Applying James Fowler's Stages of Faith Development to Evangelism
When teaching or evangelizing to a population, it is typically helpful to understand the development of, and specific cognitive processes by which, that population learns if we are to be the most effective teachers. James Fowler developed a 6 stage development of faith that is useful to understand when making evangelism relevant and understandable to different audiences.
Dr. James W. Fowler is, in many aspects, the man I someday want to be. Both a Developmental Psychologist and a Theologian, this United Methodist Church minister was once a Professor of Theology and a Director of institutes examining both Moral Development and Ethics until his retirement in 2005. He has written the most well-known examination of spiritual development as of yet. His work closely builds off of other monumental works such as Piaget, Kohlberg, and Erickson.
The 6 Stages of Faith
Stage 1-"Intuitive-Projective Faith" (3-7yrs): This stage, which corresponds to Piaget's pre-operational thinking, is the stage of imagination. In this mode of thinking, faith takes on the form of fantasy and the child sub-consciously begins to develop long lasting interpretations of both positive and negative symbols and archetypes. The danger of this stage is if the child's imagination becomes "possessed" by terrible or devious images, or by early indoctrination.
Stage 2-"Mythic-Literal Faith" (7-12yrs): This stage, which corresponds to Piaget's concrete-operational thinking, is the stage of literal stories. The child still interprets faith primarily by means of myth, however, the imagination of the last stage becomes more ordered and controlled, and symbols are interpreted literally. Additionally, the morality is based on reciprocity and justice. Their God becomes anthropomorphic, and because of their literal interpretation of myth, they fail to derive overarching concepts from the myths. A strength of this stage is the ability to be able to integrate story with personal experience, however, because of their reciprocity focus, their world-view often becomes over controlling or merit based. With the onset of formal-operational thinking, and the need to consolidate conflicting meanings that derive from interpreting literally, the believer often (though not always) transitions to stage 3.
Stage 3-"Synthetic-Conventional" (12-18yrs): With the onset of formal-operational thinking, adolescence, and a realization that the world is indeed complex and often conflicting, the primary function of Stage 3 is to synthesize all the spheres of the individual's world into a coherent whole. Faith must become the synthesizing hermeneutic by which one can order the world according to their schemes, and by which one can gain identity. Because of the comfortable synthesis this stage provides, it becomes a permanent place for many adults. This stage is fundamentally based on relationships--the power of the faith community becomes a powerful motivating factor, and in many cases leads to conformity because this stage does not provide a complete individual identity to the person. The person's beliefs tend to be those of the community or the dominant authority, and though deeply held, often go unexamined. The strength of this stage is that the person begins to build identity, although because it it based in the community, it may not be fully developed until the next stage. The challenges of this stage are that 1) the person who becomes too ingrained in the community may lose the ability to think for themselves, and 2) betrayals within the community can lead to rejection of faith all together.
Stage 4-"Individuative-Reflective" (18-40yrs): The move to Stage four is not universal, but common, and may be promulgated by many factors: "leaving home", a change in the community, transition into post-formal thinking, a search for more individual identity, or a challenge to one's belief system. This stage is characterized by the person committing to their beliefs (even though they may be changing), and taking responsibility for what they believe. In this stage the individual must find balance between many opposing extremes: community vs. self, subjectivity vs. objectivity, self-fulfillment vs. self-actualization, etc. It is the stage of tension, of reason, and of growth. This stage can begin to develop as early as late adolescence, but for many does not begin to take shape until their 30's, if at all. This is the first stage where the believer begins to "demythologize" and they tend to translate symbols into larger concepts. The strength of this stage is in the person's ability to critically reason and integrate self-identity with their outlook and worldview. However, in some this may lead to a kind of ego-centrism or close-mindedness as their own subjective worldview becomes the ultimate judge of objective reality.
Stage 5-"Conjunctive Faith" (40+yrs): Unusual before 40, this stage of faith can only come about when one moves past the self-certainty and ego-centrism of the past stage, and unites their self and worldview with the complexity of a more objective reality. Whereas in stage 4 the individual struggles to balance contradiction and paradox, the stage 5 believer becomes comfortable with paradox, realizing that is inherent in reality and faith expression. Often referred to as the stage of wisdom or sacrament, this individual is uniquely able to see the meaning behind many of faith's symbols and the cause of both human unity and division. The openness that characterizes this faith type stems from the individuals realization of his finiteness and hence a releasing of his ego.
Stage 6-"Universalizing Faith" (Rare): In some very rare cases, an individual may move from stage 5 into stage 6, which many consider to be the stage of "enlightenment". Maslow would refer to it as the "Self-actualization" stage of human needs. This person, in many ways, transcends the need for a system of beliefs and becomes unified with a sort of universalizing spirit. This often causes the person to see conflict not as a result of paradox, but as two sides of the same truth. They are almost always spiritual leaders, as their complete openness and understanding of deep spiritual mythos are contagious and many times subversive of standing religious institutions. They engage in fellowship and are mentors to all other stages, and often times people see them as almost "super-human" in their spiritual knowledge. Some examples may include Jesus, Albert Einstein, Gandhi, Mother Theresa, and Martin Luther King Jr.
By knowing the development of faith of the individuals to which evangelize, we may better suite the information to their understanding. For someone in stage 1, we may read bible stories and have them imagine they are one of the characters, or have them act it out in play form. In stage 2, we may use more bible or other stories, and highlight reciprocity principles such as the beatitudes, Jonah and the "Whale", or anything that shows action-consequence. When evangelizing to someone in Stage 3, it may help to relate everything to the community, or educate in a community setting so that the person feels they belong and are a part of what they are learning. When educating or evangelizing the stage 4, one should challenge them to discover why they believe the way they do, and to relate it to their own experience and worldview. Stage 5 gets harder to evangelize to, in my opinion, but it perhaps is done best when focused on the power of personal experience and the symbolism that it represents to that of a greater reality. I have yet to meet a stage 6 person, but chances are they would be doing the evangelizing to me.
Of course, as in most psychological frameworks, there are no absolutes, and these stages are phases that blur with each other, may never be reached, or may be skipped, etc. This is also just one paradigm in increasing the effectiveness of the Word of God--by no means is this the only way or possibly even the best. Rather, for those interested and capable in assessing this and using it, it can be a great way to supplement one's ministry to better suite whatever population that one is called to.
© 2009 R D Langr