Stages of Faith

June 23, 2010 | 7 Comments

I’ve spent a lot of time this year thinking about how spiritual growth happens, and how our church community can be intentional about moving each other toward maturity. I know there are all sorts of methods and programs and models for this. Some are helpful to a degree, and some, not at all. I don’t think maturity happens through methods and models, but I do think they can create some helpful framework for dialogue. Like this one:

I found this graphic last week while reading Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzero. He, in fact, borrowed it from another book called The Critical Journey: Stages in the Life of Faith. It’s captured many of my thoughts over the last few days, and stirred some good dialogue with others in Mustard Seed as well.

I see a few things in this graphic that are significant:

  • Those first three stages certainly seem to jive with my own journey, and with walking alongside so many others in practical ministry. And perhaps we walk along this road too well. I think much of my ministry experience has been leading people through these first three steps, but it tends to get pretty muddy beyond that. Some of that is because of:
  • The Wall. This was an eye opener, but makes great sense with my own experiences. There is this inevitable wall that one hits if faith. I’ve also heard it called the dark night of the soul, or the desert experience. It might come across in many different ways: doubt, crisis, sin, apathy. But it creates some kind of tension or friction that is hard to live in the midst of, but leads to:
  • Beauty on the other side. Stages 4-6 are in some ways less tangible, but stir a sense of longing for who I would want to be and what kind of people I want to be around. This is where true spiritual maturity starts to show it’s fruit.

So the question that I’m stuck with is this: How does a faith community walk people through these stages of faith? As I’ve said, I’ve seen stages 1-3 done well. They are easy to lay out for people and walk through with them. It gets a lot messier once you get to the wall and beyond. Sad to say, I think it is too common a story for people to get lost in the mix of a church when they start moving into the Wall. For a church that is focused on moving people through its stages and making its programs happen, I can see why. Life in the wall and beyond is not very efficient or measurable.

I long to live a life in the stages beyond the wall, and I want to be part of a community of people that dwell there too. But I don’t have many answers yet, other than asking the Spirit to lead the way. Which is probably the best answer of all.

  • John,
    Pete Wilson in Plan B (which is about when Plan A fails and the wall) talks about this some too. I have been both pondering this and living is for the last several years. You know some of my journey with disillusionment and struggle to find a faith that really worked. I hit the wall. I turned inward and tried to examine things, but I couldn’t find the answers that gave me the ability to change. The churches I was a part of didn’t know how to help. They didn’t understand what I was grappling with or how to bring any breakthrough. Honestly, if you think about it through faith they couldn’t help. Only God could help. I had to find God without human intervention and mess. I wanted help from people, but what I needed was them to take me to God (not just tell me about him but lead me there, go with me there, support me in figuring out how to approach that throne, and then step back to let Him do the work). In my story it meant hitting rock bottom and having to rebuild from the ground up. I definitely don’t think that is true for everyone, and I too want to understand how to help others move through this without hitting rock bottom. In my story I have moved to stages 5 and in certain areas maybe even to stage 6, but in other areas I may be back at stage 2. That is part of what makes faith development so tough.

    Keys I have learned through this are: 1) understanding God’s character and heart – the understanding is our foundation and shapes everything! 2) as we understand God’s character and heart learn and accept our true identity as HE sees it – new creation, heirs, masterpieces, adopted – learn to walk in it. 3) recognize and explore the heart and how key it is to everything in faith. If the truths don’t get into our heart at the deepest level they don’t change us.

    I LOVE that you are wrestling with this! I wish every pastor would because it will absolutely change the way you lead your church. Blessings!

  • john,
    great post. I really liked that book. my mom (of course!) told me I had to read it. I really like how it talks about how when you refuse the Wall you faith journey gets stuck, and painfully so. the same think happens for churches.

    good work.

  • I think what I like most about this is that it is cyclical. Over in my neck of the woods, we still struggle with wanting to put the journey on a linear left to right graph. Ugh. Not so in your case.

  • John,

    I think the failure of the church to carry people past the wall (or “The Dip” or whatever you want to label it as) is significant. The Reveal research project identified this is a serious issue, as more mature Christians that need assistance getting past tough hurdles deeper in their Christian life struggle to gain assistance from the local church due to their constant focus on winning new souls and teaching the basics over and over again. I haven’t followed up on their latest research findings, but I am still hoping for some insight from them on how to support mature Christians as they progress beyond what the local church is currently offering.

    One thing I don’t agree with in that chart is discipleship being a stage – I think it is something we do constantly. If, however, the authors labeled discipleship as the learning of the foundations for that cycle (“101, 201” things like prayer, fellowship, service, spiritual warfare, etc), then I can understand the diagram a little more.

  • Thanks James,
    The exact same point about discipleship was raised in our conversation within Mustard Seed, and I agree. I think that stage as learning head knowledge is accurate, but labeling it discipleship isn’t the best term for it.


  • John –

    Stumbled upon this today as I was going through my Google Reader. Not sure how I missed it when first written.

    We are currently asking this question within our community here in San Francisco. I imagine all churches should be asking this, but I suppose church plants (especially non-denominational ones) have a unique opportunity to lay this out from the beginning.

    As of now we are calling our spiritual formation process “charactership”. Cheesy? The idea is that we are all working to find our place in the story of God and thus should concern ourselves with becoming the best character. I was once taught that formation looks like believe, become, belong. As many people have discussed before us, we are turning that saying around to belong-become-believe. I believe that the diagram you have posted looks like belong-believe-become. Does that feel true?

    My thought is that someone would come into our community after being prompted by God and then our work is to help that person “taste” the kingdom before asking them to rationally agree to the life and teachings of Jesus. Tasting allows you to try, test, reject, agree, etc with what you are experiencing. Thus we invite our community to “taste” the things Jesus invites us to. Try living simply. Try living locally. Try gratitude. Try silence. Try repentance. Try serving others. Try generosity. Our sense is that once tried people will move towards belief…”that does taste good!”

    My hope is that perhaps by placing “become” before “believe” is that the wall will feel more easily overcome? Not that avoiding pain, darkness, or doubt should be our goal, but if “tasted” properly people will have done a bit of the inner journey before the “believe” stage.

    Does any of this make sense? ☺

    As you mentioned, the metrics for stages 4-6 are difficult. They also require a great deal of white space for people which is something that very few faith communities (especially ones looking to be financially sustainable) make time for as they are looking to program numerical growth.

    All that to say, we are wrestling too. Thanks for the afternoon thought prompt!

  • Jarrod,

    Good to hear from you. Had a great time with Blaine and Michael last month in Dallas, and you were mentioned often. And spoken well of!

    I think what you describe does jive and meets some of the same challenges…the earlier stages are easier to recognize and measure, but it becomes less tangible as you move along. I think we have to recognize and be comfortable with that!