Fowler, Faith and Fallout

Andrew Pritchard

What is the link between faith development and the stream of people who leave the church? For most people the answers cluster around two opposing viewpoints:

· that faulty faith development, inadequate discipling, shaky foundations or half-hearted commitment to the gospel are primary factors, or

· that healthy faith development has led people to outgrow inflexible church structures and practices and unsympathetic or restrictive leaderships.

Is there vinegar in the wine, or are the wineskins so rigid and dry that they have cracked with much of the wine leaking away?

Evidence supporting the second viewpoint is found in the Faith Development model proposed by Professor James Fowler in his book Stages of Faith.1 What light does Fowler's theory throw on the 'church-leaving' trend and what are the implications for church congregations and for ex-church attenders?

Stages of Faith

On the basis of structured interviews with a wide range of people,2 Fowler describes six stages of faith development. Just as there are commonly observed 'normal' patterns or stages of human development - childhood, adolescence, adulthood, to name some - so too, Fowler says, there is a process in the development of faith, with stages in which recognisable, distinctive characteristics of faith are observable.

We may speculate on whether the children, young men and fathers addressed by the Apostle John3 were in those categories on the basis of natural chronology or whether he was referring to those who were such in terms of their spiritual growth and development. Certainly John not only addresses such categories but refers to spiritual or faith characteristics common to people at that stage of life, be it chronological or spiritual.

In other passages of scripture4 we see the analogy of normal human growth and development being explicitly used to make points concerning spiritual growth. We see here an expectation that characteristics of our faith will change over time. It is just as surprising and distressing when a person's faith development becomes fixed at an immature stage, as it is when physical or emotional development is stunted or delayed.

We need to distinguish here between 'faith' as a verb (something we do or the way that we do it) and 'faith' as a noun (something that we have) - ie between the container and the contents. Both are vitally important, but our focus here is on 'faith' as a verb.

While Fowler himself is a Christian minister, the people interviewed in his research included people from other faith traditions as well as those who claimed no religious allegiance. What emerged from the research were six recognisable stages of development, or six ways of structuring and giving meaning to life. The content of people's belief is highly dependent on their religious (or non-religious) allegiance, but the structure or shape of that belief is largely independent of the particular content.

"Faith, it appears, is generic, a universal feature of human living, recognisably similar everywhere despite the remarkable variety of forms and contents of religious practice and belief. Faith is an orientation of the total person, giving purpose and goal to one's hopes and strivings, thoughts and actions."5

Here then are Fowler's stages of Faith Development:

Infancy and Undifferentiated Faith

Stage 1: Intuitive-Projective Faith

Stage2: Mythic-Literal Faith

Stage 3: Synthetic-Conventional Faith

Stage 4: Individuative-Reflective Faith

Stage 5: Conjunctive Faith

Stage 6: Universalising Faith

The pre-stage of Infancy and Undifferentiated Faith and stages 1 and 2 have characteristics that are consistent with the emerging conceptual, cognitive and emotional abilities associated with infancy, early and late childhood. Understanding of the detailed characteristics of faith in these stages and the challenges of transition from stage to stage is important for parents and those working in Christian education with children. It also has significant implications for structuring worship experiences where young and old participate together.

In the context of why people leave the church, however, it is the differences between stages 3, 4 and 5 which are most significant. Most people between teenage and old age are in one of these stages.

Synthetic-Conventional Faith

Stage 3 typically begins in adolescence, says Fowler, but for many adults it becomes a permanent resting place. "It is a 'conformist' stage in the sense that it is acutely tuned to the expectations and judgements of significant others but does not have a sure enough grasp on its own autonomous judgement to construct and maintain an independent perspective.

"While beliefs and values are deeply felt, they typically are tacitly held . . . there has not been occasion to step outside them to reflect on or examine them explicitly or systematically." Authority is given to those in traditional authority roles or to the consensus of a valued group.

The dangers of this stage are twofold. The expectations and evaluations of others can be so deeply internalised that later autonomy of judgement and action can be jeopardised; or interpersonal betrayals can give rise to great despair.6

Key characteristics of stage 3 faith include:

1. The need to conform to the norms, beliefs and practices of the group.

We see a strong parallel to this in the importance and influence of the peer group in adolescence. The need to belong and to show this by having the 'right' clothing, hairstyle, music, jargon - by being seen in the right places with the right people.

The parallels in faith are evident - associating strongly with 'our' church, theology and worship style, as opposed to that of others. Holding key leaders or people of influence in high regard and modelling strongly on them in terms of practice, lifestyle - sometimes even mannerisms!

Each stage of faith is good and healthy in itself. Certainly much healthy growth comes from modelling on and emulating a good role model. Difficulties arise, however, if growth is arrested artificially rather than being encouraged and embraced, even if this means going beyond or in a different direction to an earlier role model.

2. Partial development of self-identity and self-assurance about the beliefs held.

Largely the beliefs and practices of this stage are maintained and sustained by the group rather than the individual. In stage 3 the need to examine these beliefs critically has not yet emerged, nor is it encouraged in groups which are predominantly stage 3 in their corporate faith.

Within the corporate life of the group, stage 3 Christians are secure in themselves and in their beliefs. Outside the group, however, they may be troubled by questions and doubts and may be unable to articulate, either to themselves or others, quite what they believe or why.

3. Expectations and evaluations of others outweigh autonomous evaluation.

People in stage 3 are particularly vulnerable to abuse of all kinds because the opinions and decisions of those in leadership roles carry such authority. The stage 3 Christian has not developed the solid autonomous belief to challenge or often even to question this.

This is a stage in which the inequality of power between leaders and followers is great. Both the awful prevalence of professional sexual abuse where a professional person (doctor, lawyer, minister, priest) abuses a client or parishioner and the mass suicides of Jonestown are evidences of exploitation of this vulnerability of people with stage 3 faith.

While voices are almost universally raised in outrage when such abuse is uncovered there seem to be few, particularly in our churches, addressing the need to support and encourage people to evaluate their own and others' beliefs, practices and behaviour and to think for themselves.7

4. Despair arising from interpersonal betrayal.

What are stage 3 Christians to do when a respected role model lets them down? When leaders' private lives or behaviours are damagingly different from their public personas and what they demand of their followers, or when they fall and deny the faith? Because the locus of faith and security for stage 3 believers lies largely outside themselves, such a failure or betrayal by a respected leader is a failure of their own faith. Despondency and despair will commonly accompany such betrayal.

Individuative-Reflective Faith

"For a genuine move to stage 4 to occur there must be an interruption of reliance on external sources of authority. The 'tyranny of the they'- or the potential for it - must be undermined. In addition to the kind of critical reflection on one's previous system . . . of values . . . there must be . . . a relocation of authority within the self.

"While others and their judgements will remain important to the Individuative-Reflective person, their expectations, advice and counsel will be submitted to an internal panel of experts who reserve the right to choose and who are prepared to take responsibility for their choices. I sometimes call this the development of an executive ego."8

Stage 4's strength, says Fowler, has to do with its capacity for critical reflection on identity (self) and outlook (ideology). Its dangers are an excessive confidence in the conscious mind and in critical thought, and an over assimilation of the 'reality' and the perspectives of others into its own world view.9

Here we see development. Reliance on external sources of authority has been balanced by the individual claiming the right to choose and taking personal responsibility for those choices.

People may hold the same beliefs at stage 4 as they did at stage 3. However stage 3 people held them because they were the beliefs of the group as expressed by its leaders or senior members, while stage 4 people hold them because they have reflected on them, examined them against competing beliefs and found them to be compelling. Of course in all likelihood the transition from stage 3 to stage 4 will result in some change to the content of belief as well.

Stage 4 people may challenge or question accepted group practices or traditions. The enthusiastic expression of their newly discovered critical faculties is easily misinterpreted as rebelliousness or undermining of unity and authority, rather than as evidence of healthy growth.

Stage 4 is often marked by polarisation. Stage 4 Christians may see things in very black and white categories. Having discovered clearly what they do believe, they also see clearly what they don't believe.

This may lead them on a campaign to set others straight in their beliefs. Their enthusiasm to 'convert' others to their newly discovered sense of freedom can be threatening, if not damaging, to those who have not yet developed the resources to evaluate their beliefs and take responsibility for such freedom.

Conjunctive Faith

"Unusual before mid-life, Stage 5 knows the sacrament of defeat and the reality of irrevocable commitments and acts. . . . Alive to paradox and the truth of apparent contradictions, this stage strives to unify opposites in mind and experience. It generates and maintains vulnerability to the strange truths of those who are 'other'."

The new strength of this stage, says Fowler, is a capacity to own one's most significant beliefs, while recognising that they are relative, partial and imperfect perceptions of reality. Its danger lies in the direction of a paralysing inaction, giving rise to complacency or cyclical withdrawal.10

In stage 5 the pendulum has swung back from the somewhat narrow 'certainties' of stage 4. No longer does this truth insist that another perspective is therefore false - now both may be seen to be true, perhaps with some tension but without conflict. The stage 5 person is at ease in the presence of difference and paradox.

The stage 5 person is beginning to grasp that many of the issues of faith are larger than the human intellect's ability to grasp in their entirety. Because of this, stage 5 Christians may develop a new or renewed appreciation for symbol, in language and worship, and for liturgical forms of worship - symbol and ritual providing helpful connections to the transcendent realities of faith.

In contrast, the intense brightness and starkness of stage 4 descriptions of faith and modes of worship may now be difficult for people who have moved to stage 5, where once they seemed so relevant. These earlier forms now seem shallow compared to the unfolding depths of the newly discovered stage of faith.

Universalising Faith

According to Fowler very few people emerge into this stage. It is perhaps the preserve of those who are regarded as 'saints' or whose lives have a profound impact in areas of social justice or reform. They have a capacity for relating to and influencing people from widely differing backgrounds, cultures and religions. Martin Luther King and Mother Theresa are among those seen to have entered this stage.

Conclusions and Implications

Having sketched broad characteristics of the three most common adult stages of faith we can now draw some conclusions about how they relate to Christians who leave the church, and examine the implications for churches and individual Christians.

Conclusion One

People are different: the shape of their faith and the nature of their pastoral care needs will change over time.

One size does not fit all! Further, this is not just a case of finding a church or style of worship that fits, because the fit will change over time. What fits comfortably today may be uncomfortably small or the wrong shape in future years.

Implications for churches:

· Church programmes and practices which do not allow for individual difference and change will lead to ongoing high levels of people exiting the church as they are forced to look elsewhere to meet their emerging needs.

· Unity and uniformity are radically different. Where leaders seek to justify and enforce uniformity on the basis of unity, high levels of dissatisfaction will result and the only available option for those who dissent will be to leave.

· Increased efforts to hear and understand individuals, particularly those with different perspectives, within the congregation will help reclaim and retain people with much to offer who would otherwise leave or drift out of the church.

Implications for individuals:

· The ideal church doesn't exist on this earth and what may seem ideal now will probably no longer be so when we move on to another stage. So, rather than expecting the whole church, its practices and programmes to change based on our newly discovered viewpoint, a more helpful expectation would be to find support and nurture that will meet current needs with others who are at a similar stage, while remaining part of the church.

· As positive growth occurs, so the balance between the church's primacy in meeting our spiritual needs and our own responsibility for doing so, shifts. That the church no longer meets my needs as fully or as comfortably as it once did is not necessarily an indication that the church has failed me.

Conclusion Two

Transitions between faith stages are often troubling, difficult times when people are unusually vulnerable.

A faith transition is a time when the old, familiar way, the container of faith that used to fit so well, has now become tired and limiting - but as yet we have not reached the security of the new. It is like the transition of chrysalis to butterfly. The old shell is broken, the butterfly is half out but has not had a chance to spread its wings, much less dry them in the sun! The old is irrevocably past but the new isn't there yet.

Implications for churches:

· Vulnerable people need understanding, reassurance and support. Challenge, pressure and the implication that people struggling with their faith are necessarily denying their faith, adds enormously to the turmoil of this time. Many will not survive that weight, and will leave the church, maybe turning their back on Christianity altogether.

· Because people have been Christians for a long time, perhaps having served in responsible roles, does not mean that they no longer have crises of faith. Proactive initiatives that recognise when people may be in such transition and provide good care and support will enable many to emerge stronger and still active in the life of the church.

Implications for individuals:

· It's OK! Times of pressure, turmoil and shaking don't mean that we are losing our salvation, nor that we will never be on stable ground again. We need to be gentle and kind to ourselves in such times - patient too. The dust will settle and landmarks that we can recognise and navigate by will appear.

· Vulnerable people hurt more, so innocent remarks or mild challenges may be magnified out of all proportion. We may regret severing relationships over what may later seem relatively minor issues.

Conclusion Three

Faith stages are not badges of rank nor promotions to be sought.

Each stage has its own gifts and limitations. Each stage is appropriate for its own time. Transition from stage to stage must not be forced but must be the natural consequence of growth. Pressure on someone else to make a transition that they are not ready for, or upon oneself to strive for a stage beyond one's current need, will be damaging.

The analogy of a coiled spring may be helpful here. "Fowler says that a coiled spring, when under pressure, compresses until it is strong enough to push back against the pressure. And our faith, when under pressure, compresses until it is strong enough to push back. [The transition comes healthily when the pressure is great enough!] One sure way to destroy a spring is to stretch it out beyond its intended length [and] a sure way to destroy someone's faith is to stretch it out beyond its current stage."11

Implications for churches:

· With people at many stages in one congregation we need to provide teaching, forums for discussion and opportunity for ministry at many levels. This is difficult, especially in small churches!

· It is appropriate for churches, especially those who value evangelism highly, to bias their programmes and practices towards the needs of those at earlier stages of faith. However, if the needs of those who move to later stages are ignored or, worse, seen to be a distraction from the purpose and mission of the church, many of those won in evangelism will be lost in the passage of time, not because they have grown cold but because they have grown!

Implications for individuals:

· Discernment and self-discipline is needed to know how, when and with whom to share both our struggles and uncertainties and our joy in new found liberties. Care is needed so that we do not unwittingly and needlessly unsettle those who are not yet, or who may never be, in the place that we are in, or may not be asking the questions we are asking.


There are people leaving the church. A study of Fowler's Stages of Faith can help individuals who have left, are considering leaving or are simply in transition, to understand more fully what is happening to them and how to deal with it constructively. It can also provide a helpful perspective for churches and their leaders looking to reduce this trend.



1 James Fowler has written or edited 12 books and more than 60 articles or chapters of books. His best-known book, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Development and the Quest for Meaning Harper Collins San Francisco 1981, is in its twenty-sixth printing, and has been translated into Swedish, Danish, Dutch, Polish, Icelandic, and an Indonesian dialect. His most recent book, Faithful Change: The Personal and Public Challenges of Postmodern Life, was published by Abingdon Press last year.

2 Stages of Faith, p 313.

3 1 John 2:12-14.

4 1 Corinthians 3:2, Hebrews 5:11-14.

5 Stages of Faith, p14.

6 Stages of Faith, p172,3 (paraphrased).

7 See Fit Bodies Fat Minds: Why evangelicals don't think and what to do about it - by Os Guiness.

8 Stages of Faith, p 179.

9 Stages of Faith, p 182,3 (paraphrased).

10 Stages of Faith, p 198

11 James Fowler's Stages of Faith by John Aukerman,


Andrew Pritchard has been a member of Kapiti Christian Centre for 23 years. After a career in engineering and technical education Andrew had seven years in full-time leadership of the Church followed by three years as Deputy Principal/Principal of Te Nikau Bible Training Centre. Andrew is now "lightly self-employed" in Spiritual Direction, Ministry Supervision and teaching. He and his wife Lynn are foundation members of Shalom Christian Community.

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