Stages of Faith

By Ryan Connor

Growing faith is a changing faith. Here’s a simple explanation of how this happens, why it’s good, and how we can help others through the process.

A single verse of Scripture sums up the young life of Jesus: “And Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men” (Luke 2:521).

09_Connor_JNmhHuman development includes each of the four areas Luke identified to describe the ways Jesus grew up (see the chart further down). The doctrine of the incarnation teaches us that Jesus underwent the full human experience. He was “made like His brethren in all things” (Hebrews 2:17, author emphasis). Thus, when Luke said Jesus grew in stature, we understand he was referring to his physical growth. At 12, Jesus was likely maturing physically in some of the same ways tweens and adolescents do today. 

When Luke said Jesus grew in wisdom, we understand he was referring to the development of his intellect. We know a child’s intellect develops along with his body. For example, an infant is mesmerized by the game of peekaboo. To an infant, it is no less than magical whenever a mother or father disappears and reappears, saying, “Peekaboo!” 

As the child grows, the magic is dispelled. The child moves from what developmental psychologists call the sensory-motor/preoperational stage to the operational stage of cognitive development. The child understands that one object may be hidden from view without actually disappearing. At this stage of intellectual development, children are able to understand the world in concrete terms. So, we begin teaching children the ABC’s, basic arithmetic, and all the names of the capital cities.

In later adolescence, some children typically move from the concrete operational stage to formal operations. At this stage of intellectual development, the child who once thought peekaboo was magic now reflects on the nature of joy, surprise, and love. Abstract thinking and reason are now possible. Hypothetical problems may be considered. Intellectually, formal operations plunge a person into the deep end of the pool, so to speak.

Not everyone moves into this stage of intellectual development. Most of life requires only concrete operations. Those who develop to this stage will not necessarily spend a lot of time thinking and reasoning abstractly (except, perhaps, physicists and theoretical mathematicians). Yet, the ability to think at this level is a mark of full intellectual maturity. Paul said, “When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things” (1 Corinthians 13:11).

When Luke said that Jesus increased in favor with men, we understand he meant that Jesus developed socially. Researchers in the area of human development have come to see that social development is as important as physical or intellectual development. 

At various stages in our lives, we develop important social qualities like the ability to trust, a sense of self-efficacy, initiative, productivity, a sense of identity, and the ability to experience and maintain close personal relationships. In today’s world, the importance of EQ (emotional and social intelligence) may outweigh the importance of IQ.2 

09_Connor-chartJesus was a master of social skills. He grew to the heights of emotional and social maturity.

When Luke said Jesus increased in favor with God, we understand he meant Jesus developed spiritually. It might sound strange that Jesus grew spiritually. The doctrine of the incarnation suggests Jesus learned to relate to God as a man (Hebrews 5:8; cf. Philippians 2:6-8). He developed a deep prayer life, a thorough and discerning knowledge of Scripture, and the ability to listen and respond to God in obedience. The fruit of the Spirit grew abundantly in his life. Jesus became the most spiritually mature human being who ever lived.

Like Jesus, all people experience a process of physical, intellectual, social, and spiritual development. Those who follow Jesus will find themselves at various stages of development. We all begin as baby Christians who must grow in our walk with the Lord (see 1 Corinthians 3:1-3; Hebrews 5:13; 1 Peter 2:2). 

In a healthy church, each stage of physical, intellectual, social, and spiritual development will be represented. M. Scott Peck said, “A true community will likely include people of all stages.”3 Peck was referring to stages of faith development—which parallel and are affected by all the other aspects of human development.


How People Come to Believe

There are stages of faith development, just as there are stages of physical, intellectual, social, and spiritual development. To be clear, faith development pertains to how people come to believe, not necessarily what they believe. Since faith is more directly tied to a person’s understanding, thinking, and other intellectual processes, in some ways the stages of faith development reflect the stages of cognitive/intellectual development.

Peck provides a four-stage paradigm for understanding faith development. He starts with those in the chaotic/antisocial stage. These are either children experiencing the first stages of typical growth and development, or they are what Peck calls “People of the Lie.” Of the latter, Peck says, “Their relationships with fellow human beings are all essentially manipulative and self-serving.”4 People in the chaotic/antisocial stage of faith development believe in nothing greater than themselves. It is the stage of undeveloped spirituality.

Stage two in Peck’s paradigm is the formal/institutional stage. Converted from a self-centered and chaotic life, stage two people may be new converts to faith or those who simply never moved past a precritical stage. Stage two may start out with childlike enthusiasm and thinking, but it typically moves into a precritical adherence to the formal and institutional requirements of the faith.

Peck says stage two people are the majority of churchgoers. They are emotionally attached to the forms of their faith whether or not they are attached to the essence of the faith. They are among the first to protest changes made in the forms and institutional characteristics of the church. To them, faith is a matter of bringing order out of the chaos of stage one. Like the concrete operational stage of intellectual development, stage two in faith development is characterized by rigid, black and white categories, and a tendency toward dogmatism and legalism. 

Nonetheless, stage two people typically have high morals. They are reliable, productive, and responsible. They volunteer at church and do a lot of good. The problem is, they tend to relate to God “as the giant cop in the sky.”5

To bring their lives out of the chaos of stage one, and into the order that faith provides, stage two becomes a necessary and important stage of faith development.

Faith may develop further, however. As James Fowler6 points out, many people get stuck in this stage and do not move forward in their faith. There is a sense of safety tied to an unquestioning adherence to the formal rules and regulations of an institution. 

Many fear that moving out of stage two will cause them to lose everything. It is important for churches to show appreciation and patience to those among them who are in stage two.

Peck’s stage three represents a movement similar to the transition from concrete to formal operations in intellectual development. In stage three, people wrestle with doubts about their faith. They use critical thinking to question their faith. The experience of this stage of faith development is unsettling and sometimes painful. The Puritans spoke of the holy desertions of God. John of the Cross spoke of the “dark night of the soul.” 

Whatever it is called, stage three is difficult. Some are overwhelmed by the doubts and questions of stage three. 

It is important for churches to be safe places for stage three people to raise doubts and ask questions. And, stage three people need to know it is OK if they do not have every matter of faith completely figured out and nailed down into nice and neat categories. Jesus encouraged those who are in stage three: “Seek and you will find” (see Matthew 7:7 and Luke 11:9).

Peck’s final stage is wisdom. A person does not enter stage four by resolving all the doubts and questions of stage three. Doubts and questions remain in stage four, but the critical process of stage three provides a principled foundation for a person’s core beliefs. Also, the anxiety of stage three is relieved in stage four so that one may truly relate to God as gracious, and see the bigger picture. It is important that churches recognize the wisdom of those who have wrestled with the faith and carry with them great wisdom and trust in God and his grace.

Ours is a faith for thinking people who are dedicated to moving forward in the way of Jesus (John 14:6). There is one area in which we must remain as children. Paul wrote, “Yet in evil be infants, but in your thinking be mature” (1 Corinthians 14:20). The Message puts it this way: “It’s all right to have a childlike unfamiliarity with evil; a simple no is all that’s needed there.”



1Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, unless otherwise indicated.

2See Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ (New York: Bantam Books, 1995).

3M. Scott Peck, The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace (New York: Touchstone, 1987).

4Ibid., 189.

5Ibid., 190.

6James Fowler, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning (New York: HarperCollins, 1981). Fowler presents a six-stage paradigm for understanding faith development.


Ryan Connor serves as lead pastor at Amity (Oregon) Christian Church.

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1 Comment

  1. Jeff
    September 30, 2014 at 9:35 am

    While we must be careful when analyzing God’s work in the world’s terms, being sure to not limit how God changes lives in His supernaturally dynamic ways through his Spirit, it is interesting to see the general pattern. In a similar though less technical view, I have seen for years that one’s level of spiritual maturity does not exceed their emotional and mental maturity. If you are a shallow, immature, self- focused person, that is the type of Christian you will be as well. Mature believers must recognize this and with grace, come along side and mentor, nurture and support these immature Christians, admonishing them in the love of Christ to grow up into Him in all things. Thanks for the interesting insight and correlative analysis.

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