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Stages of Faith

Growth in God is something that we all aspire to, but we do not always know what growth is going to look like. Professor James W. Fowler, a developmental psychologist at Candler School of Theology, in the book Stages of Faith, outlined a framework regarding a staged development of faith. It closely followed ideas associated with aspects of psychological development in children and adults.

His work has brought clarity to those who have tried to understand the huge numbers who have found themselves moving to, or beyond, the edge of what has been defined as church.

In writing the following blogs I have drawn from the following blog sources: Theocentric. Restoring the Heart. Kathy Escobar.

They have, in turn, used the book by Janet Hagberg and Robert Guelich The Critical Journey, which outlines 6 developmental stages of faith. [In the notes that follow any numbers in brackets will be in reference to page numbers in this book.]

[There is also an excellent pdf chart that sets this out very neatly and is worth downloading. Here is the link.]


In the same way that we have stages in human life – from infancy through to old age – and each stage is common to one and all, yet our personal experience of each stage is unique, so it is spiritually. The huge challenge spiritually is to continue to develop. The threat is of becoming ‘caged’ or locked at a certain phase, either because there was no map for affirming progress, or through fear (generated internal or put upon us by external pressure) that halts the progress.

These works cited help give a map that in turns plots the journey, informs us of what to expect, but most importantly affirm the journey we find ourselves on.

Stages of Faith

A few important notes about these stages:

Stage model theory is descriptive rather than prescriptive. It helps describe what takes place – it is not prescribing how to move on.

  • The stages are not to be seen as one inherently better than another.
  • The stages cannot be skipped over. There are no shortcuts. We cannot go from 1 to 4, for example. It is a process though certain stages can be revisited in new seasons (albeit at a different level).
  • We can get stuck at any of these stages on our journey.
  • For those who feel they have ‘moved on’ it is important to remember that the earlier stages were vital. They cannot be denied to other people.
  • We can intellectually grasp the stage immediately ahead, but not truly comprehend a stage that is two stages further along than our own. Therefore, those at later stages will often be misunderstood by those at earlier stages. Likewise, those at later stages will be tempted to look down upon those at earlier stages.

The greatest challenge is to continue to progress in our faith. This is further compounded by the evangelical church’s inability (generally) to see progress beyond stage 3 (of the six stages).

Stages 1-3 and stages 4-6

There is a divide between the first three stages and the second three. There is a crossing over point.

(The following paragraphs are heavily influenced or even quoting the material at Theocentric.)

Most, if not all, contemporary evangelical models of growth climax at stage 3. For example, the “Purpose Driven Church” model assumes that a person is spiritually mature when they are part of the “committed core” - serving in and through the church according to their gifts. But it is entirely possible (and indeed, quite probable) that many people minister for selfish reasons. Church activity is not an indicator of maturity. Busyness in church activities does not automatically lead to spiritual growth.

The church is generally best at working with people in stages 1 through 3, so the fact that the highest number of people is in stage 2 fits with how the church sees itself. This raises some issues though, as to what and how the church relates to people beyond stage 3.

Many people leave the church when they experience stage 4 or ‘the wall’, since there are few resources or programs available for them, and they feel estranged when the faith they held dear does not work for them any more.

In his book, Exit Interviews, William D. Hendricks demonstrates that most of the dechurched (those who formerly attended or even served in a local church but have since left church-life altogether) have not lost faith in God. They have lost faith in the church. They have “grown disillusioned with the church and other institutions of Christianity” and have “lost the energy and enthusiasm they once had for programs of spiritual development.” Consequently, they “are now looking elsewhere to meet their deepest spiritual needs” (Exit Interview, 11).

The dechurched leave primarily because they are disillusioned with the church. They claim it is stunting their growth.

The church has a stunted model of spiritual formation that leaves little room for questions, doubts, and rediscovery.

The overall map, then, can be divided into two sections of 3 stages; with a shift from 3 to 4 taking place in the midst of crisis, and the necessity of having to ‘go through the wall’. This is understandably the sticking point for many, often resulting in people bouncing back and forth. Moving toward position 4 but retreating to position 3. There is a cost, a death involved in making that transition.

The latter stages (4-6) have less of a clear map in them as the individual’s journey will make a greater difference to their experience.

The First Three Stages: The External Journey

The critical journey is composed of six stages. The first three are primarily external; the second three, internal.

In the first three stages, our faith or our spirituality takes its expression most frequently in ways that are prescribed by external standards, whether by the Church, a specific spiritual leader, a book, or a set of principles… Stages 4-6 represent a difficult personal transformation that requires a rediscovery on a different level of what faith and spirituality are all about.

Stage 1 “is the discovery and recognition of God” (33). Accepting the reality of God can begin while one is young, or it can occur later through a religious experience or conversion. This conversion can be instantaneous or can occur over a long period of time.

The first experience of God is wonderful and refreshing in its newness.

Regardless of our age, however, it seems true that most begin the journey in a childlike way. We come to it with an innocence, a freshness, that is seldom ever again as vivid or vital. It is comparable to the way we feel during the first stage of a romance or new friendship. Swept away by the experience of the relationship, we do not look at any of the negative aspects.

Stage 2 is a “time of learning and belonging” labeled “the life of discipleship”. It primarily involves learning in a community setting from spiritual leaders or religious writings. We encounter a set of ideas, a belief system or a group of people who show us the light and answer our questions. It is such a big relief and feels so safe and secure - like a haven in a storm. And it gives us what we need.

Stage 3 is “the productive life” and involves consciously serving God through one’s spiritual gifts. The truths learned at stage 2 find an outlet in service at stage 3.

Most evangelical models of Christian growth stop here. The implication is that the pinnacle of Christian maturity is faithful, committed service (virtually always in the context of a church, or in a context that benefits a church). The most committed people serve professionally in the church. However, it is obvious that a person can arrive at this stage and still be self-serving, legalistic, immature, and inwardly unhealed. Christian service is not the best determiner of spiritual maturity. This is the value of Hagberg and Guelich’s model. According to them, “the productive life” is important, but it is not the goal. Indeed, on the map of the Christian journey, those at this stage are only half-way there!

Many church leaders do not know of or understand anything beyond stage 3, and when they witness the struggle of stage 4 they question and judge the person’s faith. This results in many people leaving the church when they experience stage 4.

Stage Four: The Journey Inward

Stage 4 is “the journey inward” - “a deep and very personal inward journey” that “almost always comes as an unsettling experience yet results in healing for those who continue through it” (93). In this stage, our former views of God are radically challenged. The disruption can be so great that we feel like we are losing our faith or betraying loyalties.

At this stage, we face an abrupt change (at least many do) to almost the opposite mode. It’s a mode of questioning, exploring, falling apart, doubting, dancing around the real issues, sinking in uncertainty, and indulging in self-centredness. To those around we often look as if we have lost hope and vision.

This newfound (and often surprising) uncertainty is usually precipitated by a crisis meaning that any move from stage 3 to 4 is often in the context of, or as a result of a crisis. A crisis of faith, a crisis where many of the former truths and answers now seem inadequate or inappropriate for the next phase in the journey, or a crisis over the corporate practices of the church or group we associated with that no longer seem as right as before.

The crisis “shakes our strongly held beliefs or assumptions and we feel adrift on a restless sea, fending for ourselves. Our sense of God is shaken and we can find no new direction, only more questions” (197).

The crisis shocks our system. We lose comfort and question our convictions as our previous faith-supports are no longer adequate.

Why does advancing to this stage usually demand a crisis? The reason is simple: No one would choose this kind of experience on their own!

Most of us are so comfortable and self-sufficient at the previous stage (called the productive or fruitful life) that we have no natural tendency to move at all. In fact, stage 4 does not even look like part of the journey for those of who are at home in stage 3. It does not appear to be an extension of our faith and growth. Consequently, we are not drawn in this direction.

Our aversion to stage 4 is increased because of the very real dangers that accompany this stage. “Sometimes people drop off the journey totally at this point. Overwhelmed by pain or crises in our lives, we absolutely cut ourselves off from God” (107).

There is a very definite transition that has to be gone through to move from stage 3 to stage 4. There is an experience of ‘the wall’. It is impossible to go over, around, or under the wall. One can only go through it. “The Wall experience is the place where… psychology and spirituality converge. Up to this point, one can be religious, spiritual, or fruitful and not be healed psychologically, or vice versa” (115).

At the Wall we are forced to “face the truth” in order to move forward. “The Wall invites us to integrate our spiritual selves with the rest of us. And that involves facing our own and others’ demons. We must face that which we fear the most, and that is why it is so unsavory, and why so many people only enter the Wall under duress” (233).

Most Christians are taught and trained to dance around the wall and then get back to stage 3 as fast as they can. Many Christians don’t know what to do when people hit the wall. Typical responses can range from encouraging them to read the latest spiritual book, get into a quick-fix workshop, get an accountability partner as soon as possible, or if it’s really bad, go to a counsellor for a few times to fix what’s wrong and get back to “normal” as soon as you can.

Only through self-acceptance and surrender to God’s will can one go “through” the Wall to deeper levels of spiritual growth. “The power behind the transformation at the Wall is this: learn to embrace your whole story with loving, forgiving detachment” (234). We must accept ourselves with all our wounds and imperfections. We must experience God’s love and acceptance of us as we are in all our weakness and humanness. And then we must fully and completely surrender to God’s will, even though we remain in the dark.

An example of the spiritual/psychological healing and transformation that occurs is the realization that fixing others, overhelping others, codependency, or excessive enabling of others is not selfless service. These motivations have unhealthy roots. They betray a sense of low self-esteem, a desire to control. (119)

Through doubts and difficulties we come to know God and ourselves better.

Communicating this stage to others who have not experienced it is difficult. People at stage 1 can’t imagine such an experience. Those at stage 2 view it as a lack of conviction. Believers at stage 3 wonder whether we have become apostate altogether. It is hard for those at previous stages to recognize that doubt is not disbelief - doubt is faith taking itself seriously.

These first three stages keep churches in business. It is what produces workers, people who sit in the pews and learn, tithers, and volunteers who pull the ministry off.

In the wall, the transition to entering into stage 4, there is the scary place where it feels like everything is up for grabs. Everything we once knew is somehow gone or just doesn’t bring life. We don’t feel safe or satisfied or energized in the system we used to give our heart and time and money to. The way we used to experience God just doesn’t seem to be working any more, or at least not at the level it was. There are far more questions than answers. It can be a most confusing stage but also a most glorious stage because it is where we begin to let go of some of the comforts that protected us so well, but also kept us from deeper and richer experience of God.

Many (concerned) onlookers observe thinking that we are losing the plot, becoming heretical, losing the faith, with the hope that once this phase is over that we’ll come back ‘home’ as soon as possible.

The huge challenge is that it is possible to dance with the transition, use the language but never go through. To talk the talk but always to default back to stage 3.

The Journey Outward Again: Stage Five and Stage Six

Stage 5 is “the journey outward” where our “focus is outward, but from a new, grounded centre of ourselves” (133). At this stage, “we surrender to God’s will to fully direct our lives, but with our eyes wide open, aware but unafraid of the consequences” (133). We possess a new-found confidence that God loves us fully, just as we are. “There is a human tendency to think that if God really knew us God would not love us… At stage 5 we grow into the full awareness that God truly loves us even though we are never fully whole. God loves us in our humanness” (134).

With newfound inward resources, we “venture outside our self-interests to others” (133). We are weak, but whole. Aware of our faults, we are confident that God will work through us.

Wholeness looks a lot like weakness at this stage. Wholeness does not make us stronger; it allows God to work through our weaknesses. Wholeness means being very aware of our faults but not letting them trip us… God can use us most in our brokenness, a truth that was very hard to accept until the Wall experience. (135)

To those still at earlier stages, we appear impractical, inefficient, and out of touch.

Frequently, we appear to be impractical and out of touch with reality. The way the world functions around us, people who are other directed, whole, selfless, and called by God are counterculture. When we love people despite their having failed miserably in our society for whatever reason, we are called naïve; when we stay with the grieving, we are considered caretakers; when we give money away, we are considered poor managers; when we yield, we are considered noncompetitive; when we let go, we are considered weak. We just do not fit with the realistic expectations of a world that is out to be productive and to win. Even the productive Christians at earlier stages in the journey think we at stage 5 have lost our edge.

At stage 5 we are not as oriented toward productivity with outward signs or products. Consequently, we appear less productive and slightly isolated. We are in fact quite active. But we have a tendency to do things behind the scenes or on a one-to-one basis. We never realize that we are hardly noticed. This style can be very confusing and even frustrating for those who want us to be leaders in the more traditional way. (144-145)

Stage 6 is “the life of love” where God’s love is demonstrated through us “to others in the world more clearly and consistently than we ever thought possible” (152). By losing ourselves, we find ourselves. God’s presence is experienced in all relationships.

Our times alone with God come during the quiet times away as well as in the everyday, unceasing conversations. We have little ambition for being well known, rich, successful, noteworthy, goal-oriented, or “spiritual”… We are Spirit-filled but in a quiet, unassuming way. (153)

We love with great compassion modeled after God’s love. We live with less and delight in doing menial tasks.

At stage 6 we can reach far beyond our own capacity and love our fellow human beings with deep compassion, because we know that all come from and are loved by God. As Jesus was compassionate even in Gethsemane, at his trial, and on the cross, so we are compassionate under extreme hardship.

At stage 6 we become aware that the more of God we have, the less of everything else we need. We do not renounce material possession. We simply learn to need them less; we become detached from things and people as props or bolstering devices.

We are full of surprises because we are so free, so full of God, and so whole. We can say or do preposterous things because we are not afraid of death. We can deliberately give up our lives, materially, physically, mentally, and emotionally for the service of others without feeling afraid of the deep loss. (154-155, 156)

Our expression of love is selfless rather than needy. We love without the need to be loved in return. We passionately love others in a dispassionate (disinterested, detached) way. We are not egocentric (self-centred), but theocentric (God-centred), christocentric (Christ-centred), and eccentric (others-centred). We love others, not for our sake, but for their own sake; not with our goodness in mind, but with their goodness in mind.

Having shed the false self - a self rooted in possessions, accomplishments, and human acceptance - we embrace our true self, that of being eternally and fully loved by God.