“My concern is that Evangelicals have not paid anything like the necessary attention to this major theme, spiritual development of Christian life and thought. As a result, evangelicalism has become impoverished.” – Theologian Alister McGrath
In a discipleship training seminar, I vulnerably detailed a season of burn-out and ensuing spiritual crisis with the hope students would see vital fruit born out of a season of painful deconstruction. Instead, a student asked: “What can I do to ensure that this never happens to me?” No doubt, I bumbled over a less than eloquent answer. His question revealed serious (yet very common) foundational flaws in his approach to Christian growth and discipleship. There was just no time to tell him what I will tell you:
“We are not saved from the human journey: We are saved because Jesus refuses to leave us alone in it.” – Rachel Kenny
Paula D’Arcy said, “God comes disguised as your life.” What this means is, properly viewed, our human life and development should be seen as a series of invitations to deeper relationship with God. As Christians, our call is to emulate Jesus, but we simply can’t if we deemphasize His humanity. Jesus didn’t rise above His human existence; rather, He communed with God in it. Our victory is not that we escape the highs and lows of the human life through our faith. Our victory is that Jesus redeemed those human experiences through His. The Christian path of discipleship is a deeply human one where Holy Spirit desires us to come face to face with our wilderness of questions, our Gethsemane of fear, even our tomb of hopelessness … and eventually grow the ears to hear and the eyes to see the Father in a whole new way. And, we won’t just do this just once in our lives … we will do it over and over and over.
“[Christian Spirituality] will always be dynamic – evolving and changing. To turn it into something rigid and fixed is always to render it soulless, for that which is no longer evolving, is dead.” – Dr. David Benner
Humans Go Through Stages of Faith Much Like We Go Through Other Stages of Development (mental, emotional, social, physical).
When my son was five, he said, “But, I don’t want Jesus in my heart! I want him in my house to play!” He was still a few thousand neurons away from developing abstract thought. Four years later, his brain developed in a way that allowed his faith understanding to deepen. Healthy children go through faith stages naturally. As we grow into adults, moving from one stage of faith to the next is often marked by doubts, questions, and (for some) burn-out, depression, and anxiety … even mid-life crisis.
Moving from one stage of faith into another isn’t the same as spiritual growth; it’s a revolution of the entire way we engage God, ourselves, and the world. Dr. James Fowler says, “Our very life meanings are at stake in faith stage transitions.”
In a recent project I oversaw, I met with nearly a dozen ministry workers in faith-stage transition. 1Sadly, all of them felt immense shame and would only speak privately. None felt their Christian community would understand; some considered leaving it. They all worried of judgement and rejection. This speaks volumes about our faith communities: We haven’t taught believers that doubt, discomfort, and even faith crisis are key parts of the journey; instead, we’ve implied they’re failing the journey. So, how can we do better at discipling these tumultuous seasons of faith transition?
Acquaint Yourself with a Faith Development Map:
Much has been written by psychologists and theologians on this, but most of what they’ve debated and refined is built on Dr. James Fowler’s seminal work: Stages of Faith. He asserts all humans have the possibility to go through six stages of faith. No stage can be skipped, as it builds the platform to enter the next phase. Keep in mind, an adult can halt in development at the second stage or anywhere beyond.
The 6 Stages of Faith: (We’ll explore these in depth over the next 3 weeks.)
- Stage 1: Primal (3-6 years) God is experienced as an extension of primary care givers (those who tended to us in our first years), as a sense of love and safety … or a lack of it. Reality and fantasy are mixed. Thus, my 4-year-old said, “Before there were people, there were zombies. Jesus came to kill the zombies, or they’d eat the peoples’ brains out.” (I have no idea where he learned about zombies, but at least Jesus made him feel safe.)
- Stage 2: Literalist (7-11 years) – The healthier version of this stage is to relate to God as a super hero, powerful and just. However, when an adult stays in this phase, he primarily sees God as judge, whose wrath or blessing can be automatically and impersonally triggered. Therefore, this (somewhat magical) God needs to be bargained with and appeased through strict, but unexamined, obedience.
I overheard a man counseling a woman who’d had an argument with her husband. He warned her to forgive him before the sun went down or she’d be sinning. This was his Literalist interpretation of the proverb, “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.”
- Stage 3: Loyalist (Adolescence and beyond) – This is an energetic, certain, and bold faith … the lifeblood of every organization. At this stage, belief and identity are held within the group; therefore, to question the group’s beliefs and values is a betrayal of them. Yet, we all need this foundation in order to explore our identities and faith further.
- The Wall: Experts suggest the majority of Western Evangelicals will never push past this existential barrier from stage 3 to 4 (up to 80%)234.
- Stage 4: Critic (Twenties to mid-30’s or beyond) – This stage is hesitant and marked by questions, doubt, and skepticism, but the goal is to eventually move into an examined faith and truer identity. The Loyalists think the Critics are backsliding. Most will never complete this stage; and the majority of people who leave the church do so at this point. This is the toughest transition, especially if one moves into it later in life. Mid-life crisis!
- Stage 5: Seer (Early midlife and beyond) – This is a strengthening faith, where wonder and awe are revived. It is alive to the beauty in paradox and mystery, is impassioned by Jesus’ vision of one humanity; and is ready to dismantle the meaning of the first-half-of-life in order to live from deeper depths.
- Stage 6: Saint (Mid-life and beyond) Fowler’s study suggests less than 1.6% of humankind will reach this stage. His study found most were at least 60 years of age. This is a strong faith marked by a sacrificial willingness to be the embodiment of reconciliation. Those in this stage are driven by “we” rather than stage 3’s “us and them.” Don’t confuse this with reaching perfection.
The Goal of Faith Development is Not to Climb to the Top.
A fulfilling relationship with God can be experienced in every stage, never-the-less, you’re probably trying to place yourself in one, hoping it’s one of the latter ones. (Maybe, I’m beyond my years?). Rest assured the spiritual journey is not about gaining access to an exclusive club. God is not in a rush to grow you up into stage 6.
God’s a good Father. A good father adores his newborn daughter, delighting over her tiny toes and later, her first steps. He watches with awe as she discovers her unique gifts and talents. He guides her through the tough teenage years, reminding her of the inner beauty she can’t fully see in herself. He’ll cheer her on to university or her first job. He’ll hold her when she fails and when her heart gets broken. And … one day, he’ll walk her down the aisle, enraptured by the exquisite creature he had a hand in creating … anticipating grandchildren, her middle-aged years … those mature seasons where she’ll come to appreciate him in new ways. Your heavenly Father relishes meeting you in every stage of your faith and your life.
In the next three weeks, I hope to give you a new paradigm for faith development … one that will help you make sense of your journey, guide you in your discipleship of others, or restore hope in the midst of your own faith crisis. So, stay tuned!
References and Further Study:
Benner, D. G. (2012). Spirituality and the Awakening Self: The Sacred Journey of Transformation.
Brewen, K. (2007). Signs of Emergence: A Vision for Church That Is Always Organic/Networked/Decentralized/Bottom-Up/Communal/Flexible/Always Evolving.
Fowler, J.W. (1995). Stages of faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning. (First published in 1981).
Jamieson, A.K. (1998). A Churchless Faith: Faith Outside the Evangelical Pentecostal/Charismatic Church of New Zealand (Doctoral dissertation).
Jamieson, A. (2002). A Churchless Faith: Faith Journeys beyond the Churches.