Thomas E. Bergler is associate professor of ministry and missions at Huntington University, Huntington, Indiana, where he has taught youth ministry for ten years. He is also senior associate editor for The Journal of Youth Ministry and author of the new book The Juvenilization of American Christianity.
In this, the first of several EerdWord guest posts from him dealing with the topic of juvenilization, he discusses how juvenilization has impacted the way American Christians think about spiritual maturity.
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“What are some signs that a person is spiritually mature?” I asked the students in my Understanding the Christian Faith class. They didn’t like the question.
“We can’t be holy in this life.”
“You never ‘arrive’ in your spiritual growth; you have to always keep striving.”
“We’ll never be perfect in this life, only in heaven.”
“That’s between the person and God, hidden in their heart. It’s not for us to judge.”
Their objections surprised me. These freshmen and sophomores at a Christian college had grown up in church and were the success stories of their youth ministries. But they had not learned what the Bible teaches about spiritual maturity. They wrongly equated it with an unattainable perfection.
This misconception is a direct result of juvenilization, the process by which the spiritual traits of adolescence become accepted and even idealized by Christians of all ages. Youth ministries often focus on attracting a crowd of young people and convincing them of the personal emotional benefits of being a Christian. But a focus on fun and on meeting their emotional needs does not necessarily point young Christians toward spiritual maturity. As it now stands, many young people in America don’t plan to grow up — in any traditional sense of the word — for a long time, and, what’s more, they tend to equate maturity and adulthood with stagnation and the long slow decline into decrepitude. (See Christian Smith et. al., Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood, for an excellent discussion of this phenomenon.) Should we be surprised that spiritual maturity seems to them to be a distant and possibly even unattainable goal? And could this be one cause of spiritual immaturity among adults? After all, why should we be surprised when young Christians — taught their whole lives to regard spiritual maturity as both unattainable and undesirable — never outgrow this stunted way of thinking?
What, then, can we do to help Christians of all ages catch a vision for spiritual maturity? First, we must show them that the Bible teaches not only that spiritual maturity is attainable in this life, but that it is expected after a reasonable period of growth. Hebrews 5:12–14 says:
For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food; for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil (NRSV).
If spiritual maturity is not attainable in this life, then this passage makes no sense. The author clearly thinks this group of Christians should have been mature by now.
How much time should this maturing process typically take? The author of Hebrews does not say, but it is an important question for us all to ponder. Sadly, we can probably think of people who have been Christians for decades and are still in their spiritual diapers. God is patient and merciful, but we should not set our expectations for spiritual transformation so tragically low. Christ died and rose again so we could be transformed into his image, not so we could stay spiritually immature our whole lives. If we don’t aspire to grow up in Christ, it is less likely that we will. In future entries, I will explain more steps we can take to rehabilitate the concept of spiritual maturity in the eyes of today’s juvenilized Christians.
Watch our video interview with Thomas E. Bergler below: