Stuck at Stage One, Staying at Stage Two

I was teaching a class of about 30 lay pastors. On the second day, one raised his hand and asked whether you could smoke and still be a Christian. I stopped what we were doing and led a long discussion on being saved by grace, not by works that you do or don’t do. The next day I asked this same individual, “So can you smoke and still be a Christian?” His answer? No, that’s not possible.

What was that all about? Was I such a bad teacher? I can understand better now after working with insights from developmental psychologist James Fowler. He distinguishes stages of faith development. The earliest stage is that of a small child who cannot distinguish the heavenly Father from a physical father. Another typical example is of school kids whose approach to life revolves around fairness. Let’s call this stage one: merit-based faith. This is where that lay pastor was stuck.

The next stage is recognized by mainline churches as confirmed faith: “I believe what my church teaches.” In earlier centuries most church members remained at this stage of confirmed faith because they ran into few challenges. Let’s call this stage two: confirmed faith.

We now live in a world where youth are overwhelmed with alternatives, especially in high school and college. We need now to focus on stage three: convicted faith. With the help of supportive pastors and campus Christian organizations, some mainline young adults do reach that new stage and come back to church life. Mainline churches that want to do well in this new culture will have to get better at helping youth reach this third stage. They should be asking, “How do we get beyond confirmed faith?”

Martin Luther himself offered a three-stage model that is very useful today. It appeared as an illustration in a sermon preached in 1521. Using the analogy of a sanctuary, he described a church yard conscience, concentrated on getting the rules of church life right. A nave (pew section) conscience characterizes those who are living faithfully but out of guilt with no joy. Progressing forward, those who are living with a heart changed by the Spirit have a chancel conscience. “Conscience” in classical theology describes what I call motivation.

Here is Luther’s ideal third stage: “When the Spirit comes, he makes a pure, free, cheerful, glad and loving heart—a conscience made righteous by grace, seeking no reward, fearing no punishment, doing everything with joy.” Getting to this kind of glad and loving heart takes the Spirit’s work. It is not a human achievement.

I propose this four-stage understanding of the faith-based relationship with God:

Stage One – Merit-based Faith
Stage Two – Confirmed Faith
Stage Three – Convicted Faith
Stage Four – Close-to-God Faith

With Luther, I believe that all those who confess Christ as Savior will have eternal salvation, whatever the stage of their personal faith. Jesus taught that unless you receive the kingdom as a child you will not enter it. The fourth stage is what the Apostle Paul described when he urged the Thessalonians to “be joyful always; pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances.”

A reasonable goal for a church pastor is to help participants move from Stage Two: Confirmed Faith at least to Stage Three: Convicted Faith. Congregations that stay at mostly Confirmed Faith are not going to do well in this new American culture we face. Some church leaders may want to take on the challenge of guiding believers further into the transformed life of Stage Four: Close-to-God Faith. One observation in stage theory is that individuals usually cannot envision anything beyond the stage ahead of them. Believers at stage two usually are not very interested in experiencing Close-to-God Faith.

Stages Three and Four are an opportunity, not a program. They are available only through the work of the Spirit as he builds individual Christ-centered relationships with other believers. Reaching Convicted Faith brings blessed assurance of who you are in this conflicted culture. Stage Four of living Close to God brings the life-affirming special blessings of the fruit the Spirit produces: more love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Who would not want such abundant living here and how?

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