Stunted Faith

As a pastor I regularly have conversations with folks who feel themselves teetering on the edge of faith.  I don’t remember anyone telling me that this would be a normal part of my vocation but it has become common enough to be notable.  Earlier this year I wrote about this and wondered about the negative impact of insular subcultures within Christianity.  I continue to think these sorts of cliquish churches can hinder faith development as a young person’s orbit begins to take in larger swaths of culture and, ironically, Christianity.

Since then I’ve had more conversations with women and men who have either left the faith, are taking a break from church, or who see little reason to believe their faith will be sustained in the coming months.  In addition to noting the long-lasting impact of childhoods spent within sectarian churches I’ve also been thinking about how faith develops over time and whether churches allow for and expect this development.

James FowlerJames Folwer, a professor of theology and human development, published Stages of Faith in 1981 in which he described seven stages (0-6) of faith development.  The stages he theorizes are interesting though, for my purposes, I won’t say much about the unique stages or whether there is actually a sequential pattern followed by most people of faith.  I’m interested instead in the fact that Fowler saw these stages of faith development as normal but not inevitable.  It is, according to Fowler, very possible to get stuck along the way, mistaking one’s current experience of faith for the final destination.

For example, Fowler says people experience “mythic/literal faith” in stage two.  In Nurture that is Christian, Perry Downs writes about this stage that, “faith tends to understand God in terms of moral reciprocity, keeping score of who must be forgiven and who must be punished.”  This is an understandable perspective for a child to hold but one, we would hope, that would mature over time.  This, however, requires a community of faith that expects a person to grow beyond this stage.  Such communities according to Downs – and my own recent experience with those recounting their childhood churches – can be rare.  He writes,

Unfortunately, some congregations tend to “lock in” at this stage.  Probably reflecting a desire to take Scripture literally, these groups are so rigidly literal in their thinking that the deeper teachings of Scriptures elude them.  Such faith is not appropriate for adults.  Literalism should be a stop along the way, not a destination.

Many of the folks I talk with about crises of faith learned and experienced Christianity in these sorts of locked-in churches.  There was no expectation to mature beyond this, or any other, stage of faith.  As time passed and they engaged with an increasingly complex world, the faith of their childhood began to seem increasingly simplistic and ill-equipped to interact with their pressing questions.  From my observations, it is most common at this point to move in one of two seemingly different directions.  They either double-down on their childhood faith, pushing away doubts and incongruities, or they leave the faith altogether.  I wonder if these are only seemingly different directions as neither requires moving beyond old categories of understanding and being in the world.  It’s possible to exchange the fundamentalist tendencies of a certain Christian community for similar tendencies found among other groups, including those that deny God’s existence.

They either double-down on their childhood faith, pushing away doubts and incongruities, or they leave the faith altogether.

What’s behind this?  Why is there a tendency among many churches to form stunted Christians?  Downs wonders about the connection between a literal interpretation of the Bible and a literalist worldview.  Others have acknowledged the desire among many churches to protect its members, especially its younger members, from the polluting influence of the wider world.  Hanna Pylväinen’s novel, We Sinners, captures these fears poignantly.

I think there is something else though, something more elemental.  Much of Christianity has understood conversion in primarily transactional terms.  Accepting Jesus Christ as Savior affects a profound and eternal change.  Salvation, in these terms, is the end.  There are good, Biblical, reasons for thinking about salvation in this way.  But when this is the only way salvation is understood than there isn’t much reason to expect developments in one’s faith over time.  In fact, one of the unspoken goals of this sort of faith is to simply protect it.

Rounding out this view of conversion, though generally downplayed or categorized as secondary importance, is salvation as the beginning.  We might call this discipleship, following Jesus.  In this view our initial submission to Christ is seen as the first steps- incredibly important steps fraught with deep theological implications about identity in Christ, the presence of the Holy Spirit, and so on, but first steps nonetheless.  And as one learning to walk, we expect changes and growth.

What sort of church community might foster the expectation for a faith that changes and matures over time?  Two phrases come to mind.  We can think of this kind of church as a centered-set model of belonging.  Here the community affirms a strong center while allowing for a diversity of experience, thought, and expression around that center.  This community is held together by Who its members are moving toward.  (The question about what forms a community’s center is important and different churches will answer it in different ways.)  The alternative is a bounded-set model in which clear boundaries are drawn making clear who does and doesn’t belong.  This, I think, has been the experience of many who now question the faith of their childhood.

 Members of this community have a clear sense of its purpose and find it a safe place to undertake the risky task of faith development.

The second phrase that hints at a community expecting faith development – including all of the attending messiness – is a non-anxious presence.  This is the language Edwin Friedman uses to describe the role of a leader in A Failure of Nerve but I think the concept applies to a community.  Like a non-anxious leader, this type of community does not find its identity threatened by questions or conflict.  Members of this community have a clear sense of its purpose and find it a safe place to undertake the risky task of faith development.

There’s another piece that appears to be missing in the faith experience of the folks I talk with.  I mention it here briefly as a placeholder; I need to give more thought to this.  Moving through stages of faith involves pain.  Loss, doubt, unanswered questions, and emotional turmoil are natural parts of maturing.  The Church has long known this and seen the dark night of the soul as a normal experience for those following the narrow way of Jesus.  In contrast, much of contemporary Christianity downplays these darker experiences, choosing instead to paint a picture of faith that is mostly victory and happiness.  Younger people growing up in these happy-clappy environments have been given little precedent for the dark and sometimes desperate valleys that are intrinsic to faith development.

I’ve surely oversimplified the concept of faith development as well as the reasons people leave the faith. What am I missing?  What would you add?  This remains a pressing topic for me and I’d love to hear additional reflection on these ideas and questions.

(Header photo credit: Continent Stereoscopic Company (cc).)

2 comments

  1. John

    David, you have hit on a big issue for which there is no quick and easy answer. However, I think it is relatively easy to identify the source of the problem. For much too long, “personal faith” has been the “name of the game” in Protestant circles, especially evangelical ones. We are “saved by grace”, as the saying goes, and then “works” are tossed in the garbage.

    However, as the New Testament writer James makes clear, “faith without works is dead.” And the “works” we should be considering cover every aspect of life, and on the south side of Chicago with The University of Chicago nearby, that means all the intellectual work of every aspect of life – business, construction and engineering, medicine, art, chemistry, et al.

    Back in September, 1980, Charles Malik gave a talk at the opening of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College called “The Two Tasks,” made still more famous by Mark Noll at the opening of his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. The “two tasks” – evangelizing the soul, but also a very big #2, evangelizing the mind.

    Tim Hoiland has a couple quotes –
    “The greatest danger besetting American Evangelical Christianity is the danger of anti-intellectualism. … For the sake of greater effectiveness in witnessing to Jesus Christ Himself, as well as for their own sakes, the Evangelicals cannot afford to keep on living on the periphery of responsible intellectual existence.”
    http://tjhoiland.com/wordpress/2012/08/malik/

    To read all of Malik’s lecture, one can find it at the link below.
    http://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/23/23-4/23-4-pp289-296_JETS.pdf

    Having lived through some rather dark periods in my faith walk, I can say with some conviction that the main problem I had was the fact there were so few people putting their faith to work in every situation in life. Christians, especially evangelicals, failed the African American community during the years before the Civil Rights Movement, and we continue to fail to do what Malik encouraged us to in all the other domains of life.

    So much to learn, so many people, ideas, projects, activies to meet and engage. Jesus proclaimed the Good News of the Kingdom, and Christians in the early centuries went out and transformed their cultures and societies with that message. We need to be learning a similar big faith again – but we must “do it !!”

  2. K La

    How does one rescue or become rescued from a failing faith? When one has trained well the heart, mind, soul, and strength for many years. When one has served many, experienced tragedy, and then lost church community– then one begins to lose faith. Where can one speak the words of desolation, cry out the void of empty prayers, and even expel despair’s tears with believers who will not flinch and flee? Where can someone like myself (in church, bible study, support group) turn for wiser counsel, a mature spiritual sage, to help guide through the dark night of the soul? Who answers when a broken believer cries out, hears nothing from God, and falls back bereft?

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