A Stages of Christian Faith Theory

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A set of articles at Leadership Journal’s blog about the spiritually mature leaving and then reengaging the Church truly enlightened me. After reading them, I thought I perhaps understood myself and my spiritual journey a bit better. The author of the blog (Dave Terpstra) entries engages with the book “The Critical Journey” by Janet Hagberg and Robert Guelich. One of Dave’s propositions is that some spiritually mature Christians leave the Church perhaps due to the fact that they have outgrown the Church’s ability to spiritually nourish their faith. That’s an extremely intriguing thought! After all, the typical understanding of most Christians is that those who cease from attending Church faithfully have backslided!

In the above book, Hagberg and Guelich describe most spiritual journeys as moving through six distinct stages:

1) Recognition of God
2) The Life of Discipleship
3) The Productive Life
4) The Journey Inward which ends in The Wall
5) The Journey Outward
6) The Life of Love

The first three stages occur when people become Christians, grow in their knowledge of God and the Bible and serve faithfully. Dave argues that most of our churches excel at catering for Christians at the first three stages. Here’s where things get interesting. Dave writes:

The authors suggest that at some point our faith shifts focus from the externals of discipleship and service and begins to become internalized. We begin to redefine our impressions of the faith and to some degree even our theology as we mature.

This fourth stage is where my experience (and the authors’) reveals the church’s weakness. Speaking in generalities, churches do not specialize in people who have been following Christ for years and who are deeply questioning and reexamining their beliefs. It’s especially difficult when people who reach stage four are in positions of influence and leadership. Churches, from the mega to the mini, are designed to help people mature in the external areas of service and discipleship, not the internal struggles of identity and meaning.

So what happens when people get burnt out on the basic teaching and serving. Some go looking for fresh new content and areas of service. Some discover a new teacher across town who “really” teaches the Bible. Some discover service to the under-resourced or in foreign countries. While their true need may be for something deeper, they settle for at least something different.

… if you have experienced stage four yourself then you know what comes at the end: “The Wall.” Our attempts to continue to grow in discipleship and service eventually wear out. Many people become so disillusioned they leave the church (physically or at least metaphorically by “checking out”).

Obviously churches can’t stop evangelizing and doing the basics of discipleship. After all, most of our people are in stages 1, 2, or 3. But how do we walk alongside those on the Journey Inward. What do we do when someone hits the spiritual wall. What happens when we as leaders reach that place? I believe it is this moment in our journey when we need the church most; so what’s a local church to do?

… It has been my experience that everyone who matures in their faith has times where God grows them tremendously through basic discipleship and service. I would hope that those are maturing elements of our faith to varying degrees throughout our lives. However, I disagree with those who would argue those are the only times and ways in which we grow. I believe in the same way we experience times of transformation through discipleship and serving, we also experience times of inner transformation that are not initially outwardly expressed.

…Why is it that when someone tells us they need to take a break from serving or from the programs of our churches we become so defensive? Was Paul being selfish because he took two years off from helping in children’s ministry? I think my defensiveness towards those who might leave my church is wrapped up in a healthy sense of wanting what’s best for them, and an unhealthy desire that I (or even my well programmed church?) have failed them.

No, I am not creating victims. No, I am not excusing selfishness. I am questioning the mentality of myself and other church leaders who so quickly assume that a time of disconnect from the programs of the modern (or postmodern) church immediately indicates apostasy.

…If our greatest strength is found where Christ is made strong in us (2 Cor. 12:10), then perhaps as church leaders we should delight when others experience the weaknesses that come from not growing through our teaching or the service opportunities we provide. Perhaps God has them on a journey we can’t draft on the white boards of our meeting rooms or diagram in a membership manual. We can plant. We can water. But let’s trust God to make people grow.

Sorry for quoting so much. It’s a great set of articles. Very relevant to me as I’ve not been really attending Church regularly. And I do think I am at the stage of the Journey Inward. I think the articles give me an alternative perspective of where I am from a “stages of growth” psychological perspective. I found an interesting quote from the book:

People at the discipleship stage (stage 2), secure with what is right for them and with a strong sense of belonging, may think that people who appear to be questioning or even losing their faith on the journey inward (stage 4) are not strong enough, not faithful enough, not willing enough, or just plain not Christian. Because of their present security in the journey, they find it difficult to comprehend the questioning on the inward journey as another step along the way. When they too fall into the throes of confusion, dissatisfaction or uncertainty, they may experience other people’s questioning of their behavior and only then understand how they were viewing people like themselves earlier. Those on the inward journey (stage 4), on the other hand, can look judgmentally on those people in the discipleship stage (stage 2), who seem to have such ready answers, rather than appreciating them and remembering the times when they too felt secure. That comes not from misunderstanding stage 2 as much as from the general insecurity of being at stage 4. (p. 12-13)

So why is my Christianity so different from the mainstream evangelical kind? Why do I see things so differently from evangelicals? One reason could be that my Christian journey has resulted in me believing differently from typical evangelicals – in the same way most Christians who would identify as being Emergent have gone through Christian journeys resulting in them being where they are now. Another reason could be that I’m at stage 4, while most Christians may be at stage 2. However, I heard Brian McLaren saying that people like himself and me are the way we are because we’re highly reflective individuals. So maybe it’s about the personality of individuals. Some people are just more introspective and think and self-reflect a whole lot. Perhaps that’s why they experience the Journey Inward? So maybe not all Christians will reach the Journey Inward.

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