While Scripture does not lay out a comprehensive model for stages on the journey of discipleship, several passages clearly teach that Christians occupy varying levels of spiritual maturity:

  • Hebrews 5:11-:61
    • Infants who cannot handle solid food
    • The mature, trained in discerning good and evil
  • 1 Corinthians 2:14-3:4
    • Natural men who are prone to jealousy and strife
    • Spiritual men who appraise all things
  • Ephesians 4:12-16
    • Children tossed by every wind of doctrine
    • Adults united in faith and knowing the Son of God
  • 1 John 2:12-14
    • “Children”, “young men”, and “fathers”

The model I use in my spiritual formation ministry is based on a metaphor of four seasons in the life of faith. It is derived from the excellent work of Hagberg and Guelich in The Critical Journey as well as Fowler’s research in Stages of Faith.

Spring: Awareness of God

The first movement in the life of faith is accepting the reality of God in our lives. This can occur as a child or as an adult. This acceptance is prompted by:

  • A sense of awe (perhaps through the natural world), or
  • A sense of need (perhaps through a longing for greater meaning in life).

People can get stuck in a season, unable to move on to the next stage until they are unblocked. In the case of spring, that stalled behaviour is inadequacy:

  • Feeling that God (and others) have expectations of us that we cannot measure up to.
  • Seeing ourselves as wrong and weak, while others are right and strong.

In order to move on to the next stage, a number of key elements are necessary:

  • Deciding to follow this God of whom you have become aware
  • Joining a supportive group where we feel like we belong
  • Discovering a set of ideas, a group of people, or a strong leader who can answer our questions

Summer: Learning and Belonging

Once you have joined a community and found a source of answers for you questions, the Summer stage begins. This is a time of learning and belonging:

  • You learn about this God of whom you have recently become aware, and what it means to follow Him
  • You also join in the life of a faith community, participating in its activities and forming relationships with its members

This season is marked by a sense of security that is the result of the answers being provided by the leader, cause or belief system you have found.

There are a number of ways people can become stalled in this stage, which may explain why the majority of people in churches are at this level:

  • Legalism and moralism, including the conviction that everyone else should follow the religious or moral rules by which you live as a faithful disciple
  • This rigid understanding of right and wrong leads to an obsession with punishing offenders; whether liberal or conservative, the group’s teachings and codes of conduct must be adhered to on pain of alienation
  • Tribalism: an “us-against-them” attitude, where our group is the only right one
    • “We must not associate with those who do not believe/act as we do”
  • Fear and uncertainty cause some to cling to their path rigidly in a search for reassurance
  • Instability: Rather than being too tightly bound to a particular group, some are stalled by never bonding with a group, continually moving from one group to another looking for the perfect community

Key to moving on to the next stage is:

  • Coming to see oneself as a contributor, not just a consumer
  • Recognizing and accepting one’s own gifts and passions
  • A willingness to take the risks inherent in assuming some responsibility

Fall: The Life of Service

As all farmers know, fall is the season of hard work and harvest. Characteristics of life in this stage include:

  • God has empowered us to engage in meaningful work for His Kingdom
  • We feel special and able to make our own unique contribution to others
  • We are attracted to the challenges, strengthening of our faith and positive recognition that accompany taking on responsibility.

There are two related ways of becoming stalled at this stage:

  • Overly zealous
    • We are so passionate about our ministry that we cannot rest until others feel just as strongly about it
  • Performance orientation: Viewing our service as the most important part of our lives and identity. This leads to:
    • Burn-out – “Things haven’t turned out the way I expected” / “I can’t say ‘no’”
    • Pride – “I am indispensable and invincible”
    • Wearing masks – “I am the leader and everything is OK!” You cannot look weak because you would lose control or lose the accolades to which you have become addicted.

Many models of discipleship end at this stage (i.e. convert, learner, discipler). This is a serious mistake for two reasons. First, it ignores the next season, so people don’t know to expect it. Second, it portrays discipleship as “done” once you are serving in ministry, whereas in reality it is a lifelong affair.

Writers from across the history of the church have recognized that there is another season of faith: the winter.  Key to moving on to this next stage is:

  • Some sort of faith crisis, with the accompanying loss of certainty and the feeling of being abandoned by God
  • The willingness to let go of success, roll up your sleeves and enter into the mess of the next season

Winter: The Dark Night

The characteristics of life in winter:

  • Uncertainty
  • Questioning
  • Desire for greater integrity with God

In short, this season looks more like losing  your faith than growing in it. It arises for two reasons. First, the image of God we discovered in the spring and developed in the summer is inadequate. It has holes and errors, and has as much to do with our culture and denominational background as what the Bible actually teaches. Eventually, this God-shaped image we’ve been carrying around in our heads starts to crumble under the pressure of mismatches with reality. Second, the deep wounds we carried with us into the life of faith but never dealt with can no longer be ignored. So God calls us out of our productive life of ministry and into the dark night where He can do some heart-surgery.

Not surprisingly, people can get stalled in this stage in a number of ways:

  • Trapped in a never-ending process of questioning and self-examination
  • We cannot connect fully with others for fear of being “found out”, so we isolate ourselves.
  • We even become isolated from ourselves, being unable to reach inside to do the necessary work of healing – we cannot feel because feeling would be too painful.
  • Some try to retreat to an earlier season to avoid this pain
  • Shutting God out completely, and walking away from faith

To leave the Dark Night, Hagberg and Guelich teach that one must surmount an obstacle known as “The Wall.” The exact shape of the Wall differs for everyone because of varying needs for inner healing, but it has to do with breaking through the barriers that we have built between ourselves and God. For example:

  • Autonomy (proud of not needing others) – Must recognize that independent self-reliance is idolatry
  • Self-deprecation (putting oneself down) – Must come to a deep sense of God’s unconditional love and acceptance
  • Painful memories of family or the church – Must recognize that these representations for God are not God Himself
  • Intellectualism – Must give up their intellectual arrogance and accept ambiguity
  • Perfectionism – Must let go of their spiritual pride and need to appear “all together”

A stalled behaviour at The Wall is to avoid the hard work of disassembling it stone by stone by using our favorite method: scale it, dig under it, dance around it, jump over it, or drill through it. We see an example of this in the film A Beautiful Mind, about John Nash, a brilliant mathematician who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia:

  • Dr. Rosen: You can’t reason your way out of this!
  • Nash: Why not? Why can’t I?
  • Dr. Rosen: Because your mind is where the problem is in the first place!

The Return to Spring

Of course, seasons are cyclical. This winter paves the way for a new spring – a new awareness of God, a deeper recognition of who He really is. This recognition calls for a new period of learning (or rather re-learning) to follow Him and to be with others. This new summer then ushers in a new fall, where one reaches out again – only this time our service is empowered with a new sense of God and ourselves. Since in this life our image of God will never be without defect, and some dysfunctions and vices can survive the purging of  the first winter, further dark winters are needed. They might lack the intensity and duration of the first one, but the cycle of spiritual growth will never be completely free of this cleansing season. The seasons don’t look the same as the first time around – for instance, the stalled behaviours are not the same nor as likely – but the dynamics are comparable.

Application: Offer the Right Help at the Right Time

The key take-away for practitioners of spiritual formation is to be aware that people are in different places on the cycle and need different kinds of help. Don’t adopt a one-size-fits-all-approach. Remember that discipleship is always helpful, but necessary for people in four life situations: new believers, struggling believers, believers on the cusp of a major life decision, and strong believers.

Since the winter is the least understood season, here are some specific ways we can help people passing through this difficult season:

  • De-stigmatize – Teach about the Dark Night and let people know that this is an essential, if uncomfortable, part of the journey. This reduces self-condemnation both for those in it as well as judgement in those witnessing it. Actively make lament and the asking of hard questions important parts of community life.
  • Patience – Don’t rush them through it. This is hard because it is painful to accompany those in pain, but we must give them the space to do the inner soul work this season calls for.
  • Close ranks – They will seek to isolate themselves; try not to let them. The Puritans’ recommended that people in the dark night seek out the company of “cheerful Christians”, so proactively make yourself available to them. However, remember that this may look more like getting together one-on-one instead of inviting them to formal activities.
  • Encourage – Literally, “put courage into them”. One can run out of willingness to keep up the hard inner work. Help them not to fall into despair and gently encourage them to keep at it.

Learning More

If your appetite was whetted, check out the books I mentioned above, or try these: