How Does Faith Grow?

How does your faith grow?

Call me a geek, but I find human development theories very interesting. As much as we like to think of ourselves in terms of our individuality, science indicates that we all follow similar patterns of growth and development. And as much as we’d like to separate faith from science, the truth is that God is the author of both.

A typical answer to the question, “How Does Faith Grow” usually revolves around growth in holiness. Although this may be accurate, it does little to help us understand the underlying structures of faith and how these structures shape individuals’ behaviors, perspectives, and ideals. The model of faith development I find particularly fascinating is a stage-theory developed by James Fowler in the 1960’s. This was purposely developed to be ‘content empty’, meaning this model of faith development can be applied to all faiths. I can definitely trace the growth of my faith through each one of these 6 stages.

Stage 1: Intuitive-Projective
Between the ages of 3 and 7, children intuitively assimilate the visible faith of their parents. They describe God in vague, nonhuman images and treat religious symbols as having power in themselves. Children in this stage are not yet capable of perceiving others’ perspectives.

Stage 2: Mythic-Literal
Around 7 years of age, children begin to see their world in the patterns that Jean Piaget identified as “concrete-operational.” At this stage, children begin to distinguish the difference between what is real and what it fantasy. In the minds of mythical-literal children, they view the stories they hear about God quite literal. While receiving God as a personal being, they attempt to relate to transcendent reality through divine laws. In this stage, cause-and-effect sequences and logical reasoning become important tools for understanding life. According to Fowler, some adults never progress pass the mythical-literal stage.

Stage 3: Synthetic-Conventional
Most people move on to this stage at teenagers. At this point, their life has grown to include several different social circles and there is a need to pull it all together. When this happens, a person usually adopts some sort of all-encompassing belief system. However, at this stage, people tend to have a hard time seeing outside their box and don’t recognize that they are ‘inside’ a belief system. At this stage, authority is placed in individuals or groups that represent their beliefs. This is the stage at which many people remain.

Stage 4: Individual-Reflective
In this stage, people start seeing outside their box and realize there are other boxes. The individual reflects on familiar assumptions, reconsidering and even rejecting prior beliefs and practices. They begin to critically examine their beliefs and often become disillusioned with their former faith. New beliefs and newly reconsidered past beliefs are reworked into an individualized system that is perceived as cohesive and coherent. Ironically, the Stage 3 people usually think the Stage 4 people have become ‘backsliders’, when in fact they have moved forward..

Stage 5: Conjunctive Faith
Seldom reached before the age of 30, this stage requires recognition of the integrity of positions other than one’s own. This is the point at which people often begin to realize the limits of logic and begin to accept the paradoxes in life. Fowler suggested this stage requires that one know suffering and loss, responsibility and failure, and the grief that is an integral part pf having made irrevocable commitments of life and energy. Individuals begin to see life as a mystery and often return to sacred stories and symbols, but this time without being stuck in a theological box.

Stage 6: Universalizing
Few people reach this stage. Those who do live their lives to the full in service of others without any real worries or doubts. They are free to live their lives for the sake of universal justice and love.

Can you identify any similarities in your faith development?


Estep, J. R., & Kim, J. H. (Eds.). (2010). Christian formation. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group

Fowler, J. (2010-2013).  Chart of Jame’s Fowler’s stages of faith.

Leave a Reply