In the last forty years, out of all the books written in the field of spiritual development (or faith formation), few texts have exerted as great an influence as John H. Westerhoff III’s work, Will Our Children Have Faith? (Seabury, 1976). This seminal work, now in its third edition (2012), has been translated into six languages and studied by thousands of seminarians worldwide. Westerhoff’s concepts have guided many churches, parishes, religious conferences, seminaries, and universities in their Christian education programs.
During his illustrious career as a practical theologian in Christian education, Westerhoff offered two separate theories of faith development. His initial four-stage theory was later reduced to three stages in A Faithful Church (1981). In his original four-stage theory, Westerhoff describes faith as growing like the rings of tree, with each ring adding to and reshaping the tree while building on previous growth. The four proposed “tree” rings involved in the growth process include the following:
The core of a person’s faith is that which we experience from our early years of childhood (or through exposure and reorientation to a new faith system). We are beneficiaries who receive the faith of those who nurture, teach and indoctrinate us. At this stage we are very impressionable and moldable. It shapes us in a particular spiritual way, leaving an indelible impression on our faith core.
Second, comes Affiliative Faith.
As an individual gradually internalizes and exhibits the various beliefs, values, and religious practices of his/her family, social group or faith community, another ring is formed. During this stage, the person mimics the characteristics of the nurturing individuals and receives acceptance as a member of that particular faith tradition. This participation and self-identification may be formalized through a religious rite/ritual such as baptism, confirmation, placing church membership, or may simply be understood.
During this stage of faith development, the individual often experiences a time of testing as peer expectations may either converge with or diverge from that of the religious group. When traditions, practices and values are similar, there is generally a good match and the person will merge his or her identity with that of the church or faith community. Little room exists for personal differences or preferences due to the group’s persuasive power and emphasis on unity and conformity in theological beliefs (orthodoxy) and practice (orthopraxy).
The deep psychological need to feel accepted, to belong, to feel secure, and to have a sense of power and identity that are derived from group membership are important factors in forming one’s faith during this time-period. It is usually during adolescence, at the earliest, that this level of faith is demonstrated.
Third, there is Searching Faith.
The process of faith development reaches a pivotal juncture when an individual becomes aware that his or her personal beliefs or lived experience may no longer be consistent with the faith community, or when one starts questioning certain fundamental beliefs, doctrines or religious practices. This uncomfortable, albeit growthful, dynamic occurs as one becomes aware of the reality that one’s faith has been shaped by others perhaps more than by one’s own personal study and conviction. Therefore, a decision must be made whether or not to buy-in, live out, and accept responsibility for a personal interpretation of one’s faith rather than merely accepting the religious community’s interpretation. During this stage, there is often experimentation in which individuals explore viable alternatives or make commitments to other persons or causes that may be appear potentially promising in establishing greater personal conviction and active practice of one’s faith.
Fourth, and finally, there is Owned Faith.
This stage represents the culmination of the faith development process, and it finds fulfillment in the authentic expression of a personal faith. The person is no longer merely convinced, but they are truly converted to a particular religious system. By this point, the individual has reoriented his or her life, is fully invested, and now claims personal ownership of and responsibility for beliefs and practices. They are committed to not only believing, but also practicing and sharing their faith in a mature, faithful manner.
From my own limited perspective, five important factors seem to coalesce that influence a person’s faith development:
(1) Emotional climate (at home)
(2) Exposure to religious teaching (education/catechesis) and spiritual disciplines
(3) Examples set by parents, guardians and role-models
(4) Experience of God (i.e., lived experiences of answered prayer or disappointment)
(5) Engagement in a faith community and its mission
Spiritual formation is no doubt a challenging process. Let us fervently pray that our children will indeed develop a healthy and robust faith.
I'm proud to have contributed a chapter to a recent book on the general topic of spiritual formation entitled, Owning Faith: Reimagining the Role of Church and Family in the Faith Journey of Teenagers. The work is edited by Ron Bruner and Dudley Chancey, and it was published by Leafwood Publishers (2017).
The book is "a road map for parents and other adults who want to walk alongside youth on their spiritual journey and experience the amazing ways God empowers teens and adults to shape each other spiritually." My particular chapter is entitled, "Adoptive Parenting: Coming to Understand the Heart of God."
The book is available here on Amazon!