Overcoming the Juvenilization of American Christianity

In our last issue, we introduced Thomas Bergler’s book, ‘The Juvenilization of American Christianity’. Here we introduce, ‘From Here to Maturity: Overcoming the Juvenilization of American Christianity’. We do not do justice to either, but we thank Tom for allowing us to offer these essays as hors d’oeuvres. For the main course, please read these books.

RICHARD BURNETT, MANAGING EDITOR

We’re All Adolescents Now

Americans of all ages are not sure they want to grow up. If you listen carefully, you can sometimes hear thirty​ or forty-year-olds say things like “I guess I have to start thinking of myself as an adult now.” Greeting cards bear messages like “Growing old is inevitable. Growing up is optional.” A recent national study of the sexual lives of eighteen-to twenty-​three-​year-​olds found that most want to get married and have children––eventually. But they think of settling down as the end of the good part of their lives. One young woman spoke for many in the study when she said that having children will be “what makes your life, like, full, after like, you are done with your life, I guess.”

Beginning in the 1930s and 1940s, three factors combined to create the juvenilization of American Christianity. First, new and more powerful youth cultures created distance between adults and adolescents. Second, in an attempt to convert, mobilize, or just hang on to their teenage children, Christian adults adapted the faith to adolescent tastes. As a result of these first two factors, the stereotypical youth group that combines fun and games with a brief, entertaining religious message was born. In the years since, this model of youth ministry has become a taken-for-granted part of church life. Finally, the journey to adulthood became longer and more confusing, with maturity now just one among many options. The result was juvenilization: the process by which the religious beliefs, practices, and developmental characteristics of adolescents become accepted––or even celebrated––as appropriate for Christians of all ages.

It is important to realize that many benefits have come from injecting more youthfulness into American Christianity. Church growth, mission trips, and racial reconciliation all received a big boost from the youth ministries of the past seventy-five years. Churches that made compromises with youth culture sometimes managed to inspire long-term loyalty in their young people and even make church more attractive to adults. … But this attempt to make Christianity as pleasurable as youth culture had some dangers. In the 1950s, one teenage girl who was a member of Youth for Christ had this to say about Elvis Presley: “The fact of the matter is, I’ve found something else that has given me more of a thrill than a hundred Presley’s ever could! It’s a new friendship with the most wonderful Person I’ve ever met, a Man who has given me happiness and thrills and something worth living for.” In other words, Jesus is just like a teen idol, only better. Juvenilization kept Christianity popular, but did little to promote spiritual maturity.

It is important to realize that because of juvenilization, the problem of immaturity is no longer just a youth problem to be solved by adolescents, parents, or youth ministers. One pastor told me that the concept of juvenilization helped him understand some of the struggles he is having with congregants in their sixties. These Baby Boomers raised in the founding era of juvenilization want church to revolve around their preferences. But the problem is not just the old oppressing the young. The young leaders of a church that targets twenty-somethings asked a middle-aged woman to leave the music team because she did not “project the right image.” That is, she looked too old. Not only is it easy to find people of all ages who are immature, it is now the whole life course––the normal pattern of moving from childhood to adulthood––that has been compromised as a path to spiritual maturity.

A Dubious Destination: The New Adulthood

By now, the assumption that youth is better than adulthood is widely accepted. This cultural belief is visible whenever adults tell teenagers that “this is the best time of your life” or when college students say “this is my time to have fun.” Christian youth leaders have often contributed to the worship of youth by praising young people as model Christians and looking to them to save the world.

It would be understandable if people simply wanted to retain the strength and physical beauty of youth. But what makes other adolescent attributes attractive? For one thing, immaturity boosts sales. In the early twentieth century, advertisements still explained the features of products and invited the customer to make a rational choice based on how well the product would meet a need. Of course many of those “needs” were created by the advertisers, but at least it was assumed that the customer would be making a rational choice about whether to buy the product. Today, advertisers use images, music, and a minimal amount of the spoken or written word. These techniques aim to bypass conscious reasoning and inflame desires for identity, belonging, sensual gratification or even spiritual transcendence. The most innovative advertisers sometimes dispense with describing the product at all, or even showing an image of it. The product is much less important than the intangible benefits it will supposedly impart.

People who know who they are, who think carefully about purchases, and who exercise self-control are harder to persuade to buy products they don’t really need. In contrast, impulsive people who are searching for a sense of identity, who are looking to salve their emotional pain, who desperately crave the approval of others, and who have lots of discretionary income (or are willing to spend as if they do) make ideal consumers. In other words, encouraging people to settle into some of the worst traits of adolescence is good for business. Not all businesses and advertisers operate on this basis, but enough do to encourage the cult of youth and discourage people from growing up. Considerable evidence suggests that consumers can see through these techniques and resist them to some extent. But immersed as we all are in the culture of adolescence, it becomes increasingly hard to embrace the self-denial and character formation necessary to achieve what used to be called mature adulthood.

Most significantly for our discussion of juvenilization and its impact on the church, the connection between adulthood and maturity has been severed. As a middle-aged Christian woman I met on a plane recently told me, “I’m never going to grow up.” Adults are free to define themselves in almost any way they choose, whether or not their personalized vision of adulthood is beneficial to themselves, to their communities, or to their children.

Adults caught in the many transitions of life who are trying to figure out who to become sometimes have little left to give to others, even their own children. An ethnographic study of a large high school in southern California revealed that most teenagers there felt abandoned by adults. These teenagers believed that there was not a single adult in their lives who truly knew them and truly cared about them. Although some of this was probably adolescent misperception and even self-absorption, there were plenty of adults who were sending the wrong messages. Coaches cared only about winning, teachers paid attention only to the top students and labeled the others as hopeless, and parents were “out of control,” so their children felt unsafe telling them what was really happening in their lives. … The author of the study theorized that many adolescent problems, including cynicism, mistrust of adults, casual sex, cheating, and alcohol abuse, could be traced to this systemic abandonment. To the extent that adults are too busy with their own self-construction (or reconstruction) projects to care for the young, our juvenilized society has ironically become harmful to adolescents. Of course, many people still aspire to maturity and achieve it. But in this adolescent society, there are fewer supports for those wanting to grow up and many tempting detours or just plain dead ends along the way.

“It’s All about You”: Spirituality on the Path to the New Adulthood.

The popular Evangelical Christian worship song “The Heart of Worship” is about returning to a focus on God, yet ironically there is still an awful lot of talk about “me” in it. Lines like “I’m coming back to the heart of worship” and “I’m sorry, Lord, for the thing I’ve made it” seem to compete with the intended core message of the song: “It’s all about you, Jesus.” The song serves as a metaphor for just how hard it is to escape the relentless self-focus of American culture. Even our efforts to dethrone our therapeutic god of self are often done in therapeutic ways. I am not singling out this song for blame; it merely illustrates the powerful gravitational pull exerted by the new patterns of human development and notions of the “self” in contemporary America. That pull distorts Christian discipleship in different ways in each stage of life, although as we shall see, some common themes emerge.

Adolescent Faith: “If I’m Having a Hard Time, It Makes Me Feel Better.”

In their landmark National Study of Youth and Religion, Christian Smith and his team of researchers found that the majority of American teenagers are not alienated from religion or the church. On the contrary, even teenagers not personally involved in religious activities think that religion is basically a good thing. Many of them have learned this favorable view of religion through contact with church youth groups. An astonishing 69 percent of all teenagers in America have attended a religious youth group at one time or another.

Unfortunately, Christianity seems to be helping teenagers without passing through their brains or across their lips. Smith’s research team found that American teenagers are surprisingly inarticulate about their faith. When asked what they believed, even some young people who attend church and youth group regularly said things like “Um, Jesus and God and all them guys … that they are up there watching out for us.” The biblical language of faith is a foreign language to American teenagers. They seldom used words like “faith,” “salvation,” “sin,” or even “Jesus” to describe their beliefs. Instead, they returned again and again to the language of personal fulfillment. The phrase “feel happy” appeared over 2,000 times in the 267 interviews in which teenagers tried to describe their religious beliefs. As one teenage boy put it, the thing that is so good about faith is that “If I’m having a hard time, it makes me feel better.”

Smith and his research team came up with the label “Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism” to summarize the religious beliefs that emerged in their in-depth interviews with teenagers. Teenagers are “moralistic” in that they believe that God wants us to be good, and the main purpose of religion is to help people be good. But many think that it is possible to be good without being religious, which means religion is an optional tool for being good that may be chosen by those who find it helpful. Further, they believe most people are good and will go to heaven. American Christianity is “therapeutic” in that, like the teenagers in the study, we believe that God and religion are valuable because they help us feel better about our problems. Finally, American teenagers show their “deism” in that they believe in a God who remains in the background of their lives. He is always there watching over them, ready to help them with their problems. But he is not at the center of their lives.

There may be any number of reasons that so many teenagers hold such a superficial set of religious beliefs. One reason is certainly that they have not learned the vocabulary of faith. Perhaps adults have talked to teenagers a lot about faith but seldom helped teens to talk about their own beliefs. In many cases, the interviewer got the feeling that she was the first person to ever ask this teenager what she believed about God and religion. American teenagers have little practice with, and seem to place little importance on, talking about faith matters. But if something is truly important to a person, it doesn’t tend to stay in the background the way the god of moralistic, therapeutic deism does. These same teenagers who floundered awkwardly as they tried to say anything meaningful about their religious beliefs could talk easily about other subjects that were either more exciting to them (like their extracurricular activities) or in which they had been better instructed (such as the dangers of drug abuse). And it is important to note that it was not just nominal Christian teenagers who seemed to espouse moralistic, therapeutic deism. Quite a few who attended church regularly and claimed that faith was very or extremely important to them could not articulate anything deeper when asked.

Most importantly, teenagers absorb these religious beliefs from the adults in their lives. It is the American culture religion. One of the clearest findings in the study was the strong correlation between the religious beliefs and practices of parents and those of their teenage children. As Smith and his team put it, when it comes to forming their children’s faith, parents will “get what they are.” This way of being religious is not something that can be easily overcome. It is the default position in American society, the magnetic north with which young people tend to align unless they are actively and persistently formed in a more countercultural way of following Jesus Christ.

Sociologists of religion often measure what some call the “3 Bs” of religion: Believing, Belonging, and Behaving. The National Study of Youth and Religion revealed that churches at their best seem to help adolescents achieve a warm sense of belonging that helps them to avoid harmful behaviors. But even a good many churchgoing adolescents fail to internalize a strong set of religious beliefs or form internally motivated, godly patterns of behavior. As a result, our children do not do so well when they leave the nest after high school graduation.

Emerging Adult Faith: “My Faith Is What’s Best for Me.”

To keep things in perspective, it is important to note that it is quite amazing that any emerging adults are seriously religious. Their life stage is almost perfectly suited to reducing religious interest and involvement. The lives of emerging adults are full of transitions, distractions, and disruptions. They switch residences, cities, jobs, schools, relationships, and everything else, and these changes wreak havoc with church attendance and personal religious practices. Emerging adults strive to keep their options open and are careful to affirm that everyone is entitled to his or her opinion on all important matters. Their driving goal is to become self-sufficient, so they see churches as “elementary schools of morals” that they are ready to leave behind. They put off marriage and childbearing, two life events that have traditionally driven young adults back to church. They feel the need to differentiate themselves from their parents, and religious beliefs seem like an especially safe––that is, unimportant––arena in which to depart from how they were raised. Although they tend to choose friends who are similar to them religiously, they typically don’t talk much with those friends about matters of faith. Many of their peers tell them by word and example that “they are supposed to devote themselves to hanging out, partying, and perhaps drinking, doing drugs, and hooking up.” None of these typical elements of emerging adult lives tends to promote stronger religious belief and involvement. The only exception would be that their many life transitions sometimes include personal tragedies or hardships that push them to revisit their childhood faith or explore a new branch of Christianity. The good news is that despite all these built-in obstacles, some emerging adults are serious about their faith. The bad news is that even many of the serious ones may not be well-grounded or prepared to mature in it.

In Waves II and III of the National Study of Youth and Religion, researchers followed the same teenagers into their young adult years. Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism seems alive and well among these eighteen- to twenty-three-year-olds, but diversity of religious belief and practice did increase. A few emerging adults became stronger in their faith and more articulate about their beliefs. Some questioned the beliefs with which they were raised. Many stopped going to church or putting much effort of any kind into their faith.

Emerging adults still think of religion as a good thing, especially for children, even if they are personally indifferent to it right now. They think most religions share the same key principles and that religious particularities are unimportant. A few believe that their religion is uniquely true, but they are unable to explain why. Most think that it is impossible to choose between truth claims in any definitive way; each person just decides for himself or herself. As a typical emerging adult put it, “I think that what you believe depends on you.”

Emerging adults can be sorted into six religious types: Committed Traditionalists (15 percent), Selective Adherents (30 percent), Spiritually Open (15 percent), Religiously Indifferent (25 percent), Religiously Disconnected (5 percent), and Irreligious (10 percent). Of these types, only the first three are likely to put any effort whatsoever into their spiritual life. Committed Traditionalists can articulate some Christian beliefs, attend church reasonably regularly, and see faith as an important part of their lives and identities. But even they “focus more on inner piety and personal moral integrity than, say, social justice or political witness, and can keep their faith quite privatized.” And like all emerging adults, they tend to think that religious beliefs and practices are matters of personal choice and should be based on what works or feels right to the individual. As one young Catholic put it, “my faith is what’s best for me.” A subgroup of the Committed Traditionalists (about 5 percent of all emerging adults) are the most devoted to their faith and attend religious services at least weekly, say faith is very or extremely important to them, feel very or extremely close to God, pray at least a few times a week, and read Scripture at least once or twice a month. This group does better than their peers at avoiding harmful behaviors like alcohol and drug abuse and engaging in positive ones like charitable giving and volunteering. But these differences are not as dramatic as they were among adolescents.

Selective Adherents typically come from reasonably strong religious upbringings but are now in the process of picking and choosing what to keep. They are especially likely to disregard what their church and parents taught them about the need for regular church attendance, belief in hell, drinking alcohol, taking drugs, and use of birth control (for Catholics). Some feel conflicted or guilty about discarding elements of their religious upbringing; many do not. They compartmentalize their faith more than Committed Traditionalists and are likely to say things like “I still have the same ideas now; I just don’t go to church.” Selective adherents show little difference from the general population of emerging adults in terms of religious beliefs and positive life outcomes. Finally, the Spiritually Open are not personally committed to any one faith, but show varying degrees of interest in exploring Christianity or other types of spirituality. They most often come from non-​religious backgrounds or from a Christian background that they have abandoned. Clearly the life stage of emerging adulthood does not encourage people to grow toward spiritual maturity. A few do so anyway, but they have to swim upstream.

Adult Faith: “Religious Doctrines Get in the Way of Truly Relating to God.”

Many Christian adults and even Protestant pastors do not have a very clear understanding of spiritual maturity. In a national survey conducted in 2009, the Barna Research group found that 81 percent of self-identified Christian adults agreed or strongly agreed that “trying hard to follow the rules in the Bible” was a key element of spiritual maturity. When asked an open-ended question about how their church defines “a healthy, spiritually mature” Christian, about half were unable to answer. Of those who ventured a guess, responses varied and tended to be generic: “having a relationship with Jesus” (16 percent), “practicing spiritual disciplines like prayer and Bible study” (9 percent), “living according to the Bible” (8 percent), “being obedient” (8 percent), “being involved in church” (7 percent), and “having concern for others” (6 percent). When asked to describe their personal beliefs about the content of spiritual maturity, respondents as a group produced a similar list of answers. Significantly, most respondents offered only one measure or trait of spiritual maturity, even though interviewers probed repeatedly for more ideas. Evidently religiously inarticulate teenagers grow up to be religiously inarticulate adults, at least when it comes to describing spiritual maturity.

The same survey also found that a majority of self-identified Christian adults rated themselves as “completely” (14 percent) or “mostly” (40 percent) spiritually healthy. Not surprisingly, most were also “completely” (22 percent) or “mostly” (43 percent) satisfied with their spirituality. It is possible that at least some who were “mostly satisfied” still desired to grow. And even if that group was spiritually complacent, there was still a large group, as much as one-third of all respondents, who recognized that they were not spiritually healthy and did not like it. But if an accurate working knowledge of spiritual maturity is necessary in order to grow toward it, then a good many American Christians may be in trouble. Even those who want to grow may not be able to do so.

But what did these people mean by “spiritual growth”? For those who responded to the survey and follow-up interviews, “spiritual” generally meant the inner, experiential dimension of religion especially in contrast with the rules, doctrines, and structures of organized religion. A majority believed that “personal experience is the best way to understand God” (61 percent) while only 33 percent agreed that “church doctrines and teachings are the best way to understand God.” Even among those most highly interested in spiritual growth, about half agreed that “religious doctrines get in the way of truly relating to God.” Thus the participants in the study perceived themselves to be growing spiritually if they had feelings of closeness, assurance, forgiveness, or comfort from God, especially if they believed that the frequency of such feelings was increasing in their lives.

The same study revealed that American adults generally believe that church attendance can be helpful to spiritual growth, but is not necessary. About 70 percent agreed that “My spirituality does not depend upon being involved in a religious organization.” Yet among those who say that spiritual growth is “extremely important” to them, 80 percent attend church “almost weekly” and 74 percent reported that attending church has been very important to their spiritual growth. On the other hand, among the next lower group, those who still claimed that spiritual growth is “very important” to them, only 53 percent attend church “almost weekly” and only 56 percent say attending church services has been very important to their spiritual growth.

The evidence regarding adults’ engagement with particular faith traditions and doctrines is mixed. Those who say that spiritual growth is “very” or “extremely important” to them tend to agree with general Christian beliefs such as “God is fully revealed in Jesus” (79 percent) or “Christianity is the best way to understand God” (74 percent). On the other hand, these same believers do not differ from the general population in their general agreement (70 percent range) that “All religions contain some truth about God.” And even those extremely interested in spiritual growth have not typically put much effort into learning the theology or heritage of their church.

The Challenge of Juvenilized Faith

Of course not every Christian in America is spiritually immature. A significant minority cares deeply about spiritual growth and is actively pursuing it. Nevertheless, many American Christians display the symptoms of juvenilization. They value a “relationship with God” above all and like the idea of “falling in love with Jesus.” They don’t see much value in the rules, strict beliefs, or structures of “religion,” although they like going to church if it helps them feel closer to God. They are largely uninformed about the teachings of their churches and may even see doctrine or theology as enemies of authentic spirituality. They like the sense of belonging and acceptance that they find in their congregations but are not very open to being corrected by fellow believers. Their God is always there to help them feel better about their problems, and this is one of the chief benefits they see in their faith. They like the idea of spiritual growth, but they may not know much about how to grow and may rate themselves more highly than they should. They are drawn to religious experiences that produce emotional highs and sometimes assume that experiencing strong feelings is the same thing as spiritual authenticity. They see themselves as in charge of their own search for a satisfying sense of religious identity. 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. It could be that most American churches have been fighting a heroic but failing battle against these trends toward a self-focused, immature faith. But the fact that so few American churchgoers know much about spiritual maturity and so few pastors have a plan to foster it suggests otherwise.

Yet churches did not create the new immature adults and their religious preferences, at least not by themselves. Americans display these patterns of believing and behaving because the path from adolescence to adulthood is beset with many gorges, switchbacks, washed-out bridges, and wrong turns. It is a wilderness trail that is poorly marked, poorly maintained, and in some cases actively sabotaged by those who stand to profit from keeping people away from the summit. Although some adults along the way try to help, the young people who are walking this trail must primarily rely on one another for guidance and support. The trail is so poorly marked that many never make it. Indeed, even some of the people who are Christian “success stories” because they take faith seriously and attend church regularly may not be growing toward spiritual maturity. Thus if we would like to see Christians reach a mature faith that involves more than good feelings, vague beliefs, and a sovereign self, we must overcome the challenge of juvenilization.

Growing Up in Christ

Many American Christians are confused about spiritual maturity. What is it? How do we get there? Is it even possible? Many are also not making much progress toward it. While there are many reasons people may be slow to grow up into Christ, it seems doubtful that someone who is largely ignorant of the whole idea will get very far. So if we want to overcome juvenilization and the immature Christians it produces, we must learn what the Bible says about spiritual maturity. The concept of “maturity” and the related metaphor of growing from infancy to adulthood are not the only tools the New Testament writers used to describe how Christ transforms human beings. But contemporary American Christians especially need to learn and experience these biblical truths.

In particular, Christians who are tempted to stay stuck in immaturity need a better understanding of the beginning, end, and process of spiritual growth to maturity in Christ. First, they need to embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ as good news of spiritual transformation. Second, they need to be captured by a vision of spiritual maturity that is desirable, attainable, and has clear content. Third, they need to understand the process of growth to maturity so they can actively participate in it.

Not all readers will agree with the biblical theology of spiritual maturity presented here. That is to be expected given our different theological traditions. But hopefully the approach taken here will challenge each reader to do his or her own theological reflection on what the Bible says about spiritual growth. At the very least, all those with a teaching role in their family or church need to ask themselves, “Is the theology of spiritual growth that I teach likely to overcome the challenge of juvenilization?” In some cases, Christian teachers are communicating the right things about spiritual growth, but people are refusing to listen. But it may also be that some parents and church leaders are not teaching the right truths, or not teaching them clearly or compellingly. Teaching includes more than telling, and From Here to Maturity addresses ways to help people experience the spiritual transformation described here. Still, good teaching does need to begin with good content.

Beginning Well: The Good News of Transformation

Though it is a bit embarrassing to have to discuss it, we must begin by facing the fact 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 Jesus. As we have seen, most American Christians like the idea of spiritual growth. But when asked “What is your faith all about?” or even “What is the gospel?” many will not think to mention spiritual transformation into Christlike-ness. They may have a theoretical expectation of growth, but practically speaking, it is not central to their lived theology. They think a lot about God making them happy; they rarely think about God making them holy. We should not be surprised if people do not grow after accepting a gospel that is silent about spiritual transformation. They did not sign up for that. Many ordinary Christians in America describe the gospel as something like this: “Jesus died for your sins so you can go to heaven when you die.” This gospel is what most of the college students I teach have learned growing up in their churches. If we look closely, we notice that this way of describing the gospel leaves a big blank spot where most of our life in this world should be. It is all about past sins and future reward. Is the rest of life just waiting until heaven? Is there no spiritual growth or participation in Christ’s mission in the meantime?

It would be bad enough if Christians just forgot about spiritual growth, but the problem is worse than that. A good many Christians seem committed to the idea that we can expect little spiritual progress in this life. Consider some of the things students in my Understanding the Christian Faith class said when asked to describe spiritual maturity: “We never arrive in our spiritual growth.” “No one is perfect in this life.” “We can’t be holy in this life.” … Others like to remind us, “The only difference between Christians and unbelievers is that Christians are forgiven.”

These popular theological slogans emphasize that salvation is a gift from God, and not something we earn. That part of the gospel is crucially impor​tant. Much of the New Testament was written to remind people who were already following Jesus that being a good, observant religious person does not earn one’s salvation. But this truth needs to be connected with other equally important truths about the gospel. Otherwise, the default understanding can become “miserable sinner” Christianity–the idea that we’re all just miserable sinners saved by grace and that very little progress is possible in this life. But do we truly believe that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died on the cross, rose from the dead and sent the Holy Spirit to live in us so we can be the same “miserable sinners” on the day we die as on the day we received the free gift of salvation? Is that what the New Testament presents as the Good News about Jesus Christ? If not, then we need to think more carefully about how we present the gospel.

The Good News that Jesus himself preached clearly included spiritual transformation. Here is Mark’s brief summary of Jesus’ message: “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news’” (Mark 1:14–15). In saying “the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near” Jesus was alluding to the many Old Testament prophecies about a coming golden age when God would perfectly rule the world and restore the fortunes of Israel. Many of these prophecies included promises that God would transform his people by doing things like writing his law “on their hearts” (Jeremiah 31:31–34) and exchanging their “heart of stone” for a “heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26–27). The result would be a renewed people who could finally renounce their idols and obey the life-giving commands of God. Even if Jesus’ first hearers did not think about these prophecies when they heard him preaching, they certainly would have understood that a call to “repent” was a call to spiritual 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. “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (Mark 1:17). To change from being a fisherman to being a rabbi was not just a change of occupation. Each of those who dropped everything to follow Jesus knew that he was entering into a process of being trained to be just like his rabbi. “A student is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher,” Jesus would later tell them (Luke 6:40, NIV). This saying would not have been a surprise to those who first heard it. Everyone knew that is how the rabbi-disciple relationship worked. A disciple might not achieve the full greatness of his rabbi, but if he did not eventually become a rabbi himself, the process of discipleship had failed. No one signs up for a course of study or intensive training with the expectation of failure. Imagine the medical school or electrician’s apprenticeship that advertised itself by saying, “Come work hard to learn about an occupation for which you will never be qualified.”

If anything, Jesus promised his followers a more radical experience of transformation than the typical rabbi’s apprentice might expect. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:23–24). Those who hoped to add Jesus to their lives while leaving everything else undisturbed did not really understand the good news. This “my life plus Jesus” approach was what sunk the rich young ruler (Mark 10:17–22, Matt. 19:16–22, Luke 18:18–23). The Good News of the Kingdom of God is not a self-help message that provides three easy steps to a better life. Self-help techniques keep the self firmly in charge. Rather, to accept the gospel is to submit to a death and resurrection process accomplished by God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Jesus offered a stark choice: hang onto your life and lose it or lose your life and find true life in him.

Toward the end of his time on earth, Jesus instructed his followers to continue his work of spiritual transformation: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19–20). People who are baptized into the name of the Triune God and are living according to the teachings of Jesus are people who have been spiritually transformed.

If the Good News that Jesus preached included the promise that his followers would become like him, where do Christians get a truncated, “miserable sinner” gospel? Most likely the problem is a misunderstanding of Paul’s teachings. Paul fought hard against an influential faction among the first Christians who insisted that Gentiles who decided to become followers of Jesus needed to also become fully observant Jews. It was not enough to obey the Great Commandments and the Ten Commandments; these Gentile converts also had to get circumcised and obey all the dietary and ceremonial laws found in the books of Moses. Paul rightly saw the dangerous direction of this teaching: It would become a false gospel of “works” in which people would see themselves as accepted by God because of their correct behavior or their observation of the stipulations of the Old Covenant, rather than by the grace of God given through the work of Jesus Christ. In response, Paul fervently preached that no one could be saved by observing the law, but only by putting faith in Christ: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God––not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8–9). This fight against a false gospel of works permeates Paul’s writings, especially Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians. And it must be noted that there is a persistent temptation to credit ourselves with somehow earning God’s favor or even salvation itself. This spiritual danger is real, and we must fight against it.

But unfortunately, this gospel of salvation by grace received through faith can be misused to justify low expectations for spiritual transformation. That is not what Paul had in mind. We see this especially well in a passage in which Paul starts by attacking the false gospel of works and ends by talking about maturity. In Philippians 3, Paul warns his readers to beware those Christian teachers who insist on circumcision and other requirements of the Law (v. 2). He then describes his own impeccable Jewish credentials: “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (vv. 3–6). Even though he had the best possible resume for earning a good standing with God, “whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. … I have suffered the loss of all things and I regard them as rubbish” (vv. 7–8). Paul counted these supposed spiritual “strengths” as no more valuable than the inedible food scraps one would throw out into the street for the dogs to eat.

Paul eagerly and joyfully renounced his greatest religious attainments because of the “surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” and to “gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ” (Phil. 3:8–9). Clearly Paul had no interest in anything that could be interpreted as his own, humanly manufactured righteousness. But neither did Paul’s spirituality bear much resemblance to “miserable sinner” Christianity. He writes, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (vv. 10–11). His devoted pursuit of Christ pushed him to invoke athletic imagery: “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (vv. 13–14). Paul was running hard to be ever more closely united to Christ and conformed to the pattern of his death and resurrection. He confessed that he had “not already obtained this” or “already reached the goal.” Some distort this idea of not reaching the goal of perfect union with Christ in this life into a kind of “treadmill theology”: we try and try to become more like Jesus but never get anywhere. Certainly many American Christians are especially eager to agree with Paul that we “never arrive” or are “never perfect” in this life. But it is at just this point in his argument that Paul invokes the word “mature”: “Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind” (v.15).

Several important conclusions can be drawn from the somewhat surprising appearance of the word “mature” in this context. First, Paul assumed that at least some of his readers were already “mature” and so would agree with what he had been saying. Second, whatever “mature” means, it can’t mean “perfect” or “already having reached the goal” of fully knowing Christ and becoming fully like him. Third, a mature follower of Christ understands the gospel well enough to avoid both “works righteousness” and low expectations for spiritual transformation in Christ. “Miserable sinner” Christianity is a misinterpretation of the gospel that Paul preached.

All Christians, especially those with a responsibility to teach others, must carefully examine the gospel we preach. Does the story we tell of Jesus and the salvation he brings include spiritual transformation? Or are we telling a story in which becoming like Christ becomes an optional afterthought? Here’s a simple way to state the gospel that doesn’t leave out transformation: 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.

The point of offering this example is not for everyone to adopt my particular way of describing the gospel. But it is important for all Christians, especially those charged with teaching others, to articulate a clear, memorable, and effective way to explain the connection between the Christian gospel and each believer’s transformation into Christlikeness. Christians from different theological traditions will favor different ways of explaining this crucial connection. Even Paul and James had different ways of explaining it. But every Christian teacher has a sacred responsibility to explain the connection between the gospel and spiritual transformation publicly and often.

Content taken from From Here To Maturity: Overcoming the Juvenilization of American Christianity by Thomas E. Bergler, ©2014. Used by permission of Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Although this analysis was originally published when Millennials were in their teen and young adult years, many trends described have continued. Dr. Bergler is currently working on a book about fostering spiritual maturity among the members of Generation Z.

Thomas Bergler
Thomas Bergler
Thomas E. Bergler, Ph.D., Professor of Christian Thought and Practice, Huntington University, Indiana.

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