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Faith Development Explained

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I hope and pray you will take time to read this.  It likely was shared with you by someone who loves you but who senses a tension between you or you and your faith or perhaps a spiritual maturity and growth.   I give you my word to not discuss here any of the theological or historical issues your loved one has had conflict over.  Also while the words “Faith Development” is in the title we will not be talking about faith in the religious dogma sense but rather the process of human development that we all go through and how that development affects our spiritual intelligence.  I want to help you grapple with the changes your loved one is making and why and what is of most help.  So with that…. here we go.

Social Scientists have known for years that the human mind doesn’t stop developing when one reaches adulthood, that instead our brain continues to develop till the day we die.  In trying to track and discuss this development, scientists have tried to separate the process into stages.  Some in this field have separated it into a handful of stages and some have gone as far as to split the process into over a dozen.  Many of the experts in this field have related this development to one’s interaction within their faith community.  With limited time I have consolidated this process down to three center stages where Most human beings reside, where the most misunderstanding occurs, and the most conflict happens with those we love around beliefs in our faith community.  We know this process has a direction it moves and that one can not skip stages as they move through this development.  We also know there are stages before and after the three we are speaking of and encourage all with interest to check the resources at the bottom to learn more.  So let’s start with the earliest of the three stages we are talking about here.



Stage 1 – The Faithful Stage

Most of us enter this stage in our teens and this stage can last for our entire lives.   What does this stage look like?

Many in this stage know with certainty that their belief system is the right one.

If they have been taught one particular perspective by an influential teacher or mentor, they may conclude that their teacher’s way is the only way to think or act. They may feel that everybody needs to do things that way. They may even be inclined to “punish offenders” if they are in a position to do so. And worst of all, they cannot see their own rigidity. They see things in terms of black and white, us against them. They feel right and strong, while other perspectives are wrong and weak. Every spiritual community has members that see things in this way. – Jon Paulien

This rigid black and white way of thinking influences their entire paradigm.  Only conforming to the truth they know is acceptable and anything less is unacceptable to one with this trait.

In this faithful stage

believers can become very legalistic and judgmental. Their lives can be governed by “should” or “ought” or “must” and they can be quite frustrated with believers who don’t see things quite the way they do. If they don’t grow out of their initial inflexibility and simplicity of thought they can become rigid in their approach to faith – Jon Paulien

Rules are seen in this stage as keeping people safe.  the Commandments are to be followed to the letter of the law and folks in this stage decide what it means to keep commandments like the keeping the Sabbath holy, what a full tithing, or what is appropriate or modest to wear.

It is also important to recognize where this stage locates their authority.  At this stage members of the church are wholly ethnocentric.  This means their tribe is the right tribe.  And their tribe and its leaders have the truth and the answers to all the questions.  The ultimate source of truth for members in this stage come from the wisdom of the Tribe’s leaders and the tribe’s tradition.

Regarding this Ethnocentrism

In the faithful stage, identity as part of a certain group is more important than the concept of self as an individual. So if someone were to point out an incongruity in religious tenets, rather than calmly consider both sides of an issue, the faithful person would turn away and might even label the person pointing out the incongruity as evil. If a logical discrepancy regarding religion were able to arise for someone at the faithful stage, he or she would not be able to address it because of the difficulty in facing the consequences of an answer that might lead away from the group. Thus, faithful-level people either do not even perceive such discrepancies or they dismiss them out of hand, for they are not sufficiently individuated to face life without the support of a religious authority and their group. Margaret Placentra Johnston

And regarding this extrinsic locus of authority

The faithful – level person is always at risk of descending into chaos without externally imposed rules. Thus, rather than the authority of personal conscience, the faithful person must subject himself to an “Oracle authority” in most cases provided by his religious institution – taking literal guidance from scripture and the literal word of the religious authorities. The faithful level accepts the beliefs put forth by their church in a literal sense. – Margaret Placentra Johnston

Margaret states this further when she says

faithful – level people tend to accept whatever oracle authority tells them, be it their church, the government, or the leaders of their particular political party, because they like and need the rules and structure. Because they do not question authority in a critical manner they can be easily lead or misled by their leaders, be they political or spiritual leaders. Security, certainty, rules, immutable answers, and the authority of leaders of their own group are traits to which people at the faithful level of spiritual development adhere tightly. They are easily threatened by change and by those who do not agree with their beliefs – Margaret Placentra Johnston

Robert Keeley says it this way when he states that those in this faithful stage

whether they are teens or adults, find their source of authority for their faith is primarily located outside themselves.  Some religious leaders who see themselves as having God-given authority over their flock, may structure their church in a synthetic-conventional mode, depending on their followers to do pretty much what they say.

These folk are seeing so much by way of blessing that they are certain their tribe is the right one.  Eventually many at this stage have success and the Church is working wonderfully for them.  To them it is a given that if others just followed the rules it would work wonderfully for them too.

Jon Paulien states it this way.  At this stage

you feel as if you have “arrived.” There is a strong sense of making a difference in the lives of others. There is a lot of spiritual satisfaction, a sense of accomplishment that comes with spiritual success. Like earlier stages, this is a stage where there is a high degree of confidence. You know you are doing good, and you know you are where you are supposed to be. A weakness at this stage is that it is the most resistant stage to mentoring. Faithful stage members (who are in leadership positions) don’t feel a need for mentoring. They are now experts who mentor others, but have little need to learn from others. They are at the top of the mountain; there are no further stages to climb in their mind.  As far as most religious institutions are concerned, people at this stage have reached the top, this was the goal and it has now been achieved. If the stages of faith ended with stage three few would be surprised.

It should also be said that Churches function most smoothly at this stage and hence religious institutions almost always cater to this stage of development.  This stage trusts it leaders implicitly, are willing to have unquestioning obedience, and emphasize the value of conforming to the the tribe.  Regarding where Churches are at –

Most religious institutions are stuck at [this faithful stage or earlier]. One reason is that the majority of all followers in a religious institution are relatively new and just beginning the journey themselves. A second reason is that religious institutions over time focus more and more on preservation of the institution rather than on the glory of God.  Institutions crave and document all signs of success. But those successes are often measured in human terms more than God’s terms. Religious institutions can come to crave power and wealth as much as any individual, but find it even harder to repent than most individuals do. –  Jon Paulien


In the next stage contradictions began to not only be seen but also internally dealt with.  But at the Faithful stage it is near impossible to recognize the contraries of one’s faith.  Regarding this “seeing through a glass darkly” for example, members at this stage only deal with their religious narrative in literal concrete ways such as this

The Faithful level person has a tendency to hold a literal view of God and of scriptural texts. His God is external to him and judges his actions. In general , a faithful person is less self-regulating than those at later stages, so he really needs to follow church rules to the letter. He cannot imagine how anyone could behave with integrity without the threat of punishment, whether by authorities here on earth or by a judgmental father god. The Faithful Person is pre-critical in that her faith has never been examined in an open-ended objective manner. Perhaps because her preacher has suggested it, the Faithful person often holds an ethnocentric worldview where “only my church is right”. – Margaret Placentra Johnston

And regarding the lack of awareness of those contraries

In the faithful stage, identity as part of a certain group is more important than the concept of self as an individual. So if someone were to point out an incongruity in religious tenets, rather than calmly consider both sides of an issue, the faithful person would turn away and might even label the person pointing out the incongruity as evil. If a logical discrepancy regarding religion were able to arise for someone at the faithful stage, he or she would not be able to address it because of the difficulty in facing the consequences of an answer that might lead away from the group. Thus, faithful-level people either do not even perceive such discrepancies or they dismiss them out of hand, for they are not sufficiently individuated to face life without the support of a religious authority and their group. Margaret Placentra Johnston

One must ask why is this stage clinging so tight to conformity and agreement?

Why do those at the faithful stage hold onto the forms and rules so tightly? For one thing, they are uncomfortable with ambiguity. It threatens the certainty of they need. Anything that is “other” threatens the stability of their world. thus they readily accept proclamations by religious authorities that perspectives differing from their own faith group are wrong, misguided, or evil – Margaret Placentra Johnston

This is a major trait of the next stage where Folks in the Individualist Stage (next stage)

“each began to note discrepancies in the “truths” of their respective religions while they were still fully engaged in them. If they had not been ready to move to the “individualist” stage, they could not have allowed themselves to see the discrepancies.



The gateway to the next stage – “The Dark Night of the Soul”

To leave this Faithful Stage where everything fits so well and the Church seems to be working so well for someone, something first has to happen.  A disruption of sorts.  For many they can relate to this disruption being so dramatic and traumatizing as to see the name “Dark Night of the Soul” as a fitting description.  Jon Paulien a Christian Pastor describes it this way

At the very height of spiritual success, something tends to happen that we least expect, usually between the ages of thirty and fifty. When followers are increasing, people are feeling blessed, funds are flowing in to support the ministry, and awards are being given, comes a very unwelcome guest. It is a personal crisis many have called the dark night of the soul. Past certainties suddenly become inadequate. We call into question everything we have ever believed and everything we have ever done. We feel like failures, like we can’t do anything right. We are humbled. Our world caves in. Our faith, which sustained us powerfully up until this point, doesn’t seem to work anymore. All of our answers are replaced with questions. God either vanishes from view or breaks out of the comfortable box we held Him in. We “hit bottom,” we reach “the end of our rope.” We “hit the wall” and can seem to go no further on the spiritual journey. We have saved others, but ourselves we cannot save. We feel completely alone and abandoned by God. As one person put it, “Just when I got it all together, I forgot where I put it.”

This abrupt disruption makes everything unsettled and compels one to question everything.

To a parent, church leader, or loved one and even to the person themself in this dark night, it feels like they have lost their way.  It feels as if they have fallen off the path or at least losing their grip on it.  But as Jon Paulien describes

The dark night of the soul seems like the end of all our spiritual hopes and dreams, but it is not. It is actually a summons to deeper intimacy with God. It reveals that all of our successes, all the good things we have done, were to some degree motivated by ambition and selfishness or by a desire to please others. We discover that our strong sense of purpose in [this faithful stage] was driven by others and/or the church as much as by God. We realize that, while the God we have known up until this point was real, we need to rediscover Him as if for the first time.

As they work to reconcile this disruptive time in their journey they enter a new stage and this new stage brings all sorts of new traits with it.




Stage 2 The Individualist Stage

While at the faithful stage members were content feeling everything fit, loved ones in this Individualist stage feel the real need to question and deconstruct everything

They are constantly asking challenging questions. While this can indicate lack of faith, in a spiritual person it is a sign that God is calling them deeper.  Individualist stage people like to be alone, yet are eager for mentoring. Cavilers simply enjoy tripping people up with their questions, stage four believers are genuinely seeking answers. When they find the right person, they are quick to open their hearts. They are known by their desire for deep relationships. The caviler uses questions to avoid relationship with spiritual people, the Individualist stage believer uses questions to determine who is willing to go deep in relationship.

As you can see from that last quote people at this stage require real authentic relationships and will guard themselves against those they perceive as unsafe.

Whereas in the last stage the ultimate authority for truth was extrinsic in the religious institution, in this Individualist stage the person has relocated their authority within themselves.  It is described this way

This is a stage that is characterized by what happens when we take control of our faith, when authority for our faith comes to reside within us instead of with someone else. When this real change in authority occurs, these people examine their faith in a way that they really didn’t before. They take a step back from the faith that they accepted when they were younger and they begin to ask if this faith really works for them. They perhaps engage questions that have been lurking under the surface for a while but hadn’t really allowed themselves to address.

This feels very threatening for folks in earlier stages and also appears to be something other than progressive development but that is exactly what it is.

Speaking of this movement

To arrive at the [Individualist stage], a person must have individuated. Her concept of herself as an individual must have become stronger than her identity as part of a certain group. This does not mean she is selfish. It does mean, if the values or beliefs of her group – her faith community, for example – no longer make sense to her, she has the strength to branch out. Confidence in one’s own reasoning power takes precedence over loyalty to and dependence upon one’s own “tribe”. The individuals view of the truth becomes more important than membership in the faith group or even the family.  – Margaret Placentra Johnston

This can be heartbreaking to a loved one in earlier stages when this individual sheds parts and portions of their religious tradition, their religious belief system, and their religious community.  Some folks in this stage stay in their religious community while other walk completely away.  There are lots of factors that determine how this turns out and while heartbreaking there is no magic formula for keeping these folks connected to their Church.  While no magic formula there are things those in earlier stages are doing to complicate the matter.

  • articulate doubt as a bad thing
  • label those in this stage as off the path or a tare among wheat or as less faithful in some way
  • fail to create a safe space for questioning and dissent

People at this stage will doubt, they will question everything, and they will disagree with portions of their faith tradition.  If we feel threatened and are defensive to these traits then we will have little chance to help them reconcile this transition with continued activity in the Church.

Speaking of how to help it has been stated

Encourage [Individualist stage] people that their questions and doubts are not a scuttling of the spiritual journey, but a renewed call from God to a deeper relationship with Him. What [Individualist stage] people need in their mentors above all else is acceptance and affirmation. They tend to be very hard on themselves. Help them know that God is with them in their questions, searching and even doubt. Encourage them to let God out of the box that He may have been placed in during [earlier stages].

These folks will feel empowered to go where reason and data takes them.  It has been described this way

Willingness to apply reason in determining one’s beliefs and live with the moral, social, and philosophical consequences is a sign of growth, a mark of individuation, a measure of personal strength and maturity. Reason outweighs comfort and safety. Science is trusted more than tradition or scripture. Truth is valued over conformity. Claiming salvation for – or extending worldly privilege to – one’s own religious group begins to sound selfish and limited. – Margaret Placentra Johnston

As this quote entails one in the individualist stage has moved from Ethno-centric to a World-centric value system.  They no longer will give deference to their tribe.  If they see pain caused in the world and it is their tribe causing the pain, they will in their own way dissent.  They no longer see their tribe as God’s favorite and they have the ability to truly empathize with others who are different than their tribe.

They also no longer feel imposed to take all scriptural stories as literal nor will they maintain belief in a theology that reason is stacked up against.  This will have them re-evaluating what Scripture is, What it means to be a prophet, what it means to receive revelations, have the Holy Ghost, keep the commandments, and ultimately if there is a God and if he can be defined the way our faith tradition or for that matter any faith tradition has defined him.  They still feel ultimate answers are out there and they are searching desperately for those answers.

The Faithful Stage entailed everything fitting together perfectly and the Individualist stage has them picking up the pieces when that came crashing down.  Some pieces may be kept and others discarded entirely…  When that process is over and the person has reassembled their paradigm to some degree they will begin to edge into the third stage we will cover.



Stage 3 Strategist Stage

This stage may look similar to the Faithful stage from an outsiders perspective.  For those who continue or reconnect with their religious tradition from earlier stages their new “faith” is wholly and completely different.

It is similar to [the faithful stage], but the motives are different. The person is peaceful and patient, rather than stressed and driven. It is as if they have come out of a deep crisis, they are unafraid of people or whatever situation might come. I think of Daniel. After the lions’ den, what king could possibly intimidate him? As mentioned above, people in [the strategist stage] often change jobs, mission and/or location in ways that mystify others. But they are living God’s purpose, not the purpose that others would set before them. As a result, stage five is much more misunderstood than stage three. The ways of human beings and human institutions are not God’s ways (Isa 55:8-9) – Jon Paulien

While they may stay in their faith tradition from earlier stages their faith will be much different within them.  They may return to similar language or participate in the rituals but this faith if spelled out would be foreign to most members of the Church.  What God is, What purpose Prophets serve, What authority the Church has, What is the Priesthood, What God thinks of other faiths and How God is working out his plan have all been reconstructed in ways that would be understood as heretical if articulated with no language boundaries. Folks in this stage are aware of this divide and they intentionally use words and descriptions that allow those in earlier stages to maintain their comfort.

Robert Keeley explains it this way

[In the Strategist stage], the unsettled sense that existed in the [individualist stage] settles down significantly. People in this stage can own a faith of the community in a way that they couldn’t before. There are still questions but these arise in the context of a solid faith. There is a strong sense the the “my faith” that the person developed a stage earlier has become “our faith”. People in this stage recognize that long standing expressions of faith have depth and richness to them and they stand ready to embrace them. They may be ready for significant encounters with religious faith traditions outside their own. But unlike an earlier stage in which they desire to try out other ways of faith to see if they fit, this is a deep commitment to seeing if other traditions might have insights that can enrich the experience. This stage represents a faith that does not place authority in the hands of someone else but it is also not afraid to recognize the wisdom that others can share with regard to faith.

As the quote speaks to, folks in this stage welcome truth from any corner they can find it.  Their faith tradition has no monopoly on truth and these folks envelope truth from outside sources in a way that earlier stages could only give lip service to.  While the Faithful stage person would say they welcome truth, the Strategist stage person is actually actively assimilating truth from any source they can find it even if that truth runs counter to their faith tradition.

Understanding the shift from the Individualist Stage to the Strategist stage it has been said

In [the Individualist Stage], a person discovers the unique purpose God has for their lives. They add to a head knowledge of God and others a heart knowledge driven more by compassion than the facts. While in [the Individualist Stage] they sought solitude and the attention of high-level mentors, in [the Strategist stage] they go back out into the world, doing many of the things they did before, but now with different motives and a different purpose. Their lives are driven by their connection with God more than by the consensus of committees or the direction of others. They put into practice what it means to “walk with God.” – Jon Paulien

While mostly speaking to those who find ways to stay connected to their faith tradition of earlier stages we should also say something about those who have left the Church and have moved into the Strategist stage while “non-believing” in the Church.  Margaret Placentra Johnston has stated

Non believers at this stage are not the crazed and amoral atheists that fundamentalists denounce. For the most part, they have instead found a source of moral guidance within their own conscience that allows for more flexibility than the rules of their faith group in determining right from wrong. This is not the moral relativism traditional religionists warn against; rather it is a function of the “higher authority” situated within the individual, the discerning sensibility that acknowledges that in some situations, traditional rules do not apply. Being governed by the authority of his own conscience, the Rational level person does not need the rules of the church to control his behavior (strategist best fitting)



2nd Dark Night of the Soul

Folks in this Strategist stage who re-engage the Church should be cautioned about another disruption that comes at this time.  As you have re-assimilated yourself into a Christian Church as one in a later stage of faith you will need to fortify yourself against another paradox that works to help you continue along the development journey.  As Jon Paulien puts it –

One would think that the closer you come to God, the more you are in tune with His will and His ways, the more you would be appreciated by others who are also on the spiritual journey, and the more you would be appreciated by religious institutions. But the opposite is often the case. The second dark night of the soul is the discovery that the closer you walk with God the more out of step you seem to be with religious communities and institutions. The less you are understood by others, even though they are also on the spiritual path. As the approval of God becomes deeper, the disapproval of others becomes a burden that you have to carry. It has been said of Jesus that He was neither elated by applause nor downcast by censure. But at stage five the pain of rejection is still felt and often precipitates a second dark night of the soul. The second dark night can arise for other reasons than rejection, but that is the major one. What is its purpose in the plan of God? Another opportunity to heal. Another opportunity to grow. Human beings are like onions, with layers upon layers of selfishness and hiding from God that need to be peeled away one at a time. In a real sense the dark night may manifest itself multiple times as God engages a human heart in a journey that leads ever-closer to Him.




The goal here is not to judge others on where they are at or to give us a place to boast.  Rather these stages are real and when understood they can help us bridge gaps and help keep us from making the mistake of labeling people in ways that stop the discussion or hurt relationships.  Once we see that our loved ones are climbing rather than falling we can be more supportive and in the end more helpful.  I am hopeful for the day when our faith tradition and other faith traditions in this world can provide a safe space for such development.  When that safe space exists people will feel safer moving into the later stages of development engaged in the tradition of earlier stages without feeling pushed out and feeling there is a place here for them to help us all on this journey of faith development.

Any questions or comments please feel free to make them here on the site or email me BillReelJr AT gmail DOT com




Faith Shift

The Critical Journey: Stages in the Life of Faith

Faith Beyond Belief

Navigating Mormon Faith Crisis



Stages of Faith from a Christian Pastor’s Perspective

Robert Keeley’s Ages and Stages

Integral theory Stages 

Integral Stage Map

Perry Scheme of Cognitive and Ethical Growth

James Fowler Stages of Faith synopsis

James Fowler stages of faith chart

Pacific Integral on stages

Terri O’Fallon on stage development


disclaimer: The names of the stages were borrowed from two sources.  Namely Integral theory from which the names Individualist and Strategist come from and the book “Faith Beyond Belief” which the Faithful name comes from.  There are dozens of stage development theories and while each shares a similar progression and recognition of traits spoken of here, the names used to define these stages differ from theory to theory.


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