Stages of Faith – Part One

Part TwoPart Three

Occasionally, I learn something that is like opening a window to greater understanding. Where a vague notion may have existed before, the drawing aside of the curtains reveals a new world. Such an event occurred a couple of days ago.

Over the last decade or so, I have been going through a faith change which I did not understand. The journey has left me unsettled, with a different perspective on my faith than most of my fellow church members.

The event of clarity that I am referring to was when a friend gave a short presentation on some books that describe progression of religious development generally referred to as “stages of faith.” This gave name and structure to my faith journey and helped me realize that my faith change was normal.

While I have not yet read the books to which my friend referred, I found the concepts so enlightening that I can’t help but express some generalities here with the hope that the principles will be enlightening to others. Once I have read the books, I’ll write some more. (See part two and part three.)

With my friends permission, the following block quotations were copied from his presentation. The quotes are from his review of The Critical Journey by Janet Hagberg and Robert Guelich. (I echo my friends recognition that standard citation practices are not followed, neither in his notes nor in my blog. Apologies to the APA Style geeks.)

Stage 1 – Recognition of God

In an LDS community, this would correlate to Primary age or recent convert.

In Stage 1 a person becomes aware that God is real and is ‘there’. It includes a sense of awe as well as a sense of need. It can lead to a greater sense of meaning in life as well as a joyful sense of innocence.

Stage 2 – The Life of Discipleship

Faithful engagement in the LDS young men’s and young women’s organization would correlate to stage 2. This stage may also describe many missionaries as well as some long-time members.

“This stage is best characterized as a time of learning and belonging.” We attach ourselves to a leader and/or a group that we trust, respect, and follow. We thrive in being accepted and belonging to a community. Our answers are found in a leader, a cause, or a belief system. “We are not confident in ourselves to know what to believe or how to learn about God and know God better. We are dependent on a more advanced person in the faith or a guiding principle or cause to lead us and tell us the way to a fuller life.” This stage is characterized by a sense of rightness and certainty because we are less beset by doubts, fears, and questions. It is also characterized by a security and comfort because we’ve finally found workable solutions and even if we have questions, someone else is responsible to lead us.

Like a fan sitting on the sidelines, we may root for our team, but may not have the skills to join in the play.

Becoming stuck at this stage involves becoming rigid in our rightness/righteousness and an us/them mentality.

Stage 3 – The Productive Life

One might call this the institutional stage or worker bee stage, it is the stage of faith that makes churches run and epitomizes an active Mormon.

Stage 3 is characterized as the “doing stage.” As we’ve progressed in Stage 2, we’ve learned and are able to become one who gives back, helps others, and leads those entering Stage 2. It is when we consciously find ourselves working for God. Its an active, busy, productive, and rewarding time of life. It can feel exciting, awesome, and fruitful. There’s a strong sense of community and belonging because we’re engaged responsibly in sustaining the community of faith.

Often this is the final stage of faith for many people; this is where they have arrived and where they stay. But:

Being caged at this stage can include feeling weary and burned out. Life can feel like a performance or a façade and we’re often angry with God and fearful of being found out.

In the LDS church, burn-out is a very real concern. Consequently, there are typical limitations on the periods of service for various callings. As we shift around from one position to another, we gain broader perspective, face our fears, (hopefully) learn and grow, and continually engage in our community.

Stage 4 – The Inward Journey

Stages 1-3 might be called orthodox or orthopraxis stages. Stage 4 is a boundary that represents a shift in perspective.

At some point in stage 2 or 3, we will encounter stage 4 issues. Some may call it questions or doubts, but it is much broader. In stage 4 we start to realize that the simple stories don’t fit reality. We then must make a choice to either press forward or return to stage 3, ignoring the cognitive dissonance that stage 4 represents.

“It almost always comes as an unsettling experience yet results in healing for those who continue through it.” Stage 4 is often precipitated by gnawing, unanswered, unmanageable questions that can no longer be ignored or repressed. Sometimes the failure of a leader can be the precipitating factor. For the first time, our faith or belief system or formulas don’t seem to work. Instead of operating out of the certainty and knowledge and answers of Stage 3, at this stage we shift from ‘knowing’ to ‘seeking’ – answers are replaced by questions as we look for a direction and for something more personal and fulfilling. Those in Stage 4 discover that God is not who they thought he was. We find it easy to blame the church or our leaders for our discomfort and uncertainty.

This stage may go on for a decade or more and is the time when someone may jump to a different faith tradition, entering their new faith at stage 1 or 2. For a time, this can resolve the their faith tensions until they once again face stage 4 issues or resolve to stay in stage 3.

The Wall

At some point in Stage 4 each person experiences an event called ‘The Wall’. Sometime it’s a ‘Wall’ event that leads us inward into Stage 4. For others, the Wall happens after entering Stage 4. This precipitating event is different for each person because in every case it’s a personal invitation from God to come further and deeper in relationship. But at some point all will say “things just aren’t working anymore…there’s got to be more.” The Wall event can be a crisis of faith, a death, a loss of marriage, a job loss, a moral failure, spiritual boredom, or a deep longing – or some combination of these events – it’s different for everyone. “Fundamentally, it has to do with slowly breaking through the barriers we have built between our will and a newer awareness of God in our lives.” At The Wall, something is always given up or surrendered.

One important note. Those in stage 3 are fearful of and do not understand the people who are struggling in stage 4; stage 4 members may be perceived as heretics. The counsel from a stage 3 minister (bishop, teacher, or fellow member) will often suggest to return to stage 2 or 3 principles. Typical counsel from an LDS minister might include:

  • I’m worried about you.
  • You shouldn’t ask those questions (or study those topics).
  • You just need to pray about it.
  • You need to read your scriptures more.
  • You need to come to church regularly.
  • You need to attend the temple more.

Those struggling through stage 4 typically have to do so alone because their faith communities often don’t extend beyond stage 3. In our modern world, that means turning to Internet sources. Then it becomes a search engine game as to whether positive or negative resources will be discovered.

I expect that for most, a return to stage 3 is not possible; you can’t unlearn something. All you can do is deepen your knowledge, judgement, and understanding in order to provide context for the cognitive dissonance.

Stage 4 is also a deeply personal and unique journey; a stage 3 minister  may not be able to provide any meaningful counsel. However, providing references for supportive and reliable information may help those that have an interest in reconstructing their faith.

Being stuck in this stage can involve a continuous questioning without coming to any answers. Often it can result in locking up and immobilization.

Stage 5: The Outward Journey

While the stages are distinctly defined in this blog, they are actually fluid and intertwined. One can migrate forward and back or be at different stages with different principles of their faith. The descriptions in this blog only represent one of the four authors my friends presentation covered.

Personally, I can relate to characteristics of both stages 4 and 5, but I am mostly in stage 4; still somewhat uncomfortable in my skin.

…if we…don’t turn back, Stage 5 represents a surrender to God’s will to direct our lives but with our eyes wide open, aware and unafraid of the consequences. “Our primary motivation in life becomes the desire to love honestly and live according to God’s purposes. Consequently, for some, life patterns, work habits, friends, and ways of being may slowly change.” In Stage 2 we surrendered to that life of which we are sure. In Stage 5 we surrender to that life purpose which we have yet to know or understand. There comes a profound comfort with uncertainty, mystery, and paradox that is characterized by an inner calm and peace. While Stage 4 was a “vertical” movement toward God, Stage 5 is characterized by a “horizontal” movement outward toward other people from a sense of wholeness and fullness – of being loved by God and asked by God to love others.

The “movement outward toward other people” is my personal struggle right now. As an introvert,  showing care and concern for others is counter to my temperament.

People in Stage 5 are wise, seasoned by life, open to possibilities, and hopeful. Being stuck isn’t as much of a concern at this stage.

I like the “wise” and “open to possibilities” descriptions. “Seasoned” sounds old, or a like a piece of packaged meat at the butcher.

Stage 6 – The Life of Love

In Stage 6 we reflect the love of God to the world more clearly and consistently than we ever thought possible. In this stage we both lose ourselves in the equation and at the same time find ourselves like we never have before. Stage 6 is characterized by more Christ-like living in obedience to God, there’s a wisdom gained from life’s struggles, and compassionate living for others. (Few people get this far.)


My suspicion is that more people are entering stage 4 (and at younger ages) before they have a good foundation to their stage 3 faith. Surveys of religious observance in the US indicate that this is a general problem among all religions, Christian and non-christian.

These faith stages may help us understand those that we would label as “orthodox” or “progressive.” Understanding those that might have “wild ideas” as working through stage 4 faith challenges may give us tools for understanding one another.

In the end, I’m left with some practical questions:

How does a church organization minister to the needs of people across the faith spectrum?

More specifically, how do we meet the needs of stage 4 and 5 members while not alienating those in stages 1-3?

The trite answer would be to “just love” everyone. This may be true, but that has been the Christian mission all along. The key may be focusing on principles of atonement and grace while allowing for broader expressions of faithful observance. Checklist observance is counter to love and acceptance.

These words from the apostle Paul seem to sum it all up:

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

And now abideth, faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity. – KJV 1 Cor 13:11-13

Fortunately, we are seeing an increase in emphasis on love (grace and atonement principles) and allowance for vulnerability. Elder Jeffery R. Holland has been a leader in this regard.

Elder Jeffery R. Holland – Oct 2017, April 2017, April 2016.

At what stage would you put your faith? Let me know. I’d love to hear your story.


Part TwoPart Three


The following are the book that my friend used for his notes:

The Critical Journey, Stages in the Life of Faith, Second Edition – December 31, 2004, by Janet O. Hagberg, Robert A. Guelich

Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe Is Coming Apart – October 21, 2014, by Kathy Escobar

Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life – April 19, 2011, by Richard Rohr

The first book that introduced the whole “stages of faith” concept was:

Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning – September 15, 1995, by James W. Fowler

The books listed above have expanded on Fowlers work and he has also produced a number of books following the success of this first one.

One thought on “Stages of Faith – Part One”

  1. Eugene, thanks for bringing this fascinating topic to my attention the other night, I really appreciate it. We’re watching so much of this stage 4 shifting going on (inside ourselves and with others of course) with no real guidelines to help people through it. I have had a couple of thoughts this week. One is that, really, nobody probably can help a person through stage four, except by acknowledgment of the reality of the anguish, being supportive and open-hearted. Peter’s question is so pertinent here, “To whom shall we go, Lord?” …something we have to answer for ourselves. I don’t think there are any perfect pieces of advice. Stage four is such a deeply personal experience that almost the only true resource is God Himself. We’d all love to have the answer, be able to truly advise someone at this stage, but maybe it’s not possible. Do you think? The other thought I had was that this stages of faith can almost literally be related to stages of a marriage as well. Really! Interesting to think about. Anyway, during a time when I was literally running through a part of my stage four (I’m sure I’m not done with it) I listened to a song by Beck called “Blue Moon.” It is the pleading we all cry out during stage 4.
    “I’m so tired of being alone
    These penitent walls are all I’ve known
    Songbird calling across the water
    Inside my silent asylum
    Oh don’t leave me on my own
    Left me standing all alone
    Cut me down to size so I can fit inside
    Lies that will divide us both in time
    See the turncoat on his knees
    A vagabond that no one sees
    When a moon is throwing shadows
    You can’t save the ones you’ve caught in battle.”

    The author offers no answers, but I am glad to know, for sure, that though He’s constantly cutting us down to size (pride etc) so we can fit inside (heaven), He’ll never leave us alone.

    Thanks Eugene, love the blog!

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