The Seven Stages of Faith

Recently I’ve been hearing a lot about a certain James W. Fowler, a Christian theologian and psychologist, who published a book called ‘Stages of Faith’ (thanks to Christina McNeil for putting me onto this). In this book Fowler defines seven different stages of faith development, and I decided to take a look at them.

I’m sure Mr. Fowler has his critics, but having read classics like ‘Pilgrims Progress’ and the works of the Saints and Mystics, I found Fowlers model to be an immensely helpful one in understanding my own faith journey as well as the dynamics I see at work in the wider western church. If you’ve struggled at all over the years with a ‘dark night of the soul’ or the seeming apathy or gradual loss of vitality in the western Church (yes, people are leaving our churches in droves every week!), reading this list could shed some light on the matter. I won’t tell you where I think I’m at.. you can make up your own mind on that 😉

The Stages (borrowed from a brilliant article here)

Pre-faith (Infancy): When we cannot yet speak, but the seeds of love and trust are planted.

Stage 1 – The Innocent (Early Childhood): When we’re new to the faith, our understanding of God is developing. We have snippets of truth and experience, our faith is a seamless, disorganized mix of fantasy and reality. An egocentric and quite punishment-oriented stage.

Stage 2 – The Literalist (Primary School years): This stage begins as we are better able to organise and categorize our experiences. God is understood in terms of a parent, and very literal understandings of life & scripture are held. Life is made sense of in terms of story rather than systematic theology, and people in this stage are strongly influenced by rules and those perceived to be in authority. There is a belief in fairness and reciprocity – goodness is rewarded, evil is punished. Family-oriented. M Scott Peck estimates 20% of adults remain in this stage.

Stage 3 – The Loyalist (Teenage years): These are the conformist years, the time of peer pressure when we are acutely aware of what others expect of us and how they view us. This is a ‘tribal’ stage with a clear idea of what it means to be part of your group, and clearly defined boundaries of who is in or out. A very secure stage. These people are loyal to their community and willing to sacrifice much for it, accordingly conflict and controversy are very threatening to them. “While beliefs and values are deeply felt… there has not been occasion to step outside them to reflect on or examine them explicitly or systematically.” They have a strongly held but uncritical faith, often unable to explain why they believe things beyond referring to some external authority – “the Bible/my pastor says so.” Most adults are at this stage.

Stage 4 – The Critic (University years): This is the most difficult transition to make and can seem like a loss of faith as the walls and certainties of stage 3 are broken down. It involves developing a greater sense of independence and seeing life beyond the ‘tribe.’ It seems easier to traverse at a younger age and can be brought on by exposure to new ideas at work, university, leaving home or traveling. This is when one stands back and critiques one’s assumptions of life, and enters a period of questioning and doubting. This can be a lonely ‘long dark night of the soul’ stage where people begin to trust their own perceptions.

Stage 5 – The Mystic (Mid-life): Some find the loss of security in stage 4 too uncomfortable and return to the certainties of stage 3 (or new certainties), but some press on to this stage. Here boundaries become less rigid as one is more aware of the unknown, paradox is acknowledged and accepted. ‘A second naivety’, this is faith beyond the doubts which relishes mystery, which is open to listen to and tolerate the views of others. This stage is not dogmatic and is likely to approach truth from more than one angle. “Unusual before mid-life, Stage 5 knows the sacrament of defeat.” This stage is associated with acceptance of our mortality.

Stage 6 – The Saint: Very few people reach this stage, Fowler lists Martin Luther King and Dietrich Bonhoeffer as among those who have. Self and self-preservation no longer matter as one submits totally to the authority of God. They are willing to expend themselves to save all humanity, even those they oppose. Martyrdom is an occupational hazard of this stage.


~ by humblemonkey on August 12, 2009.

12 Responses to “The Seven Stages of Faith”

  1. Good to see the stuff you are reading Will. And this is sooo relevant to the prblems facing today’s church. When I was in nelson at Atawhai. I found a church replete with ex-pentecostals and fundamentalists who were looking for more in their faith. TYhey hasd had enough of just obeying the Pastor and his (usually a He) interpretation of scriptures.

    In Fowler’s scenario, I have found myself since around 1997,leaving stage 3 and move into stage 5. It is a very difficult journey to make as you do lose some Xn friends in the process. They feel you are ‘backsliding’ and often can’t understand. But, you have to do this or spend the rest of your life living your faith for others.

    Love what you are thinking my friend. 🙂

  2. Thanks mate… I too jumped between 3 and 4 for a long time, never knowing quite how to cope when the bigger picture I saw conflicted with the religion I was presented with.

    I think I sit somewhere around 5 now… enjoying living in paradox, sitting in the tension between orthodoxy and mysticism, and being ok with it because I’ve realised my lifestyle is more important than ticking a checklist of right beliefs.

    I have always appreciated your friendship and perspectives very, very much my friend.. I am glad that I was able to observe someone walking lonely roads on their journey of faith when I was at such a formational and conservative stage in mine. Big blessings and much love to you


  3. I made a lot of mistakes but found that, although the Church has difficulty in showing mercy to those struggling with doubt, God’s love was always soo much bigger. The faith that is growing within me now is far more relevant and real for my life.

    Mostly I have struggled with the strict literalist view of the scriptures I inherited from my early Christian life. Is the “Word of God” a something or a someone? As I have considered this, I have moved to seeing Yeshua as the “Word of God” rather than the scriptures. The Word of God is alive and active. He, not the Church, is the source of the scriptures power to enlighten and teach. This puts my process of scriptural analysis within the community, rather than in the hands of a Pastor, a committee, or a college. As I share with my sisters and brothers WE can understand. If I am simply told, I never gain my freedom, just another form of slavery.
    The scriptures, as Paul said, are a helpful tool to help us grow in the faith but it is Yeshua who is the Word of God. Our faith relates us to a person, not a book. Truth is a person.

    If you take tha Bible as “The Word of God” then the most important thing becomes the correct interpretation of said book. And what has the Church divided itself over the most? The correct interpretation of scripture!!

    “You search the scriptures because you think in them are the words of eternal life. But you refuse to come to me that you may have that life!” Yeshua

  4. Wow… Found your blog whilst blog-surfing through a friend’s. Your post has been truly enlightening. I find for myself that I have been floating in the uncertain world of Stage 4. While I recently tried to reestablish myself in a local church, I never felt truly connected. I guess I could not resign myself to focus my faith merely through the words and ideals of my Pastor — I just couldn’t swallow what he was dishing out every Sunday. While I know I have a long way to go, I am definitely planning on checking out Dr. Fowler’s book. Thanks again for the words of wisdom and the inspiration!

  5. Katie thanks for dropping by and sharing. I am truly humbled to have offered some small nugget of insight, even if I stole it from another author, hehe. Which blog did you find me through, if I may ask?

  6. It was actually a chain effect! I started out on my friend Amber’s blog Girl Healthy at and, after checking out the blogs that she follows, found A Thing with Feathers which I found inspirational. And right now, it’s killing me that I can’t remember Ciana’s exact post that led me to here from there… But that’s the chain of events!

  7. I am a first visitor to this site. I am a born again Christian for probably 5 years now And perhaps this isn’t the same for everyone as I don’t know for sure that I have gone through any of these stages. While I am a servent of God, I am still not without sin. Jesus who died for all mans sins has given me grace. And Grace is how I have a true relationship through the Father. Pastors are hugely important they lead us and guide us, they pray for us and they have dedicated their life to serve. The Bible is the word of God for without and it we would have no way os sharing the good news with anyone. Have you thought of the word History … HIS STORY it is factual. We could not come to where we are going without!
    Sadly, the heart can be decietful, looking inward, giving us pride and idolitry of self. Perhaps I just don’t understand the stages well enough to put myself into one. Nor will I accept any of the stages you label me with. But what I do know is that God works everyday in my life, some times He uses godly people and sometimes He uses people that have no fear of Him at all. But every day is a blessing whether its filled with roses or dandilions.

  8. Oh yeah I sis enjoy looking through this site and came by it by looking for information on the negative affects of sweat shops.

  9. Hi Will 🙂
    I came across your post whilst revisiting Fowler’s Stages of Faith online. I return to them for some sort of comfort when I can’t tell whether I am in some sort of a dark night or am losing my mind. Finding your post dissolved the loneliness of this portion of that night. I ‘lost my faith’ in what seemed to be an instant two years ago. I had recently ‘committed’ myself to strengthening my faith after a lifetime of a very loose belief, I had sought out a spiritual director, I signed up for a bible studies course and I started to regularly attend mass. And then one night in January 2008, I was reading an airport novel, a Tony Parson;s book, Man and Boy, and a chapter where one of the characters dies, shook me to my very core and caused a collapse of everything I believed. There was suddenly a million questions, no answers and my childhood understanding and belief in God, which had never wavered, was gone. I couldn’t ‘feel’ God. There was a cold disconnect. Without God, death took on new meaning or rather took on less meaning. And so began the dark night. It’s two years on and the initial ‘Godless’ terror has subsided. I’ve spent the past two years watching all my previous assumptions and learned belief systems dissolve. I’ve rallied in anger against a God who would abandon me when I had finally turned to him. I spent months trying to win Him back with prayer and ritual. Then I careened into an endless party to distract from the fact that I was starting to believe that there was no greater power. It has been such a lonely silent journey. My friends in faith thought I was losing my mind more than I did. Then I spent a fitful year letting go of the old ideas. They had lost all their weight and no longer felt a part of me but had become things I could take or leave passively. Leaving room for something I couldn’t have studied about nor imagined. I stopped looking backwards begging for the blinkers back and begging for my limited ideals to be my accepted truth again. I am so far out of my comfort zone that I’m starting to forget that there was one. I get hours of bliss where I just know that everything is as it should be and I am filled with amazement just sitting outside or being shocked by the miracle of leaves. And then sometimes I get nights where I wonder have I just lost my mind. Lonely, frightening, silent nights. When these nights come, I come back to Fowler. And tonight, in my own little corner of Ireland, on a snowy night, I found your post. I found your site and I felt a knowing laugh echo in the ether and I know that I am not alone and that this darkness is giving me new eyes to see the light.

    I meandered through your site. I’ve laughed and cried in equal measure at its postings and I feel fresh hope floating. So thank you Will.

    • Dear Sonia,
      Thankyou for stopping by! I am honoured to play some small comforting role in your journey.

      You are not losing your mind. I don’t want to comment too much on what you’ve said because I feel you are in a sacred space and don’t want to interfere with that space too much. I am reminded of the gospels, when Jesus asks different things of different people… some of them to return home, some to follow him, some to give away everything they have, some to give away only half. My point is, I don’t think there is one perfect path to God/Life/The Divine, on the perfect path for you. And that is something only you can discern.

      I am currently in a wonderful place of ‘being ok’ with the non-dualistic nature of my beliefs. I’m a Christian because I love Jesus and he has shown me that God is Love… I’m also not a Christian in an orthodox sense because there are few Christian doctrines I am certain enough about to ‘put my stamp on’… doctrines seem to so often divide.. it is practise and experience that brings people together. So I’m not, and I am, many things. I’m not a Buddhist, but I learn about the sacred through Buddha all the time. The same applies to the teachings of Islamic mystics, Sufis, Hindus, and people who wouldn’t align themselves with any established religion.

      I would say this.. in the past I have found the ‘well’ of Christianity that plunges down to the underground river of life/God to be unsatisfactory… I didn’t like many of the doctrines, the hypocrisy, the naivety and destructiveness when it comes to creation and the dignity of other cultures and religions etc. So I made this mistake of giving up looking for water altogether. I soon became thirsty, dehydrated, and less whole as a result.

      Don’t make the same mistake I did =)

      Keep looking for that living water. Jesus is a fantastic place to find it, and I happily return to his well all the time now. I encourage you to explore the mystical and life-giving depths of the christian tradition that most western christians know nothing about… a great place to start would be ‘Original Blessing’ by Matthew Fox. It’s a little heavy but totally worth reading slowly… a feast for the confused or hungry believer who feels like their faith background is inadequate to explain so many things.

      Ultimately though, it sounds like you have entered the realm of mystical spirituality, and so you would probably greatly benefit from engaging with authors like Meister Eckhart, Cynthia Bourgeault and Richard Rohr =) I’m journeying with them at the moment and absolutely loving it. I hope to blog more about it over the NZ summer.

      Blessings to you

  10. […] Fowler’s Stages of faith. The fifth stage is linked to the older idea of the Dark Night in this blog from a few years […]

  11. I thanks for your information. God Bless youi.

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