What are the Stages of Faith?

In his book, Will Our Children Have Faith?, the Rev. John Westerhoff describes four stages of Christian faith development. As we go through life, we may expand into (add-on) the needs and elements of the later stages, but only after the needs of the earlier stages are met. The stages of faith are like rings of a tree. Just like a tree adds one ring on top of another, we do not leave the needs of the earlier stages behind after we expand into the next stage. We continue to need the faith experiences of the earlier stages throughout our lives. Westerhoff labels the four stages of faith development: experienced faith, affiliative faith, searching faith, and owned faith.

Experienced faith grows by participating in the customs and rituals of our faith tradition with other Christians. It is the lifelong foundation of our faith. Experienced faith is also the faith of our senses. The liturgical rituals of the Catholic Church, with its recurring sights, sounds, and smells, are quite conducive to developing experienced faith, especially in young children. Young children do not fully understand the meaning behind the rituals. Nevertheless, just by participating in them they come to believe they are meaningful and important. The rituals point to the experience and love of God.

The second stage of faith, affiliative faith, develops by belonging to (being affiliated with) an accepting Christian community. Provided the needs of experienced faith are met during childhood, we may expand into affiliative faith during adolescence. The social, spiritual, and service activities of a dynamic youth ministry program provide opportunities for teenagers to deepen their relationships with other Christians. Although much progress has been made, most Protestant churches are still better than most Catholic churches at providing these types of affiliative faith experiences. According to Westerhoff, research shows that most adults have had their faith “arrested” in the affiliative faith stage.

The third stage of faith development, searching faith, is the faith of questioning and internalizing what we have long been taught. Searching faith usually begins during late adolescence and often continues in earnest during young adulthood. Many college students frequently have discussions on the existence of God, evolution, Jesus’ resurrection, etc., with their professors and other students.

This stage can be troubling for parents, teachers, etc. if not properly understood. And, of course, it’s risky. However, only by questioning and testing what we have long been taught can we truly come to accept and internalize these teachings. Searching faith is a necessary prerequisite to owned faith.

This final stage of faith development, owned faith, rarely occurs before young adulthood. Because of the serious struggle with doubt that precedes it, owned faith may appear as a great illumination or enlightenment. It’s now our own faith and no longer merely the faith of our parents, family, etc. Even though doubts and questions remain, those who own their faith want to witness it by personal and social action, and are willing and able to stand up for what they believe in as mature disciples of Jesus Christ.

Owned faith is God’s intention for everyone, even though (according to Westerhoff) most adults have had their faith arrested at the affiliative stage. Therefore, it is important for churches to provide opportunities that address the needs in each and every stage of faith development, and thereby help as many as possible to reach their full faith potential.