One of the comments I hear from church leaders about those who are struggling with their faith and with disillusionment is that they are not mature. Recently I came across the work of Janet Hagberg and Robert Guelich about the stages of faith development. Their research and concepts are built on over 2000 years of history and theology.
Hagberg and Guelich define six stages of development, and a seventh component: The Wall.
Stage 1 – “the discovery and recognition of God” (33)
Stage 2 – “a time of learning and belonging” labeled “the life of discipleship” (53)
Stage 3 – “the productive life”
Stage 4 – “the journey inward” – “a deep and very personal inward journey” that “almost always comes as an unsettling experience yet results in healing for those who continue through it” (93). Wholeness looks a lot like weakness at this stage.
Stage 5 – “the journey outward” where our “focus is outward, but from a new, grounded center of ourselves” (133). At this stage, “we surrender to God’s will to fully direct our lives, but with our eyes wide open, aware but unafraid of the consequences” (133). We possess a new-found confidence that God loves us fully, just as we are.
Stage 6 – “the life of love” where God’s love is demonstrated through us “to others in the world more clearly and consistently than we ever thought possible” (152). By losing ourselves, we find ourselves.
Most evangelical models of Christian growth and maturity stop at stage three. The church primarily focuses on stages 1 through 3, and the highest numbers of people are found at stage 2. This raises a question about how the church, church leaders, and programs support and guide people beyond stage 3. Many church leaders do not know of or understand anything beyond stage 3, and when they witness the struggle of stage 4 they question and judge the person’s faith. This results in many people leaving the church when they experience stage 4. They find the faith they once held and the heart they served with in stage 3 has changed. Faith as they knew it doesn’t work any longer.
At stage 4 our understanding and views of God and faith are radically challenged. This can be so disruptive that we may feel we are losing our faith. Those around us may feel we are hopeless, lost, and they may even question if our faith was real. We may question our own faith and wonder if we ever understood what we believed. Stage 4 is marked by questioning, exploring, doubting, sinking into uncertainty, wrestling with issues, falling apart, rethinking belief systems, and experiencing a crisis of faith. “Our sense of God is shaken and we can find no new direction, only more questions” (197).
The reality of stage 4 is that no one would choose to walk through this kind of experience if given the choice. Stage 3 is a comfortable and fulfilling place. The church recognizes, approves, and support of people that ”arrive” at this level of faith development. Why would we move from the productive and fulfilling life when what lies ahead is a road of struggle, questioning, and redefining everything we have built our life upon. Stage 4 involve an experience of “The Wall”. The Wall is not something we can go over, under, or around. It is not something we can fake our way through, or simplify. The only way to move past it is to go through it. “Sometimes people drop off the journey totally at this point. Overwhelmed by pain or crises in our lives, we absolutely cut ourselves off from God” (107). Sometimes people want to turn back to stage 3, seeking the comfort and ease of what they have known before and often church leaders who do not know the way through will encourage this also. Going through The Wall may be the most difficult thing we ever experience. We must come to a point of accepting who we really are, with all our imperfections, failures, and sins. It is only through this acceptance and through a complete surrender to God that we will move forward. Some people place The Wall at the beginning of stage 4, and some place it at the end. It may vary depending on the person’s journey, but stage 4 and The Wall are intricately linked.
The stages of faith development are both sequential and cumulative. We move from stage 1 toward stage 6 one stage at a time, and we must experience each stage. However we do not stay at a single stage. Once we have experienced a stage we may move backwards and forwards revisiting different aspects of a prior stage to learn and grow at a new level. It is difficult to comprehend a stage you have not experienced. We may be able to grasp the stage immediately ahead, but not those that lie further along the journey. This is especially true for stage 4 where the doubts may be seen as disbelief, disillusionment, and a complete departure from faith.
“The stages are normal. For those who are unfamiliar with the normalcy of stage 4 in Christian experience, their newfound doubts feel like an abandonment of faith rather than faith’s rediscovery and enriching. A faith-map that helps them see this as a normal and necessary step along the way to the life of love is priceless.” (Richard J. Vincent)
I was one of those who was unfamiliar with the existence of stage 4. I did not see it as normal because I did not even see it existed. I felt as if my doubts and questions were a shattering of my faith, the loss of all I believed, and a dark chasm that I might never recover from.
This model of faith development has helped me to understand the journey I have been on the last few years. Some call Stage 4 and The Wall by other names such as the Dark Night of the Soul. No matter the name that is used, it is helpful for us to come to understand the process. Far too many churches only teach, understand, and accept faith development up to stage 3. Those who know and understand the other stages have a powerful opportunity to minister to and care for those who are on a journey that few will walk through.
Additional information about this faith development model can be found at: