Written by Tonya Stanfield, this is Part 3 of a 4 part series, “Stages of Faith and Spiritual Crisis: How to recognize it; disciple it; or find hope as you journey through it." (Originally written for the Centre for Christian Formation and Discipleship.)
If you were to step into a fish tank, who would be the last to know he was in water? The fish? Or you?
The answer: The fish. Because the fish has lived the entirety of its life submerged, it has no concept that there is any other environment possible. We are all much like that fish as we live submerged in our own world-views, cultures, and faith communities. We can also live submerged in our stage of faith.
Dr. James Fowler, the architect of the Stages of Faith theory, encourages us to be “playfully serious” with his model. One way to do that is to use it as tool for pointing out our blind spots. It can show us the kind of water we are currently submerged in....
“The main movement of spiritual formation is from self-deception to self-awareness.” – Dr. Chris Hall
We’ll start with stage 3 faith because experts estimate the majority of Western evangelicals will remain in this Loyalist phase. (Up to 80%!1) And, if you think you’re off the hook because you’re not Western, maybe that’s so. But, chances are you’ve been discipled by this influence in some way. (For the overview of the Six Stages of Faith see part 1.)
Stage 3: The Loyalist
This stage is entered around 12 or 13 years of age. One often begins to move beyond it after leaving home. (So anywhere from 18 to the early 20’s.) However, most of us will find a home in the Loyalist phase and never move out.
This is a bold and certain faith. Stage 3 believers are the life-blood of any organization or church. They’re on fire! They’re sold out! They’re a collective family who spur one another on to love and good deeds with zeal and energy.
The goal of this phase is to ground your identity in a healthy foundation and strong sense of belonging from which you can venture out and explore the world. In a psychological sense, it’s another form of the parental holding environment you should have had as a young child. Adults whose holding environments were unhealthy will find deeply needed healing in stage 3 communities. Some need to stay in this stage longer than others for that reason. Your faith community can be like a surrogate family.
You may be asking: “If this stage is so wonderful, why wouldn’t we just want to stay put?” Well, like any grown child who lingers at home well beyond their season for doing so, unhealthy patterns begin to emerge.
Healthy Stage 3:
As a kid, you naturally form your identity through a process of separation: “We are not that; therefore, I am this.” “We are Japanese, not American.” You do this by comparing others to your own community of sameness.
When my daughter was little, she asked if some of our relatives were Christian. She looked perplexed when I said they were… which perplexed me in turn. Their family worshipped Jesus, went to church, read their Bibles… They exhibited Christian faith.
“But they don’t travel like we do,” she pointed out.
A light bulb went on in my head. We’re missionaries. Traveling to share the gospel is all she’s ever known. For her, real Christians spend a lot of time on planes. Her brain was sorting it out: “Their lives don’t look like ours; therefore, they must not be Christian like we are…or at least not as good as us.” This is funny in a kid, but if an adult is still defining their identity in this manner, it’s not going to win them friends. (Unless their friends are exactly like them… which they often are.)
Unhealthy Stage 3:
Adults who stay in the Loyalist phase are in danger of primarily defining their identity by what they are against. In essence, they are saying: “Anything that threatens or disagrees with my thoughts, beliefs, or community is felt as a threat to my identity and the reality I’ve constructed.” When this happens, an “Us and Them” mentality is deepened. This person says: “I am my thoughts and opinions.” Rather than: “I am the one aware of my thoughts and opinions.” They will engage the world in a reactive manner rather than a reflective one. They often can’t listen to be impacted; rather, they listen to form a positive or negative opinion or insert their own agenda. (Don’t we all sense when someone isn’t really listening to hear us?) For them, spiritual maturing must display a certainty of cognitive belief which agrees with their faith community.
If you want to see this in action, all you need to do is sit at a dinner table with people who have opposing political views. (Or go on Facebook!) When we react rather than reflect, it’s not because our values or ideals are being challenged; it’s because our identity is. (Tip: You can turn your reactions into self-reflection. Why does this anger me so? What foundation is being shaken in me? Is the threat actually an internal matter within myself?)
Key Marker of Stage 3 (Loyalist) Faith: Beliefs are held within the group.
The Loyalist will say: “I am my community.” “We are our beliefs.” Now, don’t get me wrong, community and beliefs are essential to healthy faith. They matter. They shape us. But, we will never feel safe enough to examine beliefs that need refining or a community which may have some flaws unless we slightly change the posture from which we engage them. Read on…
When I went to Bible college, I was confronted with a doctrinal interpretation I’d not yet taken the time to think through. (Stage 3 faith is an unexamined faith.) They told me women are not to teach or lead a man. (Maybe you hold some form of this doctrine as well. But, the point of this story is not theology. Rather, focus on how I engaged my community and beliefs.) The men took hermeneutics; the women took message prep for women. Women were not allowed to earn a pastoral degree, to preach at chapel, or to be student council president. As a teenager, I’d led a large ministry in my high school and was president of my youth group. My aim was full-time ministry. Suddenly, I was thrust into a painful space. (In stage 3, you feel you either accept all the beliefs of the community or you reject all.)
After having my questions silenced by several authorities, (Stage 3 communities can see foundational questions as a threat.) a kind professor privately showed me the egalitarian approach to those same passages, taking a risk he’d be reprimanded. I learned I could still affirm the authority of Scripture and women in leadership at the same time! This season gifted me with three important lessons: First, I am not my community, nor am I my beliefs. Rather, I have a community, and I have beliefs. That nuance offered me the necessary distance to question, to examine, and to disagree while retaining my faith. Second, it taught me my strong inner reactions were really invitations to deeper inner work. Third, I can hold a space of loving tension where I honor and work alongside good people I profoundly disagree with.
Stage 3 Barrier to Transformation: "Either all of it is true or none of it is!"
No wonder it’s so hard to move beyond this stage! Because identity is held in the group, to question it feels like betrayal. To be rejected by it is to jeopardize the meaning of your very existence. “If I’m not my community, what am I?” “If I’m not my beliefs? Who am I?” It’s said that most will not leave this stage until the door behind them is fully shut. “In fact, people tend to stay where they are until the pain of staying where they are becomes unbearable.” – Dr. Alan Jamieson
Tips to Discipling Stage 3 Faith:
Discernment: Do not to push stage 3 disciples toward stage 4 before they are ready. Rather, they need:
“The call to discipleship is a call to change.” – Dr. Chris Hall
Some will be unable to resist the call to move on toward stage 4 faith, The Critic. In the next blog, we’ll discuss this difficult transition and how faith crisis often accompanies it. Stay tuned to find out why spiritual crisis is not all bad news.
References and Further Study:
Benner, D. G. (2012). Spirituality and the Awakening Self: The Sacred Journey of Transformation.
Jamieson, A. (2002). A Churchless Faith: Faith Journeys beyond the Churches.
also has a teaching, writing, and speaking ministry. Her heart is to raise, deepen, and challenge disciples of Jesus. She's part of the Center for Christian Formation and Discipleship and lectures at both a Masters and Undergraduate level for YWAM's University of the Nations. She's also training to be a spiritual director and is an enneagram coach. We thought you might enjoy some of her blogs...