Stages of Faith

From time to time I have made presentations on stages of faith, how people of faith develop through the seasons of life. Many people have asked me to put some of that in writing so I thought I’d use the blog to get some of those thoughts out to my friends in cyberspace.

There is a whole body of literature out there on the subject, some of which is more helpful than others. Some of the best-known names are Fowler, Kohlberg and Maslow. While all of them are helpful to a degree, the version that has been the most helpful to me is found in The Critical Journey, by Janet Hagberg and Robert Guelich (who passed away before the second, fuller edition). Credit where credit is due. I probably would never have heard about this book had it not been for a recommendation by a former colleague at Andrews University, Skip Bell. Thanks, Skip, this did me a lot of good.

In what follows you will note significant differences from Hagberg. I have thought through her system and evaluated it by my personal experience, my experience as a mentor, and my study of the Bible and other trusted literature. So what I offer here is both dependant on others and uniquely my own perspective. Take it for what it is worth. There are six stages in all, with some points of transition.

The first stage is initial acquaintance with God. I sometimes call this the “romance” stage. It is a time of “first love” with great joy in walking with God. At the same time there is not a lot of knowledge, so the person is vulnerable to superstition. The key at this stage is connecting with a community that can nurture and train the new believer in a healthy way.

The second stage
I call the learning or discipleship stage. It is a time when new believers explore, study, and learn how to fit into their new spiritual community. Finding the right mentor is crucial at this stage, as people are eager to learn and can be often led astray. This is a time of high confidence, where new believers feel that they have found the truth and can become somewhat legalistic and inflexible.

If people find a healthy mentor they will continue to grow, moving from disciples to teachers and leaders. This third stage can be called the success stage, a time when believers help others learn what they have learned. Their leadership is often praised and rewarded and they feel like they have “arrived.” It is often a confident stage, the pinnacle of what people expect from spiritual growth and leadership. If things ended right here, everyone would be happy. But it is not so.

At some point in the third stage, usually somewhere between the age of 30 and 50, most people of faith experience what I call the “dark night of the soul.” This is a personal crisis where past certainties become inadequate, where you begin to question everything you have ever believed and find God to be silent or distant. This frightening experience is not destructive, but a doubt that leads to greater faith, because it strips away the subtle selfishness that permeated the success stage without our being aware of it.

Some people back away from the dark night as if it were not from God and others blame their spiritual community for all that seems to be going wrong, but those who drink in this suffering as a call from God move on into the fourth stage, which I call the journey inward. Up until this point, we accepted the purpose of the church or our own ambitions as the purpose of God, but the dark night drives us to understand and embrace God’s unique purpose for our lives. Our faith moves from the head to the heart and becomes much more relational. It is like a second conversion.

The fifth stage I call the journey outward. At this stage we go back into the world and do the kinds of things we did in the success stage, but with different, more selfless motives. People will often change ministries at this stage and become willing to go smaller, humbler, and riskier. They are now living God’s purpose rather than that of an institution or others.

At this point a surprising thing happens. We would have thought that deepening spirituality would be recognized and supported. Instead, the closer we come to God the more out of touch we seem to be with the “system.” This often provokes a second dark night of the soul, which wrings the hidden selfishness out of our spirituality.

In the sixth stage followers of God are ruled by unconditional love. They have learned to see people through God’s eyes and love them the way God does. One would think this would be a popular stage but the opposite is the case. The one thing most people will not tolerate is for you to love their enemy, be that an abuser, another ethnic group or an annoying relative. Unconditional love often proves disruptive in relationships.

By this time you probably wish I had stopped at stage three. We would love for the ladder of faith to lead from triumph to triumph. But that is not the way things go. In this broken world the closer we come the God the stranger we become to others, even when the others are “in the faith.” In blogs to come I would like to take each stage, one at a time, and explore the implications for faith, leadership and mentoring. This is the most life-changing material I have ever learned or shared. Thanks for listening so far.


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  • 8/6/2010 9:18 PM Kemboi Chesimet wrote:
    How do you explain my "stage". The 3rd stage sounds familiar, got rebaptized 99 after NET98, was active in SS classes, fell out of institution (system), got steep in addictive life, got a season of "victory" got back in Church, could not stay given the "clinical" culture in Church, now in addictive behavior and cannot stand or get to go to Church.
    If it was not for your ministry, God might having any inroads in my life.
    Hope this series helps.
    Reply to this
  • 8/12/2010 11:51 AM how does wrote:
    I've heard a lot about The Critical Journey. Haven't read it yet though. I'll have to see if they carry it on online. I do think the stages can be experienced instantaneously through realization.
    Reply to this
  • 10/16/2010 1:25 PM Justina Mollison wrote:
    Wow at all times God give you just what you need to hold on when the water iscoming over your head.Thank you. I was watch Hopetv and you were speaking and I ended up on your site. My faith and my love for God is taking me over this road. Others question how I could be nice to those who I know is doing me wrong. All I would say is I know whose I am; yes I would get that look . I was so happy to get this and was reading others to my husband who just came from church lol.
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  • 10/17/2010 10:32 AM Geneva wrote:
    This is a truly blessed message. It helps me to understand my own walk and the feelings that havecome up during that walk, as well as the walk of my friends and church family. I can truly be morecompassionate about another person's experience.
    Reply to this
  • 8/29/2012 11:15 PM Brittany wrote:
    Kim referenced me to this page, and I absolutely love it... Unfortunately, I've visited the "dark night" stage a few times, but I find that the humble aftermath is a reward worth waiting for.
    Reply to this
    1. 9/2/2012 6:24 AM Jon Paulien wrote:
      Welcome, Brittany, I couldn't agree more.
      Reply to this
  • 1/25/2013 5:55 PM Margaret Placentra Johnston wrote:
    I was very glad to find yet another person writing about these stages.

    I have written a book describing a more ecumenical, if not secular, version of the stages. I am calling them stages of spiritual development, and they are based on the work of James Fowler, ken Wilber and many others including M. Scott Peck.

    Faith Beyond Belief: Stories of Good People Who Left Their Church Behind was published by Quest Books October, 2012. It may be an easy way to introduce the stages to those who are unfamiliar.
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    1. 2/8/2013 1:22 PM Jon Paulien wrote:
      Margaret, thanks for sharing, I will look this book up. Sounds interesting. Fowler and Peck are certainly important figures in this field, but I found Hagberg a little closer to reality, at least as I have experienced it. We're all learning and trying to figure this out.

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