Fear: What’s Paralyzing The World Pt. 4

James Fowler did a tremendous service to Christianity, when he developed his understanding of stages of faith. Fowler gave birth to a system of five stages in which he develops both the psychological state and appearance of a person within their faith. He says the five stages are this:

Stage 1: Fowler says that those in adolescence have no real firm foundation for their faith. They have no real belief system, or doctrine. What they do have is imagination. They pray authentic and simple prayers (which is one of the reasons why I think Jesus loves them so much). But, they have nothing to grab onto. Things come and go, and their faith goes with it.

Stage 2: Fowler says that once a person is able to move beyond their adolescent development, they begin to embody the beliefs and practices of their community. They take on very literal interpretations of scripture and theological beliefs. The beliefs of their communities and family, is what gives meaning to their lives.

Stage 3: Fowler calls this the conformity stage. He says that one is starting to leave the beliefs of the family and conforming to a larger community. Most people, find comfort in this stage and never leave it. They conform to the theology of their church. They take conform to the practices of their group. The beliefs and values in this stage are very personal, yet they go deeply unquestioned. There is very little real transformation.

Stage 4: This stage is looking to develop their “true” self. They no longer want to embody the beliefs, values, and practices, solely for the sake of embodying them. This stage is often deconstructive and critical. Often filled with angst any cynicism towards outside parties. While the first three stages can be narcisstic, only considering one’s thought, feelings and beliefs, this one is self consumed because its only real goal is to work on the “self” outside of others.

Stage 5: This stage allows the individual to see the value in each stage, and how each one was necessary to their significance. They embrace contradictions, and paradoxes. They long for true intimacy with others and God. In this stage, we often see people start relaying faith not as a thing of “me” but as of a thing of “we.” You see a person in Stage 5 do works of peace, justice, and reconciliation beyond the “this is what good Christians do” frame of consciousness.

Stage 6: Stage 6 is exceedingly rare. These people are the ones who are all-inclusive. They let everybody in, just as Jesus did. They create massive space for others to experience liberation and healing. It’s no longer about them. They allow any stage in, and love them in it.

Each stage of life requires radical courage. Most people never move beyond stage three because they fear the pain of losing their community and the hostility that could come of that. Many people lose their faith in stage four because they fall into the traps of anger, cynicism and deconstruction for too long. Fear is present in all stages except for the last. We fear that which is not “us.” We find people in our stage of development and latch onto them. True transformation can never come from something that is “us,” it most always come from the “other.” We are not God, so God is the “Holy Other.” Other denominations are not “us,” most other people are not “us.” Yet, if we ever want to move beyond “us,” we must begin by moving towards the “other.” This takes exceedingly strong courage because we have no control over what they are going to say or do. Lastly, we must not fear the ability to move forward and to forgive the stages, and the people during the stages before us. They were necessary for our transformation.

Which stage do you believe you fall in?


18 thoughts on “Fear: What’s Paralyzing The World Pt. 4

  1. Could it be that we can exist in multiple stages at the same time, or skip one stage only to revisit it a different point in time?

    • Mike Friesen says:

      I think unconsciously, most of us stay in elements of many of them. While we consciously are at another one. I probably have unconscious traits of a 3 but am transitioning from a 4 to a 5.

      What do you think about that?

      • Ha! I hate being boxed in, it makes me claustrophobic and ornery… just wanted to make sure there was some wiggle room in those stages. I find that most people, myself included tend to transition smoothly in some areas of faith and yet remain rigid in others. Not to mention certain circumstances that get the best of us and cause us to stumble straight back to where we started or hurdle us unknowingly into a faith much more mature than others would expect.

        In many ways I feel that I missed the first stage. I didn’t grow up in a Christian home, instead I became a Christian in high school somewhat against my mother’s desire (though she has softened a bit). This forced me to make choices in what I believed and how I would express it pretty early on in adolescence.

        By the end of college I had started to transition into stage 4 and sat at what my friends and I endearingly called, “the bitter leaders table,” in my college ministry. Now, I’ll occasionally camp out in stage 4 if I’m around too many 2’s and 3’s, but it’s not a place I enjoy being in for very long. I agree, that at times I will unconsciously slip into some stage 3 mentalities but I tend to float between 4 and 5. By no means of my own, I am propelled into the 5th stage by those around me and this crazy sense of hope that I can only identify as a Christ given gift.

        Fowler’s book is sitting on a desk in my office, I should probably take a closer look at it.

  2. Amy says:

    Fascinating. I’ve never heard of these levels before. About three years ago, my church community fell apart. I think that experience forced me to move from stage 3 to stage 5. Certainly not a joyful journey, but looking back now I’m grateful for it. I’d much rather be where I am today. Thanks for posting this. I’d like to move to stage 6.

    • Mike Friesen says:

      Thanks amy,
      What advice do you have for people moving from three to four and then from four to five?

      • Amy says:

        The process forced me to examine what I’d placed my faith in and to let go of everything that wasn’t Christ himself. I realized I’d identified myself by the church I attended, the people I called my friends, my political affiliation, my job, my social strata. That’s what my stage 3 looked like: comfortable conformity to many different ideologies, not just with my church. When those false foundations were shaken, I was left with only Jesus. Which is exactly where I needed to be (and should have been all along).

        The process of settling into what I see now was stage four was a daily reminding of myself that I was not any of those things I’d lost, but I that I was (and continue to be) a beloved child of God, saved by faith in Jesus. Nothing else mattered. Jobs, church, political parties, friends would all come and go, and none of those things would change who I was in God’s eyes. At the end of the day (at the end of my life), what really mattered? That became my foundation.

        I think getting from stage 4 to 5 has much to do with compassion. Or at least it did for me. Having gone through what I had, how could I look down on anyone struggling to figure out who they were or where they stood? My heart went out to those questioning God and faith. I had a lot of compassion for those people who didn’t fit in, as I no longer felt like I “fit” in many ways. Because I didn’t have a home church where I tithed, I turned my support toward organizations that helped situations close to my heart (Watoto, Kiva, Charity:Water). I got my focus off myself and developed a bigger view of the world. I got perspective. It’s a big world out there, and everyone’s on their own journey. My job is to be the hands and feet of Jesus wherever I am. “Share the gospel at all times, if necessary, use words.”

        Looking back, I see now that in stage 3 I lived my life in a very small space. Fear and comfort kept me from venturing outside. I believe with all my heart that God nudged (kicked?) me out of my comfort zone so I could grow. In the thick of it, I thought I was losing my faith, but now I see that I really was finding it.

        Whew, that was lengthy. I’m not sure how much advice is there, but I hope you find it helpful.

      • Mike Friesen says:

        There is a lot packed in there Amy, thank you.

        The idea of compassion, and, maybe even generosity is huge for moving out of there. Something that forces me to look beyond myself and see the big picture. By seeing the bigger world, we ourselves find a bigger world in ourselves. Do you find that to be true? Would drawing from that bigger world be the proper perspective for 5’s?

  3. Colin Fagan says:

    Hey Mike,
    This is an intriguing post. There is the interesting dynamic in that the phases overlap; that the previous stage could very well be necessary for the following stage. To be, lets say, at stage 5 or 6 requires a high level of self-awareness and security. To achieve such a state would require a significant level of heart-work, which is part of stage 4. But you are right that to get stuck at 4 ultimately leads to a self-centric position. These stages strike me as the unique process of transformation presented in Scripture. We move from the self-as-center position to the self-as-communal position. (Christ-as-center position?)

    To answer your question about my personal phase: I am going to give myself a four moving to a five. I have been in the four stage for several years–due to a series of unfortunate events–but have found myself moving from the inward self-analysis and resentment stage into the forgiveness, restoration, return-to-community phase.

    Thanks for the post.

  4. Renee says:

    I think there is overlap. Just as in all travel, you are not suddenly on one spot and then another. You progress and there is a leaving and an entering. I think I am in the 6th, but probably still in the early stages since I don’t think we’ll ever be there totally.

  5. I dunno. I would say I still have definite traits of 2, I’d say overall I’m a solid 3 while testing the waters of 4 with my big toe…. Not jumping all in, but gradually, slowly, incrementally finding dis-satisfaction in “the crowd”… and in moments of honest clear thinking…. much of that dis-satisfaction isn’t based on Bob’s nasal singing or other trivialities… but more and more I can see that ME is the root of the dis-satisfaction. I can’t say that I necessarily know where to go from here, or how to step it out… but I think knowing that the dis-satisfaction really is rooted in my own heart is a good start.

    • 2nd thoughts: I am sure that I am becoming more aware of how unhappy I am with myself due to Christ’s nature slowly tearing down the walls I’ve spent my life building. How hard it is to allow Someone to destroy the only thing that keeps you safe… in order to feel safer. And trusting that He knows what’s best and is doing it out of love…. when real Trust and real Love seem like another language to me, or like knowing that a 6 week old kitten is soft. Yes it may be fact but you don’t really know how soft that kitten is till you experience it.

      Hmm… yeah I think I’ll stop there. Its like all (or most) of the pieces of the puzzle are there somewhere in my head… they’re just floating around and not settling down so I can see the full picture.

      • Mike Friesen says:

        It really does sound like you are entering into the stage 4. While one can often carry the traits of a stage (consciously or unconsciously), I believe, we are primarily, in one or two locations. Good for you for doing your work.

        What inspired you to being asking the questions that are tearing down the walls?

  6. The only issue I have with stages is that they assume a linearity of development that just may not exist in every person. I think as generalizations and statistical norms they have guidance value. they are descriptive of the mean of a population, they are not prescriptive.

    I came to faith probably in stage 4 after several decades as a neo-atheist and scientist. After some time part of me, the part desirous of acceptance slid into stage 3. I floated in this tension for a while. But then study and experiences moved me into stage 5. It seems that this stage might be somewhat akin to St. John of the Cross’ first Dark Night, the purgation of the sensual. We move beyond the good feelings we get from serving and worshiping, beyond selfish motivation into a purer faith. Seems that it is in this place that we can move into stage 6. Stage 6 seems to be that place of perfected faith.

    I would say that I float somewhere, depending on the moment, from that place beyond 4 yet not fully 5 and that place beyond 5 and not fully 6. This is not to say I don’t regress momentarily, and sometimes for extended moments, back into 3, for I do.

    • Mike Friesen says:

      I am with you. I find myself often in the place between a 4 and a 5. Angsty, but moving beyond the self into inclucivity. I think your faith journey, which is different than mine, plays a radical part. I grew up in the church, so my stage 3 still might be present (unconsiously), while you are developing a more conscious part of it.

  7. Jacqui says:

    Wow – I’m glad it took me so long to get around to reading this post, because I benefit greatly from being able to say that I agree with so many elements of others’ responses.

    I think my thoughts align most closely with Paul’s thoughts, mostly because I’ve often said to the teenagers that I’m mentoring/discipling that I don’t believe spiritual growth is a linear process because God is entirely too big to do anything so simply. That we all have different experiences and processes through which we’ve developed and may not come to all the same conclusions in the same order as our neighbors. However, I think there’s merit to the idea of these broader stages.
    As Colin stated, I think this process takes a great deal of self-awareness (or is it just the ability to decide which category your in that requires that?) but those of us who tend to be exceptionally self-aware and introspective probably have an easier time with several of the stages.
    Again to agree with Paul, I think I flirt with the not quite 6 area pretty frequently, but especially because of my introspective nature, I tend to set up camp as a solid 4 or 5 from time to time as well. For instance, I’ve recently been incredibly surprised at my willingness to “make room for” a dear friend of mine who is in the middle of long trend of causing me a great deal of emotional pain and self-doubt because of where he is right now, by refusing to put up walls and barriers between our hearts and continuing to live openly and freely with him, in spite of knowing the likely emotional damage that will follow. I do this not out of ministry to him but out of commitment to living in true community and accepting him where he his, regardless of its affect on me. The strength and resolve with which I live that out is a surprise to me because I do it all, quite honestly, against my better judgement and natural response.
    But I’ve also spent a great deal of time lately trying to figure out what it really means to be a child of God, his beloved. I’m pretty convinced that I really have no idea, and have turned inward in that pursuit pretty frequently. But touching on today’s post, I wonder if that doesn’t have a lot to do with the fact that I’ve always been seriously lacking in the area of having a spiritual mentor to guide me through those questions, so inward is the only direction I really have available to me right now.
    Just another example of how my journey might differ from someone else who had different resources available, muddying the lines between the stages quite a bit.

  8. tommyab says:

    I was searching the word “fear” on your blog and found this article…. VERY interesting !

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