Thomas E. Bergler, From Here to Maturity. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.
In this next chapter (Chapter Four), Thomas Bergler turns the focus of maturity in the local church to the ministry of younger generations. Youth groups and youth cultures have had an enormous impact on the current state of American evangelicalism, as he has thoroughly reviewed in the first-step in this overarching discussion: The Juvenilization of American Christianity.
At the outset of the discussion the author states the rather vital premise to understanding the dynamics of youth church culture: "No model of youth ministry or set of practices can substitute for a congregation-wide commitment to young people" (82). This is it; here we find the center of the issue of the modern state of the church in regards to it lack of spiritual maturity. For a few generations it has become commonplace for the local congregation to segment off various groups away from the primary work of the body of believers. Nowhere has this been more apparent than with the youth culture.
(However, as this practice has taken root, and time has accompanied the generations of churchgoers to become more comfortable with this, there are now segments of the congregation for every age and stage of life. Conceivably, in a large enough local church, one could go cradle-to-grave without ever making a serious connection with believers who are significantly older, younger, (or in some cases) of a different economic level.)
Not only has this sort of segmentation hurt the unity of believers within the local church, but such an approach has been a primary factor in the lack of maturity among Christians in our culture. Hence, the challenge for the local congregation is to live as one body of faith, working together as a community that is united by the Spirit. From the discussion in Bergler's book it has become apparent that youth can be devoted to their faith without necessarily being found on the path to spiritual maturity (82f.). One wonders if this is a devotion to their particular segment of the local church (the youth group), while never being a significant part of the overall church life – in which case the devotion runs its course as their journey through youth group ends, leaving the average emerging adult without a sense of connection to the ministry of the church.
Yet, the research upon which Bergler draws, "... reveals that American teenagers can become spiritual mature while they are still teenagers" (85, emphasis in original). Those congregations that are engaging their youth into the larger body of believers are the places where one is most likely to find a greater degree of spiritual maturity. It is the integration of youth into the life of the church that helps them bear the marks of spiritual growth and development. The reasons for this should be somewhat self-evident, as the benefit of learning from those who have godly wisdom helps to guide the younger generations into the work and ministry of the local church. Too often this type of wisdom culture is haphazardly shoved to the side in favor of the excitement of a ministry that more readily appeals to the lingering youthful desires in emerging adults.
And yet, feeding these immature desires has just as much of a damaging effect on the individual (and community) as any other behavior or desire. While there is a certain happiness and self-satisfaction derived from a worship experience that is filled with entertainment, in the end it accomplishes little in preparing individuals for the challenges and difficulties of adult life. In other words, a constant youth-emphasis may be fun, but cannot begin to have an impact in a world filled with adult-sized problems.
So, "... because youth are integrated into the congregation, they come to see the church as their church. Young people become active contributors to the church's intergenerational culture of spiritual maturity" (90).
There are many fears that may arise against those who wish to move toward this type of community life. The general fear of losing control over the way things have always been typically arises – and there are endless examples of the next generation of church leadership making radical changes with little-to-no regard for the traditions of this local community. Yet, I wonder if this would not be the case if there was in fact a connection between the generations, where the emerging leaders would already have a knowledge and respect for those things that are truly important to this community. This is not to say that there will never be a need for change (even big change), but rather that the dynamics of such will be tempered by a community that encompasses all believers.
A different type of fear may be that the lack of excitement will lead to a lack of attendance in worship, since this is the music and this is the style that 'reaches young people.' There is little weight that can be given to such an argument, not least of which is that the worship of Almighty God does not need to be dressed up in flashy attire, and all of our attempts to do so look quite pathetic in light of his dynamic presence. Additionally, if the entire discussion about the younger (emerging) generations of American evangelicalism is severely lacking in maturity and belief, then it is somewhat absurd to hold fast to the very system that has facilitated our current dilemma. As the axiom goes, Your current system is perfect for achieving your current result.
There are other fears that we could mention, but they all will fall into the same boat – namely, that there is no room for fear in the ministry of Christ's church. This community ought to be driven by his love, over and against our fearfulness (cf. 1 John 4:18).
Bergler completes this chapter with a focus on the need for serious theological discussion and exploration throughout the church community, specifically for the following two reasons:
1. "... theology provides the basic truths and principles of discernment that every mature Christian must embrace." (112)
2. "... theological reflection can help church leaders identify the barriers to spiritual maturity in their congregation." (112)
Ultimately, this is a discussion about discipleship, which is the work of every believer to engage with every other follower of Christ. If we take this seriously in the working out of our faith, then we will see a significant change in the spiritual growth and maturity of all who participate in our communities of faith. This, I believe, will require a change of direction among individual believers and our interactions with one another, as well as institutional change that better facilitates these aims through the overall structure and mission of the church.