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Ministry, Mission & Outreach Sample Resource

 Worship and Personal Growth in Christ

Personal growth in Christ may involve passage through a series of stages of faith, as the worshiper moves from a faith transmitted by his or her worship community, through a faith forged in the crucible of personal questioning and struggle, to a mature faith which is constantly expanding in the integration of profession and life. Along the pilgrimage of faith, appropriate rites can mark the passage from one stage to another. It is important to note, however, that these stages are also styles of faith, which may characterize the life of the worshiper throughout his or her lifetime.

Faith is a verb, a way of behaving that involves knowing, being, and willing. It is a deeply personal and dynamic act, a centered act of personality encompassing our hearts, minds, and wills, according to our growth and development. While each person’s faith has its own unique characteristics, generalizations concerning the pilgrimage of faith can be described in terms of style.

We do not give a child faith. A child has faith at birth. While the content of our faith is acquired through our interactions with other faithful people, a person’s faith can expand, that is, become more complex. Expanded faith is not greater faith; and, therefore, one’s style of faith is not to be judged. The style of our faith is not directly related to our age. That is, faith expands only if a proper environment exists. If this environment does not exist, faith ceases to expand until the proper environment is established.

Faith’s expansion is slow and gradual, moving systematically over time to acquire additional characteristics. It cannot be speeded up beyond its normal rate of growth nor can characteristics of its various styles be avoided or passed over. The expansion of faith into new styles does not eliminate the faith needs of previous styles of faith. Rather, as it expands, it only becomes more complex. If, therefore, the needs of early styles of faith are denied or neglected, a person will strive to meet those needs until all are satisfied.

From a Christian perspective, God’s grace is freely given to all. Though it is our potential to expand in faith, we do not earn anything by so doing. Indeed, the desire to expand in faith is, for Christians, only an act of gratitude for the gift given. We cannot manipulate or determine another’s faith. At best, we can encourage and support it and its expansion. At worst, we can make that expansion more difficult. What is important is our own witness to faith and to the interaction of faithful persons in community. With these considerations in mind, we may describe four basic styles or stages of faith.

Experienced Faith

An experienced faith identifies the faith of early childhood; perhaps it is better termed a pre-faith stage. In his or her early childhood development, a child observes and copies the behavior of parents or other role models. These role models become the foundation for a growing child’s integrity of belief and action. The child acts and reacts, in relation to other significant persons; and in so doing ideally forms a basic trust which continues throughout life. The child explores and tests the limits of behavior in relationship to parents or other authorities. In these actions, we observe the roots of an open or closed stance, which characterizes later life.

Affiliative Faith

Affiliative faith is typical of childhood, though it is not restricted to those years. Indeed, vast numbers of adults express their faith essentially through this style, either because its needs have not been satisfactorily met or because they have not been provided the necessary encouragement and environment to move beyond it. Still, even as our faith expands, we never seem to outgrow the characteristic needs of this or any other style of faith. That is, the needs of every evolving developmental style remains with us for life. If we cease to meet these needs, no matter how far our faith has expanded, we will return to this style of faith until its needs are once again met.

Affiliative faith has three distinctive characteristics. First and foremost, it is faith centered in the affections. It is expressed as a religion of the heart, more than of the head or will. Individuals with affiliative faith seek their identity in the authority of a community’s understandings and ways. Similarly, they long for belonging participation and service in the community’s life. People are dependent upon the community for the content and shape of their faith. They need to experience through nurture and ritual the community’s understandings and ways. Through memories told and lived, roots are established; through creative expression, the affections are nurtured and visions of a purposeful future emerge; through trusting, caring, affirming, accepting interactions, self-worth and identity are framed and the present is made meaningful. These needs cannot be neglected or denied.

In this stage or style of faith, a person identifies with “our story,” “our way.” The development of affiliative faith is the result of a search for conviction, the establishment of a firm set of beliefs, attitudes, and values. This is the stage of learning who, and whose, we are. The best way to understand youth’s interest today in the variety of cults is that they provide a sense of community, intense religious experience, and, in a world of pluralism, a set of beliefs which claim ultimate truth.

There is no specific time span, identical for all persons, to satisfy these foundational needs of faith; nor do we ever outgrow their requirements. Perhaps more than half of all those going through the social condition of adolescence live within the limited perimeters of this faith style, as do many adults. Therefore, our ritual life needs to be expressive of this style of faith and speak to its needs, not only for the sake of those persons whose faith is affiliative, but for us all, including those who have moved beyond its bounds.

Providing that the needs of affiliative faith have been met satisfactorily, sometime during the adolescent years a person can begin to acquire a new style of faith and begin to expand his or her faith to include new characteristics. This new faith style can be characterized as “searching faith.”

Searching Faith

Searching faith is marked as a time when the religion of the head begins to predominate over the religion of the heart. The mind begins to search for intellectual justifications of faith. Critical judgment of the community’s understandings and ways, as well as short-term multiple commitments to ideologies and actions, emerge as people strive to discover convictions worth living and dying for. That is, they learn what it means to give their lives away and live according to their convictions.

Having been “given” an identity during the childhood years, adolescents, in searching faith, struggle to find their own identity; and in so doing, they typically experience the “dark night of the soul.” Often non-verbalized questions—“What is truth? Who am I? What communities are worth belonging to? What causes are worth living for?”—dominate life’s joyous, troubling, liberating, confusing days and nights. Still, persons in searching faith long to belong, especially to a community which shares their concerns for passionate action, critical thought, and experimentation. While they struggle with and condemn the structural authority of the community, they long for moral, intellectual, charismatic, or personal authority.

For many, these are the betwixt-and-between years, when the social conditions of adolescence that throw the individual into a state of limbo between childhood and adulthood (a period that can extend from thirteen to thirty) unite with the ordeal of searching faith with its sense of being on the periphery of the community. These are the years, when it may appear that faith is lost and the community’s nurturing has failed. And these are the years when a person appears to have matured into adulthood one day and the next to have regressed to early childhood. Difficult for both the individual and the community, these years of anxiety and storm must come before faith can assume its fullest dimensions.

Mature Faith

The faith of adulthood can be called “mature faith.” It is not necessarily characteristic of all adults, for it appears that only those who have moved through searching faith can acquire its characteristics of centeredness and personal identity. People with mature faith are secure enough in their convictions to stand against their community of nurture when conscience dictates. Having begun as a heteronomous self and moved to autonomy, the theonomous self—the self in conscious, willed obedience to God—emerges. Still in need of community, individuals with mature faith reveal themselves to be inner-directed, open to others, but clear and secure in their own faith identity. Individuals with mature faith are concerned to eliminate the dissonances between rhetoric and life. Thus, the religion of the will, with its witness to faith in deed and word, predominates over the religion of heart or mind, although the mature faith encompasses both. Integrity of belief and action are realized.

Of course, mature faith is always expanding; it is not to be understood as a state of arrival or conclusion. New depth and breadth emerge. Importantly, the needs and characteristics of earlier styles of faith continue. Doubt and the intellectual quest never end. Nor does the need to belong, the need to have the affections nurtured, or the need for a sense of authority disappear, though these needs do express themselves somewhat differently.

Indeed, if these various faith needs are not met, a person who has reached mature faith will return to an earlier style of faith until its needs are once again satisfied. Thus, faith is never static. For example, to grow into searching faith, individuals need to have been given a sense of self-esteem and worth. They need to have learned to accept their strengths and weaknesses, to live in the hope that they will continue to grow, and to possess self-confidence. They need to have learned that they can meet the future. During the childhood years, people will, it is hoped, have experienced the grace of God in a sacramental community, where the authority of the Word and the conviction that Jesus is Lord is lived in the intimacy of a belonging, caring fellowship. To have a sense of oneness with God, to feel loved for nothing, to know that you are understood and valued are the gifts of a Christian community expressed through its common life and rituals.

However, for many adolescents, even those brought up in the church, the experience of loneliness, self-hatred, family conflict, estrangement, insecurity, closed-mindedness, dogmatic authority, and an affection-depraved environment have made searching faith difficult to attain. In spite of their adolescent social condition, they need a community which nurtures affiliative faith.

Those, however, who have begun to move into searching faith need a community of social concern and action; a community whose rituals unite head and heart with a concern for justice; a community in which critical intellectual judgment is encouraged, doubt affirmed, and experimentation permitted. In some cases, people have been forced out of the church in order to meet these needs. This is especially unfortunate, for these persons still need belonging participation in a passionate community to be secure in its story and ways.

Each style of faith has its own character, but builds on characteristics of earlier styles. Thus as growth occurs, faith becomes more complex. The process is slow, gradual, and related to the presence of environments, which nurture development and growth. Life is not static. Each of us needs to be prepared for new conditions; and the communities of which we are a part need to have ways to reestablish equilibrium following each change in the life of one of its members.