This work is a personal assessment or self-evaluation of how theological and human development have influenced my personal style of Christian leadership. It is based on the work of James Estep and Jonathan Kim in their book Christian Formation: Integrating Theology and Human Development. Estep and Kim present seven types of human development and the impact of each on the formation of the mature Christian. They show the “interrelationship of theology and psychology” in their presentation of how each of the seven models of social science impact a Christian’s personal development. Their “task” is to show that the secular social sciences, when viewed from a Christian perspective, give valuable and practical insights into the development of Christian leadership. I will examine their presentation of faith development and evaluate how it has impacted my Christian leadership. From my learning’s so far, of the seven types of human development, faith has had the most impact on my personal development.
Faith development is presented as one of the three “classical dimensions” of human development that can be applied to the formation of Christian leadership and lifestyle. One of the most highly recognized sources of research in this area is James W. Fowler, whose book on the subject Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Search for Meaning is so well studied and popular it is in its fortieth printing. Fowler developed six stages of the development of faith. I will briefly summarize each stage and evaluate the development of my personal leadership style from the perspective of Fowler’s work.
Fowler’s first stage of faith development is the Intuitive-Protective stage, from age three to seven. At this stage children mimic the faith they see exhibited by their parents. They have little understanding of what they see other than it is normal in the context of their life. Reality and imagination may become mixed together in this stage. They may not realize it, but children are picking up their most basic and foundational ideas about God at this time.
Stage two is the Mythic-Literal stage, normally in early school aged children. In this stage, children start to learn what is real and what is imaginary. They come to believe that doing the right things results in rewards. They look for everything in life to be logical. If you do “the right actions” you will receive “tangible rewards”. Fowler states that some adults stay in this phase for their entire lives. Life in this stage is very black and white.
In stage three, Synthetic-Conventional, the believer conforms to religious authorities of their environment. Believers in this stage try to deal with the growing complexities of life by conforming themselves as much as possible to the religious authority or conventions of the group of believers to which they belong. This stage can be from the end of adolescence to early adulthood. These believers find comfort in their group’s beliefs as they begin to develop their own points of view. Conformity to the beliefs of a comfortable group is the theme of this time. Many people may stay in this stage for the rest of their lives.
Next is the Individual-Reflective stage. This is when the believer starts to take personal ownership of their beliefs. Some call these “the critical years” when the believer comes to grips with their personal belief system as compared to others around them. In this stage the believer tries to analyze their previous perspectives and experiences. At the end of this stage the believer will take personal ownership of their beliefs. It is also during this stage that many fall away if they cannot fully reconcile their faith based beliefs to the world around them. In this stage, the struggles between their own beliefs and those of others may confirm and strengthen their beliefs or may cause them to fall away from their belief system entirely.
Stage five is the Paradoxical-Consolidative stage. “Seldom reached before age 30” in this stage the believer comes to appreciate other believer’s positions, even if they are different from his own. Often occurring in mid-life, the believer comes to realize that some things just can’t be logically explained. Life just isn’t always black and white. An appreciation of the value of religious symbols and rituals are a characteristic of this stage. Even if not understood, they have value and are appreciated by the believer for the comfort they provide. Beliefs conflicts that were unresolved in earlier stages and earlier ages come to be less important. Conflicts over points of belief seem less important than the bigger picture of belief and faith. The believer may begin to see past specific points of conflict about details and begin to focus more on the big picture.
The last stage of Fowler’s theory is stage six known as Universalizing. Very few believers reach this stage. The believer treats all persons with equal compassion and concern regardless of their belief system. Believers in this stage see their lives as tools for making the world a better place. They focus little on themselves and almost completely on others. All people are equally important in the site of God and require the same respect and value. This may be described as the wise-old-saint stage we all aspire to reach.
Fowler’s six stages of the development of faith in a believer are easy to understand and see in myself. The importance of faith cannot be underestimated in the life of a believer. “Upon God’s faithfulness rests our whole hope of future blessedness.” Understanding where we are in our faith development and why we are there are worthy subjects of study for any believer desiring a deeper understanding of God and his will for their life.
Now to briefly review the six stages and evaluate my personal development based on Fowler’s scale. The first Intuitive-Projective stage is easy to see. My early life was in a Christian home that went to Church every week, twice on Sunday and on Wednesday nights. My ideas of God were from my family and that he was a natural and normal part of everyday life. Everyone I knew loved God and went to Sunday School and Church. This foundation of the normalcy of a weekly Christian walk truly laid the foundation on which I would stand for the rest of my life. The first Sunday after leaving home for college, I nervously got up early and walked to the Sunday School for university students at First Baptist Church in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. It was just the normal thing to do. I did notice that I was the only one walking down the hallway of my residence hall going to church and I was very nervous about going. That Sunday was the start of relationships and personal ministry that would last for the next four years until I graduated. The basic ideas I drew from this first stage in the development of my personal faith were still strongly impacting me many years and miles later.
Stage two is the Mythic-Literal stage and this one is also easy to see in my life. I was very literal as a child. Things were clearly right or wrong, white or black. This was especially true in my view of the men in our church. I saw them as strong and successful, men to be admired. I had no ideas of their personal lives or struggles but began to build my personal view of what a successful man looked like not only from my father but from the many men I saw weekly on Sunday. I began to see some I wanted to be like someday. Some of those images are still fresh today. I could not imagine that any of they had any struggles or failures in life. Today, many years later I still see many of them as some of the most successfully people I have ever known after now understanding some of the struggles of adult life. My view is not so black and white for sure, but now even more admiring of the witness many of them gave to one little boy every Sunday. Then I did not see their struggles only their smiling faces. I saw their clear examples of how doing the right thing paid off in real life. Today I think of that often on Sunday in church. I am now the man-at-church to many of those little faces. I want to give them the same strong yet friendly image I was given by many good Christian men every week. I want to be the Christian leader I saw as a child.
In stage three, Synthetic-Conventional, conformity is the norm and that is easy to see in my personal development. Through my teenage years I was conformed to the norm of a Christian young person. There was a large and strong youth group at my church and that was the peer group that was the most important to me at that time. It was an often welcomed oasis from the peer pressure and clickish environment of junior high and high school. I saw differences in the lives of others compared to my own, but largely ignored them. I happily gave authority to those in charge of that group and followed their direction. At that time I learned a lot about the value of socializing and making friends with others of your same beliefs. Those groups were a cushion from a much uglier world. I now want to be part of providing that same oasis to the youth of my church and community. It made such a significant difference in my life I want to help others find that same experience.
Individuative-Reflective is the stage of my college years and my early to late twenties. I evaluated my beliefs systems while leaving home first for college then for the early career years. I learned that my church and its members were not perfect but they were much better than anything the world had to offer. I had grown up in a very black and white conservative Southern Baptist environment. Through the witness of some very strong adults in my college and early twenties years, I began to see that many of the details I had so long focused on were important but not the most-important-thing. What mattered most was that you were a loving, dedicated Christian. I met Catholics, Jews, Lutherans and people of many other faiths were strong Christians, despite their many differences. Reflecting now back on those years I can see the clear influence of many of them on me and they were often very different from each other. Their common feature was a loving spirit and clean heart. Some were educated, some uneducated, some rich, some not so rich, some old and some young. Observing them taught me that it was the spirit and witness that mattered most, not the demonization or label. Though my twenties I grew very, very grateful for the years in the Synthetic-Conventional stage which gave me a good basis for comparison and now want to be part of that process for others.
The Conjunctive stage became my reality in my forties. Life really wasn’t logical or black and white despite a deep desire that it be so. Some jobs had worked out great but some not, despite my best efforts. Some family issues had been what were expected but many came out very differently. Life wasn’t turning out the way I wanted in some ways. But frankly those differences made the final outcome so much better! God’s hand was clear and easy to see in many difficulties I faced in my late twenties and thirties. There are many paradoxes in life but the hand of the Father can guide you through the maze toward the end. As a leader in work or church I began to find myself more and more trying to help younger men understand that this life is a marathon, not a sprint. If we run the race as Paul wrote, we’ll finish successfully. There will be many potholes on the way to sprain an ankle. But they will heal and we will continue to move toward the finish line. I would place myself today in this stage of the Fowler theory, still evolving and working to learn and improve.
I’m not sure how you reach the Universalizing stage. I have seen several men and women in that stage in my life but the list is very short. My seminary education at Liberty is part of my personal journey toward that stage. Now in my early fifties, I hope to retire from corporate life in a few years and find a place of service focused completely on others. God seems to be letting me walk down the road toward that goal. We’ll see how it ends!
I must admit that the first chapters of the Estep and Kim work left me yawning and a bit discouraged. It is the kind of academic work I have never enjoyed. But this exercise of applying their work to a self-evaluation of my life has been very enlightening. I have a greater respect and higher level of curiosity and interest in their writing.
Each of the Fowler levels are clearly seen in my life. I would have never understood in this way before this assignment. I am grateful for that.
There are of course many criticisms of the Fowler method. Some seem valid. And there are other approaches as outlined by the text. This one speaks to me. Faith is an evolving characteristic of a Christian, leader or layman. Like many things, it must grow or begin to die. Estep and Kim’s chapter on Faith Development ended for me with the words from the first paragraph. I remembered and went back to them at the end of my study of the entire chapter. “Faith grows, or at least, it should.” Their work shows the evolution of my faith that now seems clear, looking back. If only I had known this model in my twenties!
Estep, James R. and Jonathan H. Kim, Christian Formation: Integrating Theology and Human
Development, Nashville, TN: B&H Publising Group, 2010.
The MacArthur Study Bible: New American Standard Version, Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2006.
Tozer, A.W., The Knowledge of the Holy, New York, NY: Harper One Publishing, 1961.
 James R. Estep and Jonathan H. Kim, Christian Formation: Integrating Theology and Human Development, (Nashville TN: B&H Publishing, 2010), p3.
 Ibid, p4.
 Ibid, p163.
 Ibid, p166.
 Ibid, p171.
 Ibid, p173.
 Ibid, p174.
 A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy, (New York, NY: Harper One Publishing, 1961), p81.
 The MacArthur Study Bible: New American Standard Edition, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2006), p1889.
Estep and Kim, p192.