From Here to Maturity: Overcoming the Juvenilization of American Christianity by Thomas E. Bergler. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014, xiv + 175 pages, $20.00, paper.

This book is the follow-up volume to Thomas Bergler’s unique study of the twentieth century development of youth groups, The Juvenilization of American Christianity.[1] In that volume Bergler identifies some significant problems with youth ministry by tracing the history of American youth ministry from its inception in the early twentieth century to the present. The problems he identifies are summarized under the rubric of juvenilization, which is an American socio-cultural problem. This present volume offers some thoughtful solutions, expanding significantly upon the brief conclusion of the former book. Bergler is the perfect critic because he has been involved in youth ministry and teaches on the subject as a professor of ministry and missions at Huntington University in Huntington, Indiana.

From Here to Maturity (FHM) functions as a guide for church leaders to deal with the problem of juvenilization, especially in terms of teenagers and emerging adults; but fostering spiritual maturity generally is the broader concern. Bergler makes clear at the outset that spiritual maturity is not the same as an unattainable perfection; nor is it an inaccessible magical process (xiii–xiv).

Chapter 1 surveys the terrain of juvenilization, summing up findings from The Juvenilization of American Christianity, with an apt chapter title “We’re All Adolescents Now.” The “irony is that institutions adults created to move young people toward maturity also teach them to revel in immaturity” (5). Bergler identifies five areas in which American society is not preparing young people to become healthy, productive adults: 1) moral reasoning lacks ethical standards; 2) life aspirations are no higher than the consumerism of the American dream; 3) many abuse alcohol and drugs; 4) sex is taken lightly; 5) there is little participation in politics (6). Adulthood is depicted in various media as “boring, restrictive, and inauthentic” when compared with the excitement of youth. In short, youth is worshipped as an ideal (8). The self-centeredness fostered by the “culture of adolescence” undermines essential traits of mature adulthood, like self-denial and faithfulness in commitments (9). Thus spirituality follows a similar trajectory—“It’s all about me”—yielding the “moralistic, therapeutic, deism” Christian Smith uses to sum up his research on the spirituality of American teenagers (12–14). Add to this the low esteem in which doctrine and the institutional church are held (17–19), and American Christianity faces what appears to be an insurmountable problem. Thankfully Bergler is hopeful that intentional reforming efforts can make a difference.

Chapter 2 explores what the Bible says about growing in maturity. What is clear is that God’s Word is more interested in holiness than happiness. The latter turns out to be the fruit of holiness rather than an end in itself (27). Bergler nicely contrasts biblical, self-denying discipleship with the popular self-help message of so many churches. He gives a succinct definition of the Good News as it relates to sanctification (Bergler uses “spiritual transformation” throughout):

The Good News is that Jesus died and rose from the dead in order to transform everything in the world to become more and more the way God wants it to be—and that includes all parts of you. (31)

This chapter is loaded with analysis of biblical evidence, especially from the New Testament. He is careful to paint a portrait of Christian maturity as he analyses each passage. He is especially concerned that juvenile spirituality does not prepare people for hardship the way that the biblical model does. “[M]ature Christians persevere in love, even through hard times” (38). Bergler zeros in on Ephesians 4:11–16 and concludes: 1) “spiritual maturity is central, not incidental, to God’s plan;” 2) Christ gifts leaders to guide people to spiritual maturity; 3) “maturity includes unity with other believers, knowledge of Christ, and being like Christ;” 4) spiritual maturity requires doctrinal soundness (41).

Bergler perceptively distinguishes between the status of holiness and the process of growing in holiness. We use the labels definitive and progressive sanctification. Not only is spiritual maturity achievable in this life (47), but, “Far from being the endpoint of spiritual growth, spiritual maturity is the base camp from which the ascent of the mountain of holiness can begin in earnest” (48). Leaders need to communicate the content of Christian maturity. “In all of this, mature Christians are living a Christ-focused, cross-and-resurrection-shaped life. They are not engaged in a self-help project” (49). Sadly many Christians are stuck in spiritual immaturity because they are in churches that are “emotionally obsessive” (53).

Chapter 3 is designed to show leaders how to help adults mature. Bergler begins with a discussion of the “centrality of the human heart in the process of spiritual transformation” (55). He understands the heart in its biblical dimensions of mind, feelings, and will. At this point I wish the Puritan and Reformed concept of the affections replaced the words “feelings” and “emotions” in Bergler’s discussion. He is very helpful in pointing out the danger of pitting the heart, understood as only the emotions, against the head (69). “Emotional patterns are shaped by our deepest loves” (73). At this point I wish Bergler had given more biblical evidence for his understanding of the centrality of the heart in spiritual formation.

Churches should provide information describing what spiritual maturity looks like based on their faith tradition (56). Here confessional churches have a distinct advantage, but we need to communicate this information regularly to our congregations. Bergler suggests that in order to move forward the strategy must include: 1) a profile of spiritual maturity; 2) a process for growth; 3) a plan of implementation; 4) and communal practices to foster implementation (57).

At this point Bergler becomes a bit too programmatic as he explains Dallas Willard’s VIM (vision, intention, means) model for spiritual formation (58). But scattered throughout his discussion is much wisdom (58–64). Bergler’s more broadly evangelical approach means that some oddities will appear, but these are incidental for the discerning reader. In a chart on pages 62 and 63, for example, the spiritual discipline of “prayer walking” is mentioned. Several times he refers to “listening to the Spirit” (136), without cautioning the reader that such listening must take place in the context of studying God’s Word. But then he makes the important point that “in the case of spiritual disciplines, more than our human effort is at work” (63). He even reminds the reader that spiritual disciplines are what we used to call “means of grace” (64). These are not a menu of choices but a core of essential elements in the Christian life: “prayer, learning God’s Word, Holy Communion, serving others, corporate worship” should be part of every Christian life (66–67).

Chapter 4 focuses on the benefits of youth ministry in maturing the whole church. But the whole church must be committed to youth ministry. The goal should be to help “teenagers become agents of spiritual maturity, not passive consumers of juvenilized programs” (86). Thus youth ministry must be intergenerational. In this chapter, especially, we see Bergler relying heavily on the important work of sociologist Christian Smith[2] and the Exemplary Youth Ministry (EYM) Study.[3] He also refers to many other helpful resources. EYM provides lists of congregational assets that should be present in a healthy congregation (88–90). Bergler points out that extensive lists can be overwhelming and I agree. One of the important ingredients in congregational life is older, more mature Christians mentoring the young people. A Reformed congregation that I worshipped with in New York City has just such a group called OWLS, older, wiser, leader servants. One study shows that young people long for deeper conversations than they are likely to find in their youth group (100). The inclusion of parents is essential in healthy youth ministry (101).

Teenagers are not the only subjects of contemporary youth ministry, but also “emerging adults,” a category discovered and labeled by Christian Smith. This includes adults in their twenties. This cultural phenomenon of extended adolescence has bled over into the church and includes a whole generation of youth group Christians who were not equipped to face the challenges of twenty-first-century American life. Thus the church needs to make sure it is especially welcoming to this age group (107).

Chapter 5 provides ways of assessing and implementing changes in a congregation in order to promote spiritual maturity. Again, while this may seem too programmatic, and thus overwhelming, there are many good ideas imbedded in the lists and charts. At the very least this chapter presents appropriate questions for church officers and youth leaders to ask about all of the ministries of the church. But instead of surveys Presbyterians have a better way of assessing congregational attitudes and needs. Pastoral and ruling elder visits with a specific list of questions developed by the session keep a regular finger on the pulse of the congregation. Bergler introduces his cyclical process for ministry discernment: observe, interpret, evaluate, act (124). He unpacks these four elements, which are common sense elements in good leadership, in a very thoughtful way to help us be more careful about the way we go about this process.

Bergler emphasizes the importance of Sunday activities, especially public worship. This is the place to focus on spiritual maturity (121).

What is fascinating about this section is that he guides us through the four steps by using the example of congregational singing. He uncovers the typical mistake of equating worship with music (125–26). Then he takes aim at the genre of contemporary Christian music he calls “slow dance worship music,” by uncovering the “North American culture of romantic love” behind it (126). This is a brilliant challenge to evangelical conventional wisdom on this issue. Furthermore he gets the form/content relationship perfectly: “youth leaders typically held naïve views of the relationship between cultural forms and the messages they communicate” (128). This particular form of Christianized popular culture simply promotes adolescence. He is brave to choose such a controversial topic, and his wisdom in handling it, although we might not agree with his conclusion, is exemplary.

This book is an essential companion to The Juvenilization of American Christianity. Both should be required reading for sessions and youth leaders.


[1] Thomas E. Bergler, The Juvenilization of American Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012). See my review article “The Apotheosis of Adolescence,” Ordained Servant Online (Nov. 2013) http://www.opc.org/os.html?article_id=389, Ordained Servant 22 (2013): 151–57.

[2] Christian Smith with Melinda Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005); Christian Smith with Patricia Snell, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); Christian Smith with Kari Christoffersen, Hilary Davidson, and Patricia Snell Herzog, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[3] Roland Martinson, Wes Black, and John Roberto, The Spirit and Culture of Youth Ministry: Leading Congregations toward Exemplary Youth Ministry (St. Paul, MN: EYM, 2010).

Gregory E. Reynolds serves as the pastor of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, August-September 2015.

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Ordained Servant: August–September 2015

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Also in this issue

The Doctrine of Divine Simplicity: A Pastor’s Appreciation

Adam, the Fall, and Original Sin: A Review Article

This Strange and Sacred Scripture: A Review Article

Called to Be Saints by Gordon T. Smith

Sonnets Suggested by St. Augustine

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