Forming Mature Disciples of Jesus Among the Members of Generation Z 

Steve Clark’s legacy of communal Christian formation

Protestant Christians in America have spent the past thirty years rediscovering some of the insights on Christian for­mation that Steve Clark pioneered in the 1970s and 1980s. In particular, contemporary Protestants are rediscovering the importance of intergenerational Christian formation of young people that is intentionally aimed at spiritual maturity and that is sustained by immersive relational environments and practices.1 While some progress has been made in reforming youth work along these lines, none of these approaches has yet combined all of the elements that Steve Clark and other leaders in the Sword of the Spirit have been refining over the past 50 years. In this essay, I will update my previous work on helping young people toward spiritual maturity with an eye toward the current generation of adolescents and young adults, labeled “Generation Z.” Along the way, I will note ways that Steve Clark’s work shapes my approach. Steve Clark’s legacy of communal Christian formation has significant contribu­tions to make to our ongoing efforts to form mature disciples among Generation Z.  

The Goal: Spiritually Mature Disciples of Jesus 

Very early in his life of following Jesus, Steve Clark realized the importance of forming communities of disciples who could help one another grow to spiritual maturity, evangelize unbe­lievers, and renew the Church.2 His unwavering clarity on this point led him to leadership roles in the Cursillo Movement, the charismatic renewal, and eventually to his founding role in the Sword of the Spirit. Steve proposed something radical: disciples of Jesus should actually live the way of life taught by their master. And he realized that in order to live as mature disciples, American Christians needed different kinds of help than they often found in their local congregations. Steve’s teach­ing influenced me to look for maturity among Christians and regard it as a problem if it is missing. That perspective helped me identify the problem of “juvenilization” in the recent history of American Christianity.3 Steve’s teaching also influenced me to look for a solution to juvenilization in the biblical teaching on spiritual maturity. 

So what does the New Testament teach about spiritual maturity? The New Testament writers use the word “mature” to describe a spiritual state that should be attained by most disciples of Jesus after a reasonable period of growth. All the passages in which the Greek word teleios and its various forms should be translated “mature” (1 Corinthians 2:14-3:4, 14:20; Ephesians 4:1- 5:2; Philippians 3:1-16; Col 1:28; Hebrews 5:11 – 6:2) either explicitly teach or assume this perspective.4 So, for example, the writer of Hebrews says:

About this we have much to say that is hard to explain, since you have become dull in understanding. 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 [teleios], for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil. Therefore let us go on toward perfection [teleiotes] … not laying again the foundation …

(Hebrews 5:11-6:1).5 

The author takes for granted that his readers should have already moved from spiritual infancy to spiritual adulthood. Elsewhere, Paul assumes that some of his readers are already “mature” (Phil 3:15) and rebukes the believers in Corinth for still being spiritual infants (1 Cor 3:1-3).

Mature discipleship begins with a full conversion, a new birth, resulting in a state of spiritual infancy. Spiritual new­borns are eager for the “spiritual milk” of God’s word (1Peter 1:22-2:3), signifying the basic teachings or “first principles” (Hebrews 5:12) of the faith. But spiritual infants and children must grow into spiritual adults, otherwise they will be “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles” (Ephesians 4:14). And they will be unable to discern even basic “spiritual” things such as knowing that they should treat each other lov­ingly and seek unity rather than divide into prideful factions (1 Cor 2:14 – 3:4). 

In the ideal process, spiritual infants grow up by the power of God and through the nurture of the Church to become spiritually mature disciples of Jesus who display the following competencies. First, mature disciples have a secure knowledge of the basic teachings of the faith. We have already seen this emphasis in Hebrews 5:11 – 6:2 and Ephesians 4, but the same teaching appears in every passage that uses the metaphor of human development to describe spiritual growth. Indicators that a disciple has this trait of maturity are that he or she 1) is able to teach others the basic truths of the faith (Hebrews 5:12; Ephesians 4:15), 2) is not easily shaken by false teachings (Ephesians 4:14), and 3) is starting to show an interest in deeper theol­ogy (Hebrews 5:12-14). 

Second, mature disciples display spiritual discernment. They are learning by experience how to apply the basic teachings of the faith to everyday situations. The author of Hebrews empha­sizes that the mature “have their faculties trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.” And Paul makes much of the difference between “spiritual” (mature) believers and “unspir­itual” (infant) ones with regard to their ability to understand and live God’s word (1 Cor 2:6-3:4). Discernment can be seen in believers when they (1) understand the Gospel (Phil 3:2-11, 15), and (2) recognize and accept what Christian love requires in everyday situations (1 Cor 3:1-4). 

Third, mature believers are putting off sinful patterns of behavior and putting on godly patterns of behavior. For exam­ple, Paul teaches believers to stop speaking evil, destructive words, but instead speak words that build up their brothers and sisters (see Ephesians 4:22 – 5:2). The reason Paul could be so confi­dent that the believers in Corinth were still spiritual “infants” is that they were boasting about sins for which they should be repenting (1 Cor 3:1-4, 21; 5:1-2). Thus, mature believers are (1) receptive to moral teaching and correction and (2) active in stopping obvious sins and replacing them with their posi­tive opposites. Mature believers are not morally perfect, but they are actively engaged in the process of putting off sins and putting on virtues, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Fourth, mature believers serve interdependently in the body of Christ. Paul argues that the body of Christ is a corporate entity (Ephesians 4:13, 16) and each of its members individually (Ephesians 4:14) can only grow to maturity as each “member of the body” does his or her part. Indicators that a believer is mature in this way include (1) actively seeking to maintain unity with the church by being patient, humble and forbearing (Ephesians 4:1- 3) and (2) serving in ways that help others in the body of Christ grow toward maturity and that further the mission of the church (Ephesians 4:11-16). 

Finally, mature believers display a Christ-centered spirituality that accepts both suffering and consolation as part of the pro­cess of knowing Christ more (Phil 3:2-16) and proclaiming the Gospel (2 Cor 4:7-15)Believers who follow Christ this way will (1) make sacrifices and re-arrange their priorities in order to pursue Christ (Phil 3:7-8) and (2) accept challenges and even suffering as opportunities to know Christ more deeply (Phil 3:10, 12-14). They will be less likely than immature believers to pull back or fall away in the face of emotional struggles, persecution, suffering, or discipline from the Lord. 

The New Testament writers teach about the Christian life in many different ways. But the biblical metaphor of moving from spiritual infancy to spiritual maturity is espe­cially valuable for North American Christians in our day.6 The biblical indicators of spiritual maturity can guide us in assessing our spiritual formation practices and adjusting them to address new challenges, such as those faced by the members of Generation Z.

. . . .

The Process: Formation in a Communal Way of Life 

How can we lead members of Generation Z toward spiritual maturity? Steve Clark’s legacy of a communal formation pro­cess empowered by the Holy Spirit is still as relevant to youth disciple making as ever.28 If anything, Gen Z needs this kind of immersive, communal approach even more than previous generations did. Steve has taught generations of leaders that “formation” is the intentional process by which a Christian community trains its new members to live the Christian way of life. A person is “formed” when he or she is able to actually live the way of life he or she has been taught. In this section, I will briefly review the elements of the formation process Steve and others in the Sword of the Spirit have developed over the past 50 years, explaining in general terms how each can help Gen Z. I will then briefly consider two areas that we must tackle more effectively if we are to form members of Gen Z into mature disciples: their digital lives and their emotional health.

This short excerpt from Thomas Bergler’s essay is taken from Festschrift — Essays in Honor of Stephen B. Clark, published by the Servants of the Word, © 2023. 

You can access the full essay online or download a PDF copy at the Servants of the Word website

Top image credit: digital artwork depicting young Christians carrying a large cross, © created for Living Bulwark by graphic artist.

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