What are the Stages of Faith?
by Steven R. Hemler
I believe the four stages of Christian faith development, described by Rev. John H. Westerhoff in his book Will Our Children Have Faith?, are quite enlightening and true. As we go through life, we may expand into (add-on) the needs and elements of the later stages, but only after the needs of the earlier stages are met. The stages of faith are like rings of a tree. Just like a tree adds one ring on top of another, we do not leave the needs of the earlier stages behind after we expand into the next stage. We continue to need the faith experiences of the earlier stages throughout our lives. Westerhoff labels the four stages of faith development: experienced faith, affiliative faith, searching faith, and owned faith.
Experienced faith grows by participating in the customs and rituals of our faith tradition with other Christians. It is the lifelong foundation of our faith. Experienced faith is also the faith of our senses. The liturgical rituals of the Catholic Church, with its recurring sights, sounds, and smells, are quite conducive to developing experienced faith, especially in young children. Young children do not fully understand the meaning behind the rituals. Nevertheless, just by participating in them they come to believe they are meaningful and important. The rituals point to the experience and love of God.
When children experience warm and loving feelings in church, they are more likely to value church and, most importantly, associate God and church with love and warmth. That's why, when our children were young, we deliberately spent lots of time holding and hugging them in church.
The second stage of faith, affiliative faith, develops by belonging to (being affiliated with) an accepting Christian community. Provided the needs of experienced faith are met during childhood, we may expand into affiliative faith during adolescence. Therefore, it is critical for churches to provide an active youth ministry program. These social, spiritual, and service activities, which provide opportunities for teenagers to deepen their relationships with other Christians, are absolutely crucial for this stage of faith development. Although much progress has been made, most Protestant churches are still better than most Catholic churches at providing these affiliative faith experiences.
However, weekend retreats (like "Search for Christian Maturity", "Christian Awakening" and "Encounter with Christ") are shining exceptions in the Catholic Church. These retreats are profoundly meaningful experiences for most high school and college students who attend.
I first attended a "Christian Awakening" retreat in the 11th grade. Even more importantly, for three years afterwards I attended a home-based, follow-up "Prayer and Share Meeting" nearly every week. I cannot describe how much my faith grew and developed by belonging to this very close Christian faith-sharing community of friends my age. As a result, I became active in my parish while in high school, serving as our youth organization's president, lector, 8th grade catechist (religious education teacher), etc.
The third stage of faith development, searching faith, is the faith of questioning and internalizing what we have long been taught. Searching faith usually begins during late adolescence and often continues in earnest during young adulthood. For example, every year "Does God Exist?" was the most popular discussion topic selected by the students in our 11th grade religious education class.
I first began reading Christian books, including the Bible and documents of Vatican II, during late adolescence. In college, I clearly remember having many "debates" on the existence of God, evolution, Jesus' resurrection, etc. with other students. During one dorm party, another student and I began to debate God's existence. Before long, the stereo was turned off and the entire room was debating God's existence! This is searching faith.
This stage can be troubling for parents, teachers, etc. if not properly understood. And, of course, it's risky. However, only by questioning and testing what we have long been taught can we truly come to accept and internalize these teachings. Searching faith is a necessary prerequisite to owned faith.
This final stage of faith development, owned faith, rarely occurs before young adulthood. Because of the serious struggle with doubt that precedes it, owned faith may appear as a great illumination or enlightenment. It's now our own faith and no longer merely the faith of our parents, family, etc. Even though doubts and questions remain, those who own their faith want to witness it by personal and social action, and are willing and able to stand up for what they believe in as mature disciples of Jesus Christ.
Owned faith is God's intention for everyone, even though (according to Westerhoff) most adults have had their faith arrested at the affiliative stage. Therefore, it is important for churches to provide opportunities that address the needs in each and every stage of faith development, and thereby help as many as possible to reach their full faith potential.
E-mail this article to a friend
Copyright © Steve Hemler. Steve Hemler has been involved in youth ministry, pro-life political activism and religious education. His articles have been published in America, Liguorian, Church, Modern Liturgy, Religion Teacher's Journal, Liturgical Catechesis, and National Review.