Written by Tonya Stanfield, this is Part 1 of our 4 part series, “A series on Stages of Faith and Spiritual Crisis: How to recognize it; disciple it; or find hope as you journey through it."
“My concern is that Evangelicals have not paid anything like the necessary attention to this major theme, spiritual development of Christian life and thought. As a result, evangelicalism has become impoverished.” Theologian Alister McGrath
In a discipleship training seminar, I vulnerably detailed a season of burn-out and ensuing spiritual crisis with the hope students would see vital fruit born out of a season of painful deconstruction. Instead, a student asked: “What can I do to ensure that this never happens to me?” No doubt, I bumbled over a less than eloquent answer. His question revealed serious (yet very common) foundational flaws in his approach to Christian growth and discipleship. There was just no time to tell him what I will tell you:
“We are not saved from the human journey: We are saved because Jesus refuses to leave us alone in it.” – Rachel Kenny
Paula D’Arcy said, “God comes disguised as your life.” What this means is, properly viewed, our human life and development should be seen as a series of invitations to deeper relationship with God. As Christians, our call is to emulate Jesus, but we simply can’t if we de-emphasize His humanity. Jesus didn’t rise above His human existence; rather, He communed with God in it. Our victory is not that we escape the highs and lows of the human life through our faith. Our victory is that Jesus redeemed those human experiences through His. The Christian path of discipleship is a deeply human one where Holy Spirit desires us to come face to face with our wilderness of questions, our Gethsemane of fear, even our tomb of hopelessness … and eventually grow the ears to hear and the eyes to see the Father in a whole new way. And, we won’t just do this just once in our lives … we will do it over and over and over.
“[Christian Spirituality] will always be dynamic – evolving and changing. To turn it into something rigid and fixed is always to render it soulless, for that which is no longer evolving, is dead.” – Dr. David Benner
Humans Go Through Stages of Faith Much Like We Go Through Other Stages of Development (mental, emotional, social, physical).
When my son was five, he said, “But, I don’t want Jesus in my heart! I want him in my house to play!” He was still a few thousand neurons away from developing abstract thought. Four years later, his brain developed in a way that allowed his faith understanding to deepen. Healthy children go through faith stages naturally. As we grow into adults, moving from one stage of faith to the next is often marked by doubts, questions, and (for some) burn-out, depression, and anxiety … even mid-life crisis.
Moving from one stage of faith into another isn’t the same as spiritual growth; it’s a revolution of the entire way we engage God, ourselves, and the world. Dr. James Fowler says, “Our very life meanings are at stake in faith stage transitions.”
In a recent project I oversaw, I met with nearly a dozen ministry workers in faith-stage transition. Sadly, all of them felt immense shame and would only speak privately. None felt their Christian community would understand; some considered leaving it. They all worried of judgement and rejection. This speaks volumes about our faith communities: We haven’t taught believers that doubt, discomfort, and even faith crisis are key parts of the journey; instead, we’ve implied they’re failing the journey. So, how can we do better at discipling these tumultuous seasons of faith transition?
Acquaint Yourself with a Faith Development Map:
Much has been written by psychologists and theologians on this, but most of what they’ve debated and refined is built on Dr. James Fowler’s seminal work: Stages of Faith. He asserts all humans have the possibility to go through six stages of faith. No stage can be skipped, as it builds the platform to enter the next phase. Keep in mind, an adult can halt in development at the second stage or anywhere beyond.
The 6 Stages of Faith: (We’ll explore these in depth over the next 3 weeks.)
The Goal of Faith Development is Not to Climb to the Top.
A fulfilling relationship with God can be experienced in every stage, never-the-less, you’re probably trying to place yourself in one, hoping it’s one of the latter ones. (Maybe, I’m beyond my years?). Rest assured the spiritual journey is not about gaining access to an exclusive club. God is not in a rush to grow you up into stage 6.
God’s a good Father. A good father adores his newborn daughter, delighting over her tiny toes and later, her first steps. He watches with awe as she discovers her unique gifts and talents. He guides her through the tough teenage years, reminding her of the inner beauty she can’t fully see in herself. He’ll cheer her on to university or her first job. He’ll hold her when she fails and when her heart gets broken. And … one day, he’ll walk her down the aisle, enraptured by the exquisite creature he had a hand in creating … anticipating grandchildren, her middle-aged years … those mature seasons where she’ll come to appreciate him in new ways. Your heavenly Father relishes meeting you in every stage of your faith and your life.
In the next three weeks, I hope to give you a new paradigm for faith development … one that will help you make sense of your journey, guide you in your discipleship of others, or restore hope in the midst of your own faith crisis. So, stay tuned!
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...