Developmental psychologist James Fowler from his book and research, was the first to assign development stages to faith. The theory suggests how faith develops in children. Fowler’s stages are best understood in predictable stages of human development. These stages overlap and there is often no clear distinct moment when a child passes from stage 1 to stage 2. This is one way to examine how faith develops in your child.

Four stages of faith development

STAGE 1: Faith development in infants and toddlers

Intuitive/Projective stage of faith development is when the earliest seeds of belief, trust and faith are formed. It is closely tied to the child’s view of the parent or parents. It forms in early childhood. During this stage, two things are all-important in a child’s life: The child’s parents or caregivers and their own feelings. Perceptions and feelings become the force that shapes a child’s faith outlook. The significant adults are key to helping a child have a positive view of God and faith because the child’s faith outlook is a reflection of the attitudes and feelings projected by significant adults about faith and God. The child feels good at church because mom and dad feel good at church. Indeed, Dr. Dobbins, suggests that a child’s God-view is a direct result of how the child perceives his or her parents.

STAGE 2: How faith develops in preschoolers and elementary children

The Mythic/Literal stage of faith development is a very literal, concrete stage of learning for a child. Children need concrete examples to understand and learn. That’s why teachers use counting blocks and visual aids to teach abstract concepts, such as addition and subtraction in math. Mythic implies that children assign meaning through stories. Stories make things seem more real (literal) to a child; they help him understand what it means to believe. That’s why the mainstay of children’s church and Sunday school for children revolves around Bible stories.

STAGE 3: How faith grows in early adolescence through high school

The culmination of this stage is when the child’s beliefs are synthesized into a coherent, organized framework. During late elementary and early adolescence, the child tends to adopt the beliefs, or conventions, of a larger community. They accept the beliefs and practices of their family and church as fact. This Synthetic/Conventional stage of faith development moves from a very literal view of faith to a social view. What friends, teachers and other respected community members believe becomes more important than the beliefs of parents. The child begins comparing the beliefs of the family with those outside the family.

It’s important to note that faith is not yet formulated or internalized at this point. Fowler called it “synthetic/conventional faith”1 because the child begins questioning, picking and choosing conventions and tossing some things out. The child is testing his beliefs against experience and synthesizing it into his or her own belief system.

This is the most challenging stage for parents and teens. Parents and leaders frustrate teens when they attempt to force teens to accept truth solely based on tradition. Throughout school teens have been taught the scientific method and to verify facts. When adults disallow questions and doubt, teens may rebel or leave the faith when they reach adulthood. Questioning in a safe environment is key to adopting one’s own faith.

STAGE 4: How faith matures through late adolescence into early adulthood

Fowler understood that youth must move through what he called “individuative/reflective” faith that included times of confusion, doubt and uncertainty about one’s faith. The research revealed that those who followed mom and dad’s faith instructions with complete compliance struggled when tough times came. However, those who synthesized and made it their own, were stronger in their faith even during crises.2

We must take the time to walk them through their honest questions. An example of this occurred one night as I was putting my son to bed, he asked, “If God can do anything (he had learned this in children’s church that week), then why doesn’t He make all the bad people be good? Why doesn’t He make all the sick people well?” His question was an honest one and will take years to answer, but could not be ignored or passed by with a simply nod of the head.”When youth have not made progress in this transition either through lack of assistance from their church or lack of personal desire, energy, or courage before leaving a supportive environment their faith often falters.3

[1] James W. Fowler, Stages of Faith (San Francisco CA: Harper Row, 1981), 2.
[2] Lim, Steve. “Leading Missional Ministry.” Class notes for Core 3 Course at the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, Springfield, MO, June 15-19, 2008.
[3] Steve Lim,Transforming Believers into Growing Disciples (Springfield, MO: AGTS, 2009), chapter 2, 10.