Faith development and young people (1)

Understanding faith development in young people a little bit more, might help us realise how faith and the community in which faith is discovered is a process of development. For those of you reading this who havent come across it could provoke further thought in terms of youth ministry that you are delivering. So, What is Faith development and why is it important?   Well,  there are two popular thoughts around young people and how they develop in their faith adherance, and the studies of them are from children and young people who have been brought up within the culture of a faith, usually Christianity, and usually in a western context. (so as you can see there may be limtations already)

The two are Westerhoffs, and Fowlers. Which can be read along with a few others in brief Here: Faith development in People

From the above link here is Westerhoffs:

Westerhoff presented two separate theories of faith development in his writings. The first, a four-stage theory, was printed in his exceptional volume entitled Will our Children Have Faith? (1976) and was later reduced to three stages in A Faithful Church (1981). The following is his original four-stage theory. According to Westerhoff: Faith grows like the rings of a tree, with each ring adding to and changing the tree somewhat, yet building on that which has grown before. Therefore Westerhoff offers a tree analogy and proposes four rings which are involved in the growth process.

1. Experienced Faith
At the core is the faith which we experience from our earliest years either in life or, if one has a major reorientation in his or her beliefs, in a new faith system. We receive the faith that is important to those who nurture us. The way it molds and influences their lives makes an indelible impression on us, creating the core of our faith . . .This level of faith is usually associated with the impressionable periods of life when a person is dependent on others, such as during early childhood.

2. Affiliative Faith
As one person gradually displays the beliefs, values, and practices of one’s family, group, or church, there is another ring formed. The individual takes on the characteristics of the nurturing persons and becomes identified as an accepted partner, one who is part of the faith tradition. Such participation may be formalized as in membership, a rite of baptism or confirmation, or may simply be understood, as might be the case with regular participants who do not join a church. This phase of a person’s growth is recognized as a time of testing. It is a matching of the person with peer expectations. Where traditions, values, and practices are similar, there usually is a good match and the individual merges his or her identity with that of the body. There is little room for personal differences dud to a strong emphasis on unity and conformity in belief and practice . . .The concerns for belonging, for security, and for a sense of power (and identity) that come from group membership are the key drives in forming one’s faith concept during this period. This level of faith is expressed, at the earliest, during adolescent years.

3. Searching Faith
Faith development reaches a crucial junction when one becomes aware that personal beliefs or experience may no longer be exactly the same as those of the group, or when a person begins to question some of the commonly held beliefs or practices. This occurs as one naturally recognizes that his or her faith is formed more by others (parents, peers, congregation, etc.) than by personal conviction. The decision must be faced whether or not to develop, express, and accept responsibility for a personal interpretation of one’s religion as over against accepting that which may be viewed as a group’s interpretation. Often there is experimentation in which persons try out alternatives or commit themselves to persons or causes which promise help in establishing personal conviction and active practice of one’s faith.

4. Owned Faith
The culmination of the faith development process finds expression in a personal, owned faith. This best could be described as a conversion experience, in which a person has reoriented his or her life and now claims personal ownership of and responsibility for beliefs and practices . . .Characteristics of this phase include close attention to practicing one’s faith as well as believing it . . .This level of faith, according to Westerhoff, is God’s intention for everyone; we all are called to reach our highest potential.

Source: Westerhoff, John H. III. Will our Children Have Faith? New York: Seabury Press, 1976.

Our lives as people of faith can best be understood as a pilgrimage that moves slowly and gradually through ever-expanding expressions.

1. Affiliative Faith
The beginning, typical of children through the high-school years, I have characterized as affiliative faith . . .it comes through feelings or sensory experiences in the form of interactions with others and our world. The foundations of faith are found in experiences in which we learn to trust other people, ourselves, and our world, not because we are told we are of worth and the world is trustworthy, but because we experience it as such . . .our actions with our children influence their perceptions and hence their faith much more than the words we speak. Our actions frame what our children will experience . . .Affiliative faith looks to the community and its tradition as its source for authority. We depend on significant others for the stories that explain our lives and how our people live. Belonging to a community is very important in order to fulfill our need to be wanted and accepted.

2. Searching Faith
Begins during high-school years and extends through early adulthood. It is characterized by questioning, critical judgement, and experimentation. It comes in the form of doubt and the struggle to frame philosophical formulations. Through a personal search for truth, we move from dependence on others’ understandings to autonomy and independence. To find a faith of our own, we need to doubt, question, and test what has been handled down to us.

3. Mature Faith
. . .which integrates the seeming contradiction of affiliative and searching faith. Possible for adults who have passed through the earlier stages, mature faith begins in middle adulthood and develops until death. In this final stage we are governed by neither the authority of the community nor our own intellectual authority, but by personal union with God through free acts of the will. Interdependence integrates the dependence of affiliative faith and the independence of searching faith. Belonging is still important, but people with mature faith are secure enough in their convictions to challenge the community when conscience dictates . . .We all grow by being with others, who affirm where we are and share with us lives of more expanded faith. So it is that we adults need to concerned first of all about our own growth, and we need always to remember that even mature faith has at its core a childlike faith.

Source: The chapter entitled “A Journey Together in Faith” in John H. Westerhoff’s Bringing Up Children in the Christian Faith. Minneapolis: Winston Press, Inc., 1980.

And then Fowlers, from the same source is Here:


1. Primal Faith (infancy)
This first stage is a prelanguage disposition (a total emotional orientation of trust offsetting mistrust) and take form in the mutuality of one’s relationships with parents and others. This rudimentary faith enables us to overcome or offset the anxiety resulting from the separations that occur during infant development . . .It forms the basic rituals of care and interchange and mutuality. And, although it does not determine the course of our later faith, it lays the foundation on which later faith will build or that will have to be rebuilt in later faith.

2. Intuitive-Projective Faith (early childhood)
Here imagination, stimulated by stories, gestures, and symbols and not yet controlled by logical thinking, combines with perception and feelings to create long-lasting faith images. These images represent both the protective and the threatening powers surrounding one’s life. This stage corresponds with the awakening of moral emotions and standards in the second year of life. It corresponds as well with the awareness of taboos and the sacred and with the struggle for a balance of autonomy and will with shame and construction in the child’s forming self. Representations of God take conscious form in this period and draw, for good or will, on children’s experiences of their parents or other adults to whom they are emotionally attached in the first years of life.

3. Mythic-Literal Faith (elementary-school years through early adolescence)
Here concrete operational thinking–the developing ability to think logically–emerges to help us order the world with categories of causality, space, time, and number. We can now sort out the real from the make-believe, the actual from fantasy. We can enter into the perspectives of others, and we become capable of capturing life and meanings in narrative and stories.

4. Synthetic-Conventional Faith (middle adolescence)
The emergence of formal operational thinking opens the way for reliance upon abstract ideas and concepts for making sense of one’s world. The person can now reflect upon past experiences and search them for meaning and pattern. At the same time, concerns about one’s personal future–one’s identity, one’s work, career, or vocation–and one’s personal relationships become important. These new cognitive abilities make possible mutual interpersonal perspective taking. Here in friendship or the first intimacy of “puppy love” young persons begin to be aware of the mirroring of self provided by the responses of persons whose feelings about them matter . . .These newly personal relations with significant others correlate with a hunger for a personal relation to God in which we feel ourselves to be known and loved in deep and comprehensive ways.

5. Individuative-Reflective Faith (presumably, young adulthood)
One the one hand, to move into the Individuative-Reflective stage, we have to question, examine, and reclaim the values and beliefs that we have formed to that point in our lives. They become explicit [consciously chosen] commitments rather than tacit [unexamined] commitments . . .now one maintains that commitment and identity by choice and explicit assent rather than by unconscious formation and tacit commitment . . .By the time we are adolescents, we have a number of different characters we play in the drama of our lives. The task of the Individuative stage is to put in place an “executive ego”–the “I” who manages and “has” all these roles and relations yet is not fully expressed in any one of them. It means taking charge of one’s life in a new way. It means claiming a new quality of reflective autonomy and responsibility.

6. Conjunctive Faith (mid-life or beyond)
This stage involves the embrace and integration of opposites or polarities in one’s life. . .Here symbol and story, metaphor and myth, both from our own traditions and from others, seem to be newly appreciated . . .Having looked critically at traditions and translated their meanings into conceptual understandings, one experiences a hunger for a deeper relationship to the reality that symbols mediate . . .In this stage it becomes important to let biblical narrative draw us into it and let it read our lives, reforming and shaping them, rather than our reading and forming the meanings of the text.

7. Universalizing Faith
Beyond paradox and polarities, persons in the Universalizing stage are grounded in a oneness with the power of being or God. Their visions and commitments seem to free them for a passionate yet detached spending of the self in love. Such persons are devoted to overcoming division, oppression, and violence, and live in effective anticipatory response to an inbreaking commonwealth of love and justice, the reality of an inbreaking kingdom of God.

Source: James Fowler, Weaving the New Creation (New York: Harper Collins, 1991), 102-15.


Now the good thing about both of these theories for Youth Ministry in the church is that they provide a clue as to what is going on the lives of young people for whom they have been part of the culture of the church for a while, and how their faith it is said is in need of different focusses as it in itself develops. The Sad thing is when our approaches as church, and focusses of actions seem not to take into account the faith conflict being understood in the life of the young person, as they are making sense of their world and faith community, identity, peers and sexuality all at the same time. Often trying to own a faith and challenge it, with a church that wants control, and limits, belittles or is fearful of the critical questions.

Maybe it is full of people who have been too afraid of asking questions, since the last time Steve Chalke or Rob Bell did, look what happened to them.

But is there any wonder if exploring the edge of faith isnt accepted as part of the conversation with young people, if doubt is seen as wrong or to be avoided, and certainty and adherance the only path to follow. Young people might even be wanting to ask the questions of the realities of youth ministry- and not just the actions of the local church – and is there the space for them to do this, and stay part of a community that continues to walk with them.

If young people want to be critical where do they go? or more to the point, if they are going to want to ask questions how can they stay and be accepted?



The implications of the knowledge of faith development theory in Youth Ministry is huge. But aside from presenting all this information to you im not that interested. Though like everything the pathway through is not linear,  there may be severities, and theories are not always useful, each young person may travel at different points and speeds, expressing them in a number of ways, space might be important to reflect on things with a young person.

Youth Ministry need not reform because of these, but what might it mean for a one size fits all approach to group work, or even age groups in festivals. Will every 12-18 year old interact with the large worship event at soul survivor in the same way? not because of faith tradition, but faith development stage – what of those who stand and find more questions of God in the space than desires to be carried away with the experiences and worship offered. Can that be a faithful act too? Because its part of a natural process, and even God given to think about such things in a way, and emerge with something that might be considered deeper, owned and for the long haul, yes deeper than singing in a large group of people.

If this is the introduction, then the question i have is based upon the reality that as i realised a few months ago, i haven’t worked vocationally with christian young people in a church cultural setting for over 10 years- and so my question is – what happens to faith development for young people who find the initial awakening of faith at an age such as 12, or 15?

What happens to faith development then?

When they find faith new – in a personal stage of critical thinking? and how might their faith development then be undertaken as they have an infant faith but teenage body, and critical mind?  When its fresh?  Thats for the second part.  Your thoughts welcome, as what are the impacts of faith development in missional work with young people?



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