Just what do we mean by….faith

Lately, I have had a lot of time and motivation to think about the meaning of the word “faith”…in addition to my studies last year about faith development and the paper I’m trying to gear up to write,  I had a chance to facilitate our summer Sunday school class, leading them through a discussion of that chapter in Marcus Borg’s Speaking Christian, not to mention other more personal reasons to continue my reflections.  It seems to be the word of the moment .

So, in preparation for my upcoming paper on the topic of faith development and adult learning styles, I pulled out some of the things I wrote last spring in preparation to write again.  And I thought that it might be interesting to share these thoughts about just what we mean when we refer to “mature faith”….mature in this instance certainly doesn’t have anything to do with chronological age.  But the idea of faith development and the process by wevecomethisfarwhich our understanding of Christian formation hurt or help that development seems to me to be crucial for all people of faith these days (there is that word again)…it is crucial in our own lives, in the lives of those around us, in the institutions we call church, and in the wider human society (even among those who care not one wit for the church as we know and love it).

And so I share with you some thoughts on the topic…please forgive the recycling;  it is, after all, summer…

Earlier, I used the term “mature faith”.   Yes, you all know me well and you know that most of my time these days is spent with my nose in a book.  But one of the most interesting and useful things I have learned this year is the concept that human seekers of the divine grow in identifiable patterns of faith development.  While presented as a formula, these categories are of course neither rigid nor static; any one of us can hop from category to category in a minute.  But they do offer a useful construct for looking at our own faith development and the development of those we serve.  This evaluative structure, taken from the book Will Our Children Have Faith (1976), by John Westerhoff, gives us a good jumping off place to look at ourselves and to see what we may need to provide for our congregation.  Take a minute, and honestly answer for yourself the question:  where do I sit most days in this schema?

  • Experienced Faith:  This kind of faith relationship is characterized by what we call the “theology of invitation”;  people desire to feel welcomed;  they are seeking an experience of belonging and acceptance; they learn by watching and copying, by experiencing new things and reacting;
  • Affiliative Faith:  This type of faith experience sees the seeker embrace the “theology of evangelism”; the desire to serve comes to the forefront but it is often most influenced by the social aspects of service;  people experiencing this type of faith want to belong but on a more personal level; they seek a community with a sense of authority and self-awareness, one that has a story to tell and tells it well and consistently;
  • Searching Faith:  This is in many ways the most difficult stage of faith development and the one where we have the greatest opportunity to lose members of our community;  a searching faith is characterized by what can be called a “theology of identity”;  it is at this stage that the seeker finds an ever deepening need to question and spend time in study that takes them deeper into their faith;  there is a near-adolescent need to push against the known in an attempt to define the self-identity faith profile;  this is accompanied by  an intensified need to commit time and energy to persons and causes outside oneself, all the while having an increased need for one-on-one spiritual guidance; and finally
  • Owned Faith:  In most schemas, owned faith is the goal, the faith place from which as a community you should choose your leaders.  It is defined by what is called a “a theology of engagement”; the person with owned faith engages everywhere – they engage by talking about their faith, by supporting others on their faith journey, and by working with the world to bring about the Kingdom of God in any way possible.  The person experiencing owned faith needs opportunities to witness in word and deed, opportunities to minister and serve; the chance to help support and sustain others.  I would summarize owned faith as the faith that is ready to give back, a faith that has worked to heal and transform the seeker who now has something to give freely to those around them.

A few notes about these categories: first, the needs outlined for each category are cumulative (those of us who might self-classify as sitting mostly in the “searching faith” category still need to have our “Experienced Faith” and “Affiliative Faith” needs met); and second, as I already said, the categories are neither rigid nor sequential (I can experience deep owned faith on Tuesday and find myself back in Experienced Faith on Wednesday morning).

Owned faith, or a mature faith, is the goal of any developmental schema.  And while the outer manifestations are ones of testimony about faith and service to others, what does that mature faith look like in the individual?  I haven’t seen anything about that on any of these charts, but I think at this point in my life I know it when I experience it and when I meet it in another person.  I see mature faith not just in the actions of a person, but in their personal qualities.  For example, what is their understanding of community – is a community a group that is here to service them and their needs, or is it a group of people with whom you are in partnership for the purpose of doing something together and supporting and serving each other?  How flexible is this person, how do they cope with adversity, how do they handle it when the needs of the community conflict with their own personal desires and needs?  How do they bring their gifts to the community, with expectation of return or glory, or just because the community needs them?  Do they desire the spotlight or are they simply happy to serve?  Do they need to control their environment or can they go with whatever is presented?  Do they express empathy and forgiveness?  Do they show a continued desire to go deeper in their own faith experience and to help others do the same?  Are they willing to meet each seeker where they are in their own journey and embrace that journey, or do they need everyone to be just like them, at the same stage as they are, with the same needs and questions as they have?

I think from this list, you can see what I mean by mature faith.  And I am pretty confident in saying that each of us around this table has at least the occasional day when we could claim an owned sense of faith. I would invite each and every one of us to take a serious moment and think about our experience of faith – use whatever means you prefer to explore these categories in depth and then think about your spiritual gifts.  And then ask yourself a two part question:  first, what do I need to continue my faith journey and second, what can I bring that will help others along their own path.

We are, after all, Baptist, and we therefore do believe in the Baptist distinctive of soul competency –the God-given freedom and ability of persons to know and respond to God’s call.  I believe it is our highest calling.  The question is now — what is our next step?

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