In my class “Discipleship and Spiritual Formation,” we’re currently reading through James Fowler’s classic book Stages of Faith. As the title indicates, Fowler attempts to describe the potential developmental progression of faith over the course of life. Though very few individuals progress through each of his six stages and many remain well short of Stage 6, the pattern is still a helpful one.
Two of the middle phases are Synthetic-Conventional (Stage 3) and Individuative-Reflective (Stage 4). As these best represent the adolescent and young adult eras, they are particularly pertinent to my work in the field of youth ministry. In Stage 3, adolescents begin to realize that they live in complex world, and their attempt to develop a coherent worldview to explain it all represent the “synthesis” portion. As they do this, however, their worldview is not entirely their own but rather one they adopt somewhat unconsciously and/or uncritically from community with which they identify. This is the “conventional” part.
As individuals in Stage 3 grow older, “leave home” either literally or symbolically, and come to realize that there may be legitimate questions about the worldview they have heretofore inhabited, they begin to process through their beliefs. In the process of reflecting and making personal decisions about what they believe, therefore, their faith becomes more individuated and overtly “their own.” This is Stage 4.
Within the Christian faith, we might say that Stage 3 represents a stage of faith development wherein people (adolescents and others that never leave this phase) mostly accept what is preached, taught, and promulgated by their churches (or the Church) without much critical examination. This is a shared way of seeing the world that everyone in the community agrees with and helps them feel safe and secure. Leaders are deferred to for questions.
Christians in this phase believe in Christ and trust in Him, even while they have perhaps not thought through the depths of that faith on a deeply personal level. As I’ve mentioned, Fowler notes that people can remain in this phase for their entire lives (i.e. not just during adolescence). Moreover, he even suggests that religious groups “work best” as institutions when a majority of its people is in this stage.
Though not denying the faith and beliefs of those in the Synthetic-Conventional phase, I believe that my job as a minister is not simply to have a bunch of people agreeing because that’s what the Church says or because it feels safe and helpfully bounded. One of my goals (and you’ll hear this phase a lot from youth ministers) is to help young people “take ownership of their faith” in the Stage 4 Individuative-Reflective sense.
Though a theologically questionable phrase, taking ownership of one’s faith implies the helpful idea that living a life for Christ means that it is something that you have to decide and live for within yourself. Something that you have to work through and except on a very personal and thoughtful level. There ought to be depth to our faith, in other words. A depth that, in many ways, must be unique to us as we have worked through the stories of our lives and the questions they bring.
Helping adolescents (and adults locked in Stage 3) progress to Invididuative-Reflective faith means making our lives more difficult as ministers. It will mean shepherding our flock through some tough and dangerously honest questions from time to time. It will mean helping them process their doubt. It is a risky undertaking and one that should proceed with great care. And yet, the opportunity for our fellow believers to grow deeper in their walk with God and surer of both their personal reasons for belief and the shape of their faith is one I would not want to miss. As I work mostly with college students now, many of whom would feel that Stage 4 is their current home, I feel more and more confident of this. Stage 5? Well, that’s a question for another day.