Theory alert! Skip this whole section of sub headings and scroll down to the ‘explore’ section if you want to get to the ‘so what’ sooner!
One of the ways people have tried to understand a faith journey has been to devise linear approaches to describe ‘faith stages’. This has been helpful to a point. In the same way we have linear orders of service, program outlines, and structures on paper to help make sense of things and to create ordered approaches we also have this notion of ‘faith stages’. God does and will continue to use these humanly devised linear approaches. It is important to affirm however, that God will also work outside of them and even in spite of them sometimes. It’s up to us to discern when this is happening and go along with God.
A linear approach.
Understanding linear approaches to life and faith form part of our skills and knowledge base. It’s part of any faith system. Put ‘faith stages’ or even ‘zen faith stages’ into your search engine and catch a glimpse of the diversity of understandings about this topic. The idea expressed in much of the idea of ‘faith stages’ is the need for one stage to be present and established before faith can be formed at a next stage and so on.
To enlarge on this metaphor it may be more accurate to say that some parts of subsequent stages can be growing while some parts of foundational stages may continue to be incomplete. A jigsaw of stages being placed together might be a more helpful metaphor.
This metaphor of ‘stages’ works to a point.
What is understated in much of the discussion on this topic is the primary need of any parent or worker to be prayerfully rely on God; to listen to God; and partner with God in the work God is already doing in our midst and in the lives of children, young people and their families.
Postmodern Children’s Ministry
The thoughts below are, in part, a response a very helpful summary of a large body of knowledge concerning the spiritual development of children found in Postmodern Children’s Ministry: Ministry to Children in the 21st Century by Ivy Beckwith. The stages theory outlined in a chapter of her book synthesises the work of Fowler and Erikson into a simple read that doesn’t destroy the complexity of the topic.
See a link to the title and a short review here> … well worth a read and worth more than the 3 stars this review gives it … more like 4.5 stars!
Accepting the metaphors of ‘faith stages’ at the moment in order to develop this further, we ask the question, “What spiritual truths do we want to sow into the lives of children?” This is a different approach to this topic because, as a starting point, we discover a wide and varied responses to this question in any group that is surveyed. Taking all the responses to the ‘spiritual truths’ question then and corresponding them to some of the learning regarding how faith develops in stages has an interesting result. The heart-felt convictions of those surveyed fall into line with the theory. If this works and we can understand the relationship, it means we can more effectively communicate spiritual truths to children, young people and families based on ‘faith stages theory. It also means we can review and revise our ministries in order to be more effective in nurturing faith and making disciples. More importantly, it means we can be prayerful in relationship with each individual to discern God’s next faith step or faith challenge for him or her.
The theory versus the challenge.
The ‘faith stages’ theory is something a few may wish to pursue in further reading. It is threaded into the expression of the sections below and a discerning eye may see this. In theory we can still say that each ‘Spiritual Truth’ elements is needed, in part at least, to be experienced in order for growth in subsequent experiences of ‘Spiritual Truth’.
There is a major caveat to be noted here however. No teaching, story, insight, ah ha moment is ever wasted. There are all banked and filed away for the future. Using the metaphor of a jigsaw puzzle again, they joined up in groupings at the side until a time they are placed into the larger picture.
And it’s worth repeating. God does what God does along side and in spite of our theories bringing light and revelation to us all. Be ready and a willing participant in that! It won’t be comfortable at times to give up our theoretical approach, as helpful as that is to a point.
Hearing, seeing, sensing God and work and listing for, looking for and experiencing faith responses in people takes practice. There are a few MAJOR faith responses that come readily to mind that we might consider SAVING responses. Towards those moments we may hear, see or sense a myriad of responses that we can affirm as faith steps, faith choices or even faith directions along the way. We could pray for, invite, look for, listen for, discern, recognise these in the small and large ways they will occur. We could affirm and celebrate these in appropriate small and large ways in the faith journeys we share with children.
A final note
For those children and adults who have missed out in developing in any of the stages or have not negotiated any of them particularly well, the grace of God is such that we can move into healing and shalom with Holy Spirit’s help. In ministry God is able to meet the deepest needs and heal the deepest wounds as we partner with God to learn and grow in our own faith journey and together with children, young people and their families.