There’s a popular story about a woman who, when asked to share her faith story, brought out a written account of her conversion as a child and read it. Over the years the paper yellowed and grew ragged at the edges. One day when she wanted to read it to some friends once again, she found that mice had shredded it for nesting material. She could find nothing to say. Her faith story started and ended with that one experience.
Faith stories often stop at conversion instead of going on to describe how faith matured throughout life.
In 1981, James Fowler researched faith development in many religions and found some correlation. He concluded people most often move through stages of faith – from the simple faith of a child to a more mature faith. He argued that even an atheist doesn’t believe in a godless world in a split second. Whether towards atheism or belief in God, faith is a journey.
During the period when revival meetings were popular, some people kept going to the front to be converted again and again, never knowing for sure whether their conversion would stick. With-out an emphasis on discipleship, such repeated laying of a foundation led to spiritual stagnation or even withdrawal from the body of Christ.
In an earnest attempt to get people into the kingdom of God, we fail to recognize that faith is a journey, not a single act, although it begins with some discernible movement towards God. Faith is a process of continual growth from that first simple commitment of reaching out to God to becoming more Christ-like as we age. As one woman said, ”I’m still searching, but not for God.” Having found God, she left behind the milk diet of a child and reached for solid food.
What are these stages? The following stages of faith are adapted from The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity (InterVarsity, 1997), in a chapter by John M. Dettoni. I’ve interwoven my own journey.
The first stage of faith is simple, childlike faith that results from reaching out to God, however slight the movement. This simple faith usually occurs between the ages of three and seven, but could also occur at age 30 or 70. Sometimes it’s called “accepting Jesus into your heart,” being born again, or conversion.
For some, this reaching may be subtler, like the gentle rain of God’s love washing over the soul. Some devout Christians cannot point to an exact time when they were not a believer.
According to researchers, children at this stage freely accept what others say about God. They read the Bible because they’re told to and accept the biblical interpretations of others.
At about age six or seven, at vacation Bible school, we were told to invite Jesus into our hearts. One morning, I rushed home and up to the closet where Mother’s nightgown usually hung. I buried my head in it and kept saying, “Come into my heart, Lord Jesus, come into my heart.” Nothing happened, but I had done what I was told to do. I clung to that simple experience although I was never quite sure it was an accomplished act. Later on, I was taught that conversion required not only a date and a place, but a Bible verse and great conviction of sin. I couldn’t claim all those details.
At this stage, identification and belonging are important. The stage often starts at age seven or eight and continues through adolescence. Teenagers often go through baptismal or membership classes at this point. Some conform to church conventions honestly, but some only do so to follow their peers or to satisfy the expectations of adults.
I had never gone forward at a revival meeting, so when I was in my early teens, I walked to the front, heart pounding, knees trembling, to answer the evangelist’s intense invitation to be saved. But what about that other time I asked Jesus into my heart? Was I Christian at last?
It’s important to remember that these stages of faith do not come automatically, one after another, any more than the stages of grief arrive in lockstep. Sometimes a believer may be in several stages at the same time. Some people have the fond hope that the older they become, the stronger their faith will be. Growth in faith does not necessarily follow life stages, unless there is intentional movement forward.
After several long months of searching for truth and purpose in life, a few words in Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest turned me towards spiritual maturity. Chambers’ words for that day were, “Ye shall be holy, for I am holy.” God’s one aim, he wrote, was to produce saints, not be their personal messenger boy. I began studying the Bible on my own. I began probing difficult questions. My faith had moved to a new stage.
Some Christians remain in the first stages of faith all their lives. They’re always dependent on the think-ing of others, such as a pastor or great Bible teacher. Some people go to church, conferences, and workshops for one reason – to reinforce the beliefs of their childhood. As long as they have a Bible verse to prove their point, they’re satisfied. They allow nothing to challenge their thinking. Theological change threatens their security in Christ. The Bible reflects what they want it to say; it’s not a window into bigger, richer truths about the Christian life.
At this stage, people learn to think about their belief systems and begin to synthesize these with those of the larger faith community. People take responsibility for their own spiritual growth and are not as dependent on others. They “maintain contact with their former primary authority source for general guidance rather than particular directions,” says Dettoni.
When I was about 19 or 20, I was elected youth leader at the Saskatoon Mennonite Brethren Church. At that time, the youth group was composed mainly of university or career young people. Within days of the election, a delegation of young brethren from the group informed me that the church council had determined it was not fitting for a female to lead a mixed group. I accepted their decision, and believed it was what the Bible taught. Years later, circumstances challenged my thinking. Over a decade or more, I slowly, cautiously, and then more courageously, examined the issue of women’s role in church and society. I took responsibility for finding my way through differing biblical interpretations. God did not desert me.
At this stage, believers internalize what they are learning. They take ownership of their faith. They actively seek transformation by the Holy Spirit. Financial giving patterns change. Ministry risks are less scary. Personal relationships have more integrity. Ambiguity in biblical interpretation is less threatening. Decision-making is less agonizing.
I’ve heard this stage referred to as the rationalization stage. Everything is questioned and analyzed. People become dissatisfied with shallow preaching and teaching, particularly platitudes repeated again and again. In this stage, people consciously sort, affirm, throw aside and reduce faith to the essentials, to what is non-negotiable.
Sometimes, faith grows stronger. Sometimes it becomes nebulous. Sometimes it falls apart because of doubts and fears. Sometimes life crises cause people to face faith issues head-on. Illness, death, rebellious children, unexpected pregnancy, job loss, empty nest syndrome, divorce, retirement, financial failure – all force people into reconciling faith with life experiences. What is truth? What aspects of the belief system held dear over the years are chaff blowing in the wind?
No experience pushed my faith as hard as the death of my husband. I was 38, with four young children, living in the new country of the United States with its strange customs and language usage. I was tested to the core of my being.
I was now responsible for my children and myself financially, emotionally, and spiritually. I no longer had a preacher husband to hide behind. I timidly faced the question of why God hadn’t healed my husband. I was cast adrift in a sea of loneliness. I asked myself what the apostle James meant when he said pure religion was to look after orphans and widows in their distress. Should I reject my faith as unworkable in the face of real prob-lems, or trust God to help me find a way through the suffering? I recognized that if I chose not to face the challenge, I chose spiritual death.
Years later, when I was visiting with a Mennonite Central Committee Learning Group in El Salvador during the civil war, we spoke briefly with a Catholic priest. He was on his way to the backcountry to hide a man wanted by the military police. “Confusion is grace,” he said. His advice was to let puzzlements, even chaos, be the beginning of new growth. I recognized I had chosen the path of accepting suffering, in order to learn God’s lessons as I moved through the difficulties of single parenthood.
This is sometimes referred to as the sustaining faith period. It is not the time to tread water, but to transition to mature faith. Dettoni speaks of it as “walking in the Spirit.”
In my youth, a popular teaching was that once a person accepted Christ, all temptations, sins, and weaknesses of the old life disappeared. Believers were “a new creation,” immune to past enticement and sin, especially smoking and drinking. 2 Corinthians 5:17 was the proof text for this doctrine. I watched as new believers drifted away after they found their urges to indulge their obsessions had not disappeared. They judged the gospel as being without power instead of recognizing that the initial step toward God as Redeemer was the beginning of a long, challenging, and rewarding journey towards growth in Christ.
Perhaps young Christians have the idea that older believers automatically turn into highly spiritual “prayer warriors.” But nothing happens automatically. Often, these saints struggle with issues of self-integrity and concern about their role as older adults in the faith community. But they press on.
At this stage people are “continually seeking God in and for all aspects of their lives.” They no longer need mentors. “Categories and content of faith are filled, renewed, rearranged and revised as they read, study and meditate on Scripture and as the Holy Spirit interacts with their own hearts and minds …. They realize that they must strive mightily to present them-selves as mature in Christ,” writes Dettoni. Believers work at “working out their faith in fear and trembling.” They deliberately stay on the journey. Faith becomes simpler but surer.
Fowler adds a sixth stage that overlaps with Dettoni’s fifth stage when a person becomes fully “actualized” or complete. Few ever attain this stage, Fowler says. Yet mature Christians, like mature trees, bear fruit. In Galatians 5:22, Paul speaks of the fruit of the Spirit as being freedom in Christ, serving one another accompanied by virtues of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. That’s the portrait of a mature Christian.
In the last stages, faith becomes childlike again, a simple and unaffected trust in the God-Redeemer of youth, without doubts, despite hurdles encountered along the way. God is. Christ redeems. The Spirit empowers. The fruit of maturity is evident in daily life.
This is a portrait of the long, long road. Faith is a journey, not just a beginning.
Katie Funk Wiebe is a well-known Mennonite Brethren writer and teacher. She lives in Wichita, Kan. This article will also appear in the Christian Leader, a publication of the U.S. MB Conference.