4 Stages of Faith Development
One of the worst things we can do to our children is bring them up in complete isolation, with padded everything, rescuing them from any and all consequences and shielding their eyes from the very real presence of danger and evil in our fallen world. I’m not suggesting you pin a 20 dollar bill to their vest and drop them off on the strip in Las Vegas to fend for themselves, but — at some point in time — they need to be exposed to life as it really exists. Small doses in safe environments at first perhaps — malevolent forces in fairy tales, for example. But we’re in danger of raising a generation of cry babies who are completely ill-equipped to deal with reality…and Christian parents are often the worst offenders. If we give in to this urge, our children may never develop into the kind of strong adults they are made to be. And, again, Christian children are especially prone to underdevelopment and stunted growth.
John Westerhof (Will Our Children Have Faith) has written a great deal about stages of faith development in children. Using very broad strokes, he has discerned four distinct stages. The first, he calls experiential faith. That is faith gained from experience; interaction with other people of faith. Paul writes about his young companion Timothy, that his faith was nurtured by his mother, Eunice, and his grandmother, Lois. Infants being raised in Christian homes, have something of a relationship with God, in many ways, because it’s all they’ve ever known. A lifestyle of faith is all they have ever experienced, and the only people they have ever known as people of faith. The primary reason people in this stage believe what they believe is because it’s all they’ve ever believed.
The second stage is affiliative faith — growing through involvement in a faith community. It is sharing in the worship, ministry, decision-making, caring life of the faith community. Paul first encountered Timothy when he visited Lystra, where Timothy was highly regarded as a member of the community. Children whose parents include them in church-related activities have something of a relationship with God, in many ways, because all the people around them, all the people to whom they are connected have a relationship with God. The primary reason people in this stage believe what they believe is because they belong to a group of people who believe the same things.
The third stage of faith is inquisitive — a questioning phase usually occurs sometime early in adolescence for children raised in Christian homes. Paul took Timothy on one of his missionary journeys. Participating in Paul’s mission, asking questions and testing his gifts, Timothy’s faith was challenged and strengthened. This is the stage most Christian parents fear. In fact, some churches and families discourage this stage altogether. However, if this stage is not fully experienced by a young person, his or her faith will become stunted, or worse, aborted.
The fourth stage is owned faith — a developed faith that has been tested. At this stage a person’s faith is marked by a commitment to certain beliefs, attitudes and practices. In the Bible we see Timothy sent out to resolve problems in Corinth and then to Ephesus where he is a leader in the church. Until a faith is allowed to proceed through the inquisitive stage, until a faith is questioned, it will not be mature enough to be truly owned by an individual. At this stage, a person believes what they believe because their faith has withstood the crucible moments of life.
As parents, the one thing we want more than anything is for our children to possess an “owned” faith. We want our kids to love God, serve God, enjoy God, trust God, partner with God — not because of who their mom and dad are or because they’re in a church where that’s expected. We want them to do these things because they’ve made the choice to do so from the core of their own soul.
One point must be made here: parents cannot make this happen. We like to live as if there is some kind of law of linearity at work here — some kind of hard-and-fast cause-and-effect. You do certain things, and your children will own their faith. Like Francis Schaeffer’s image of God as a cosmic vending machine, we expect there to be a magical formula by which to raise children that will ensure their eternal destiny. Regardless of what anyone has told you, this is not the case. I’ve all read the verses in Proverbs; but we must remember that those are proverbs. They are descriptions of the way life usually works; but they are by no means to be taken as covenantal promises from God. Every human being is born with a will of his own. With that free will comes the ability and responsibility to choose which path she will walk. The more we attempt to manipulate the choices of our children — regardless of how well-intentioned we may be — the more we will do damage to the development of their faith.
Having said all that, there are things we can do to alter the trajectory of a person’s life — to nudge them in the direction of God or push them away from him. If it is important to us that our children have a fully developing faith, we should understand the four stages of faith development and that they must pass through each of the first three in order to get to the fourth. These stages are not always neatly divided, and the boundaries are often fuzzy. But it will be helpful for those of us with children to be aware of which stage our child may be in so that we can keep an eye out for what may lie ahead.