming mature Christians.
The need for mature disciples of Jesus within the modern American church is great. "The character qualities that the Holy Spirit produces in the mature follower of Jesus are especially oriented toward building loving human relationships" (43). This is a journey on which every believer may embark, if there is a desire to be a disciple. Those who move in this direction are not without flaw, and they are certainly not perfect (42). (And, for those reading out of a Wesleyan-Holiness tradition, there is room to talk on the use of this word, without contradicting the points made here.)
Bergler suggests that The Shape of Spiritual Maturity is built around three elements: 1) it is desirable; 2) it is attainable; 3) it is visible (48–49). These he fills in with good discussion, but I will not take the time to unpack the details here. Overall, his point is simply, "Far from being the end point of spiritual growth, spiritual maturity is the base camp from which ascent of the mountain of holiness can begin in earnest" (48). I must wholeheartedly agree with this perspective, for the movement towards God is a summons to be like him, which means that we must become less like ourselves – this is sanctification, this is maturity, this is losing one's life in order to find it.
Is this still a possibility for the American church?
Do there remain any disciples who are willing to grow up in Christ Jesus?