Faith Development Theory: Santa Claus and Jesus

Posted: August 17, 2010 in faith development, Fowler

“If everything has been created or made by someone else, doesn’t that mean God had to have been created by someone else?”

 This question did not come from one of my theology classes in college. It didn’t happen in a conversation with an atheist. It didn’t even come from anyone over the age of 14. In fact, it came from a 6th grade boy named Levi two weeks ago during one of our middle school services.

 Had I been new to middle school ministry, I might have been shocked by his inquisitive curiosity. However, after years of working with this age group, I have come to expect this type of question as the norm instead of the exception. There is a unique dynamic that affects the early adolescent’s view of faith and Christianity. Today we are going to tackle the topic of faith development in middle schoolers and talk through some really insightful research that shapes our understanding of how our kids develop faith at this age.

 If you ever believed in Santa Claus, I assume there was a point in your life when you came to the realization that it was all make-believe. (If you never experienced that point, well, that’ll have to wait for another blog someday!). You had been told stories of this big, jolly guy who flew around the world every Christmas and freely gave presents to all the good boys and girls. Your mind danced with excitement as you thought about the kinds of gifts you might get at the next Christmas. But then your older sibling spoiled it all one day when she told you that he wasn’t real and there was no such thing as a Santa Claus.

Now I never believed in Santa Claus myself, but I imagine that it was a difficult day when you found out that it was all make-believe. You realized that the rest of the world and all the adults in your life knew it wasn’t true, and you were just now getting to know the truth. You were introduced to what the convention of people believe (and you were probably anxious to spoil the myth for your own younger siblings when the time was right, too!). The story was no longer plausible as an actual belief system; your childhood worldview was instantly changed.

 Middle school students go through a similar experience as they enter puberty. They’ve been told numerous stories about some guy named Jesus and the people in the Bible who claimed to follow Him. But as their brains begin to grasp more abstract concepts of faith, the stories are no longer sufficient for them to base their faith on. They’re interested in finding out what the convention of people really believe about God. The great thing for us is that the story of Jesus Christ is not a myth, and we really can commit our lives to following Him!

 James Fowler is a researcher who developed a stage-theory of faith development. Building off of other researchers like Piaget, Erikson, and Kohlberg, Fowler identified six stages a person will go through as they develop a personal faith. Not every person will successfully advance to the next stage unless certain internal criteria are met, but there are certain elements of his research that have giant implications for our ministry with middle school students. Here is a brief synopsis of the stages:

  1. Primal or Undifferentiated Faith (ages 0-3)
    • The child develops faith based on the trust he experiences with his caregivers. “When I cry, does my caregiver come and comfort me?”
  2. Intuitive/Projective Faith (ages 3-7)
    • Imagination begins to develop and the child is able to make constant discoveries about his world and experience.
  3. Mythic/Literal Faith (ages 7-11)
    • Children have a hard time differentiating between real and make-believe.
    • Reliance on stories and authority figures for understanding
  4. Synthetic-Conventional Faith (ages 12-18)
    • Adolescents look to what the popular convention of people believe
    • Highly relational stage; teens will form beliefs based upon what respected role models believe
    • There is a danger in that students will not wrestle as much internally with their beliefs as long as their peers and respected adults have the same beliefs.
  5. Individuative/Reflective Faith (ages 18-30)
    • Person begins to internalize and create a personal belief system
    • The question “Why?” is constantly internally asked by the person about the unique beliefs in his worldview.
  6. Conjunctive Faith (ages 30-40)
    • Paradox is accepted as an essential part of truth.
    • “Truth is seen as more complex, ambiguous, and multidimensioned in this stage” (Yount 126).
  7. Universalizing Faith (ages 40+)
    • “There is an emptying of self, a giving up of power in response to the radical love of God” (Yount 127).

The ages listed next to each stage are general ages that the shift happens. Obviously there is no hard line that cuts off a person from moving to the next stage. And, as mentioned before, not every person will advance to the next stage of faith. Often adults are stuck in the stage of Synthetic-Conventional Faith because they have never challenged their internally held beliefs.

For our purposes we will focus on the Synthetic-Conventional Faith stage because this is primarily the stage our middle school students are moving into. It is not a coincidence that the shift happens at the time of puberty either. With the development of higher cognitive abilities, students are wrestling with the faith that they supposedly commit themselves to.

The word conventional refers to the idea that students will look for what the “convention” of people believe and follow. In other words, their social relationships with others will shape their faith development. Fowler says this of Synthetic-Conventional Faith:

…[Synthetic-Conventional Faith] results in people becoming temporarily or permanently dependent upon “significant others” for the construction and maintenance of their sense of identity, and for sanctioning the beliefs, values, and action guidelines by which they shape a way of moving into and taking hold of life. Stage 3 [synthetic-conventional faith] is a “conformist” stage in the sense that it is acutely tuned to the expectations and judgments of others…(60-61).

 Middle school youth workers and parents must recognize the most powerful influencer of a student’s faith development: relationships. In her book Teenage Girls, Ginny Olson notes that students will care more about who will be at a youth event than about what is going on at the event (205). Early adolescents like having their identity and faith affirmed by both peers and adults. 

 Additionally, students are eager to learn what the convention of Christians believe about certain issues. This is exactly why Levi, the student mentioned at the beginning of this blog, asked that particular question. He’s wrestling with potential inconsistencies so that he can better understand what Christians believe. I made sure to follow up with Levi during that week, and we had a stimulating conversation about deep theological questions that scholars still wrestle with today!

This is why I tell our volunteers that as we teach students in small groups and large group settings, we must constantly define our terms. Sometimes we use words like worship, fellowship, baptism, etc., as if our students know exactly what we mean. However, if we understand the stages of faith development, we’ll remember that they are in dire need of explanation of our beliefs.

This Sunday we are launching our fall series called, “Back to the Basics.” We are starting with the question, “Why Church?” We’ll be asking hard questions such as, “why do we go to church, what’s the point, what is the purpose behind gathering together every week?” The whole idea behind this is that students want to understand this. They want to know why we do the things we do.

This is also why we have the students learn in community with other students and caring adults. The relationships they experience with other students and with adult role models will affirm their Christian beliefs and give them positive feedback. It is absolutely critical for students in the Synthetic-Conventional stage of faith to have Christian friends and role models inside and outside their families.

If you really think about it, Jesus had a very relational approach to ministry too. He talked individually with the disciples and affirmed their beliefs (and rebuked their mis-guided beliefs when necessary). He didn’t just tell them what to believe; he explained why they should believe it. He pointed to the Old Testament to show why they could believe that he was the Messiah. He entered into relationship and shared in their suffering to affirm their beliefs.

My challenge to you is two-fold. First, make sure YOU know why you believe what you believe. Wrestle with difficult issues. Dive into the Word to discover the biblical basis for your beliefs. Secondly, ask the middle school students under your influence tough questions about why they believe certain things. Get them thinking. Ask questions like, “Why do you think we use music to worship on Sundays,” or, “What does the Bible say about other religions? Could they be true too?” Always point them to the Bible to discover truth.

How have you seen your students progress through the stages of faith? Do they seem hung up in one of the stages? Are they progressing? Where do you think YOU are on the stages of faith? Can you look back on certain moments in your faith journey and see how and why you progressed to the next stage?

Here are some of the sources used in this blog:

Yount, William R. Created to Learn. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1996. Print.

Olson, Ginny. Teenage Girls: Exploring Issues Adolescent Girls Face and Strategies to Help Them. Grand Rapids: Zondervan/Youth Specialties, 2006. Print.

Fowler, Jim. “Life/Faith Patterns: Structures of Trust & Loyalty.” Life Maps: Conversations on the Journey of Faith. Ed. Jerome Berryman. Waco: Word, 1978. Print.


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