Beyond Elementary School Christianity


Beyond Elementary School Christianity
Brian Zahnd

In his groundbreaking book, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning, James W. Fowler describes spiritual development in a series of stages from zero to six. Fowler describes stage two as the faith of school children. This is a stage where metaphors are often literalized and a strong belief in the just reciprocity of the universe is held dear. At this stage of faith the idea that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people is a controlling axiom. I won’t summarize all the stages here, but Fowler describes stage five as the capacity to acknowledge paradox and experience transcendence.

Fowler’s final stage is characterized by compassion and the view that all people belong to a universal community. This is the mature stage where the spiritual journey breaks out of the paradigm of “us versus them” that dominates so much religious thought and controls so many religious institutions.

In his forthcoming book, A More Christlike God, Canadian theologian Brad Jersak comments on Fowler’s stages of faith and the current plight of evangelicalism making this stinging observation: “Entire streams of Christendom are not only stuck at stage-two faith, but actually train and require their ministers to interpret the Bible through the mythic-literal eyes of school children. Growing up and moving forward is rebranded as backsliding; maturing is perceived as falling away.”

If we are required to abide within a stage of spiritual development that believes giving correct answers to a theological quiz is the essence of spiritual maturity and that being good guarantees freedom from suffering, we are stuck in elementary school. We can preach the certitude of Proverbs, but not the paradox of Job; we can make sense of the maxims of Deuteronomy, but not the mystery of John. To become spiritually mature we have to recognize that suffering cannot be avoided and paradox is part of the program.

Sadly, American consumer Christianity specializes in offering gimmicks that promise to eradicate suffering and theologies that claim to eliminate paradox. In our current religious and political climate a following is most easily amassed by capitalizing on the polarizing approach that frames everything according to a dualistic “us versus them” paradigm. This conspires to keep Christians immature and Christianity ugly. We have been trained to be reactive, not contemplative. The reactive is extolled while the contemplative is suspect. In such an environment reactive faith is viewed as “strong faith,” when it’s actually immature.

During the culture war era Christian leaders have been rewarded for forming people according to the reactive life. Christian television and radio thrives on reactive ideologies. In A Sunlit Absence Martin Laird says, “The reactive life is strengthened by these sudden spasms of talking, talking, talking, talking, to ourselves about life and love and how everybody ought to behave and vote.”

We desperately need more mature pastors who can lead their churches beyond the narrow confines of dualism and dogmatism and into the wide vistas of contemplation and compassion. It’s hard for me to imagine a more critical need for the American church right now than this.


(The artwork is Figure on a moonlit lane, St. John’s Road, Ryde, Isle of Wight by John Atkinson Grimshaw, c. 1880)

  • Matthew 18:3

  • Let’s not confuse childlike trust with childish naiveté.

  • John Jim

    Brian do you pray in tongues as Holy Spirit of God enables.

    Does your understanding of contemplative prayer mean praying in the spirit?

  • 1. Yes.

    2. It may include that, but it is not limited to that.

    What the Christian mystics have historically called contemplative prayer, I call “sitting with Jesus,” and it doesn’t involve much speaking at all.

  • John Jim


    I started practicing that type of prayer with God my Father speaking to me.

    It is awesome experience.

  • John Jim

    Your insight in the article on pilate is very insightful.

    I am happy to hear a prophetic heart of Jesus cry among the war drums of fake prophets who demonise humans made in image of Jesus without having the heart to cast out those demons.

  • Pastor, there’s no reference to naiveté in this Amplified Bible translation of 18:3:

    “… and become like little children [trusting, lowly, loving, forgiving], you can never enter the kingdom of heaven [at all].”

  • Deborah Ermter

    Thank you for this BZ
    When these kinds of words are spoken – I am reminded that there really is hope.

  • Eli

    To attempt to dismiss this contemplative post with a singular verse that is, in and of itself, highly paradoxical is to miss the point, and also to prove it.

  • Debby Henry

    Growing up and the stages of human development are much like our spiritual journey. Life is a mingling of sunshine and showers. The two paths of psychology and spirituality often parallel. Our human nature is to be reactive. Our spiritual nature is to hold that reaction with His strength, hope, and love. The stages of faith bring layers of Truth to our insight. The more layers, the more preparedness it is to stay strong and stand firm. How wise our God is to provide suffering for seeking Him more dearly and clearly in moments when ‘we know not”. We may be sympathetic towards one another; but until we learn of spiritual compassion…Jesus compassion…we will not have experienced the presence of God. The presence of God is for the whole world and for fellowship with one another. More than that, it is unity. Psychology, relanguaging, new thought-new age-emergence theories, etc…..divides us! God is wisdom. The path of wisdom is God. The path of psychology is of man. We cannot think our way to Heaven. The stages of life are a school of never ending learning. The stages of faith we acquire through much prayer and a personal relationship with God. No matter how much faith we acquire; it is having the faith of a child that will lead us home. It is simple, childlike, trust. It is not knowledge. It is not complicated. It is of a pure heart surrendered to Christ alone. Christians pray and wait. It has always been His way of Truth.

  • Exactly how is reducing spiritual development into a series of stages from zero to six “contemplative”?
    It strikes me as reductionist.

  • Jefferson W. Slinkard

    I signed up last week Brian! I will be driving up from the Fayetteville, Arkansas area. I’m reading your “A Farewell to Mars” right now and will finish soon. I am so looking forward to this Prayer School!

  • Tim

    Joe, it seems fairly immature of you to invoke one prooftext as a refutation of the call to maturity in Christian faith that is a clear theme throughout many of Paul’s letters and expressed very plainly in many New Testament passages including Hebrews 5:12-13. There is a time to be as a child (in humility, innocence, as one with no standing in society) and then there is just a time to grow up.

  • Reducing spiritual maturity to a series of stages from zero to six is reductionist and is not reflected in Paul’s holistic, pastoral letters.

  • Dan_Lowe

    While I appreciate the sentiment here, one can be a contemplative and still remain stuck in the dualism of Western Christianity. Sure, you can experiment with the mysteries, etc., but until one is willing to have that Western paradigm cracked, broken, then put back together with anOther from a differing worldview, thus creating a third, more holistic way of seeing the world, then we’ll just be stuck with contemplative, dualistic, evangelicals. Tossing spices into the recipe might make it more appetizing, but it’s still chicken noodle soup. We need something that won’t tend the fever but will eradicate the sickness and create more hearty, able and holistic people.
    As far as needing more mature pastors goes, if the majority culture leaders, bloggers, and writers would take more opportunity to highlight those who are already offering erasure for the confines of dualism and dogmatism, that need would not be so great. There are too many people in the Christian public sphere that are doing this already for “Well, I don’t know anyone” to be an excuse. Let those of us from the majority culture step away for a season and invite the likes of Soong-Chan Rah, Randy Woodley, Wendy Beauchamin-Peterson, Cheryl Bear, Andrea Smith, Terry LeBlanc, Emily Rice, and R. S. Sugirtharajah to take our places and teach us how to widen our view. If we want to move beyond elementary school faith, we need teachers who have already graduated from our worldview but still live in their own. Not simply another spice to add to the soup.

  • Coming from a strong Word of faith background (I still deeply appreciate much of it) I was initially offended at Fowlers work when I encountered it several years ago…my immediate response was “Well everyone else may go through the stages of faith outlined but I’ve been a believer way to long to fall into that pattern”…(I was saved at 6 raised in Pastors home)…nonetheless I have come to discover that his work along with Kathy Escobars should be required reading for anyone who claims to be a pastor…because believe me if you want to mature, you are going to go through this ringer…having remapped my hermeneutics and much of my base beliefs now I can see how accurate they were…the downside is it requires a complete abandonment of certain models and systems that depend upon your ego…this leads me to believe we will not see much happen in our institutional models because they are built on the backs of slaves…empire requires slaves to build the pyramid with the pointy top down leadership that is American Evangelical Christianity…those at the top for the most part are to invested in the model to allow doubt to creep in…without doubt there is no serious faith and without a serious faith there is no maturity…

  • Concerned

    Be careful about asking fellow Christians to employ too much critical thinking, as that eventually that will lead to discarding religion altogether.

  • Herm

    What does it truly take to become fully reactive to the stimulus in each heart and mind solely in response to the love, teaching, lordship, brotherhood and “the likes” of Jesus the only mankind begotten Son of the Father instead of “Western Christianity”? What works for me is choosing to be thoughtful, reflective, meditative and introspective which are synonymous with contemplative and is shared in direct relationship with the Holy Spirit. Isn’t the really “Good News” that the Holy Spirit is available to counsel as one heart and one mind with God to each of our hearts and minds? Isn’t to be a disciple of Jesus really to be His student and how can that be without an active relationship of contemplation in His presence? In my humble opinion most pastors and organizations of “Western Christianity” build a church following of their own students in order to teach their own intellectual doctrine/ritual rather than point to the Teacher who is immediately available to teach us all how to live for the rest of eternity. How can we lovingly let only His light shine through us without any filtering from our carnal communities of birth and education?

  • Herm

    To become a student of Jesus “requires a complete abandonment of certain models and systems that depend upon your ego”. Luke 14:26, 27

  • Herm

    Relationship as a child born through the Holy Spirit in the Family of God: Matthew 18:3 balanced with 1 Corinthians 13:11 and with Luke 14:26 and with Luke 10:27. I have had the temporal privilege to be born a child of Man first and have accepted as an adult of Man to be born anew as an eternal child of God. I had to die to the first before accepting the final. Jesus was a child of God mature as the Word first, had to die to the first to become a child of Man Son of the Father, and had to die to the second to reunite in the one heart and mind of the Family of God as our Lord, Brother, Friend, High Priest, and Teacher. This is how I understand where we are at from mature mankind adult contemplation and now in direct relationship as an immature child in the Family of God. I wish I could paint a better picture but this is the best I can do at this time.

  • Herm

    … and might lead to a direct relationship with God rather than reacting to our pride in mankind’s intellectual religious dogma. To whom might we have to ask, seek and knock when no longer protected by the pseudo sanctuaries built within the physical facades of our religious church plants where many of us choose to hide?

  • Dan_Lowe

    Herm, one of the best ways to lovingly let his light shine is to allow those who don’t think like us to point out the ways in which we fail to love like Christ. Being aware of one’s worldview and how we filter all of our disciplines through that, including contemplation, is vitally important to learning how to love like Christ. One of the best ways to become aware of one’s own worldview is for someone else not from that perspective to point it out. Contemplation isn’t likely to do that for us.

  • Herm

    Dan, I love the way in which you reversed the role to allow those not thinking like us to point the way first. Yes that is a beginning and very much in the example of Christ. If our cup of love is not overflowing how do we fill it to share unless we feed from the conduit of contemplation connected directly with the source of love to our hearts and minds. Love is most harsh because it reactively stimulates the most struggle to serve another, especially an enemy whom I love, to live but love is also sweet when that recipient lives eternally. With Christ as our Teacher and the Holy Spirit as our Guide isn’t it through taking the time with Each in shared contemplation that we learn who needs and is receptive to His light? Who else knows the hearts and minds of all of us better than our creator God? Love you!

  • I find your portrait to be a better picture of one’s walk with God than a bar graph depicting stages of Christian maturity.

  • Herm

    You are kind, thank you Joe. I think and feel that attempting to define from our crib just what our Father does to provide for us and how we relate to His unsolicited grace is a natural function of childhood enabling the direction of our focus toward the Truth. It is not the available tools we utilize to share with, such as charts, that is ever the problem. The problem is always when we don’t understand how little we children of God have to share compared to our Big Brother and Father. I use the three defining sciences (physical, social and spiritual) I can function within to focus my quest for the truth. Thirty years ago I realized to satisfy all I want to know within any one of those sciences projected out to a time span that would exceed my understanding of eternity. Two dimensional charts are not a bad start but satisfaction, security, joy and peace are only available today in a faithful relationship within the Family of God. I could really care less at what stage my Christian maturity is because that is only relative to my carnal life which I died to when born into the Family of God through baptism by the Holy Spirit. If chemistry, psychology, and doctrinal studies aid in bringing others into the Family I encourage them all. If any study egotistically serves to make us falsely believe we can earn and/or learn anything by our own self centered skills separate from the grace of God then I do my best to redirect the focus. We are comparatively nothing outside of a relationship with God. The Gospel Truth is that by way of a direct relationship with the Holy Spirit with us as each a spiritually immature child of God in a Family perfectly supported and directed by our spiritually adult Brother and eternal Father in Heaven is readily available today to any who can love according to Luke 10:27. Love is relational and not statistical. The Bible is statistical and the Word is relational. That, again, is the best I can explain as to what is in my heart and mind today. A little shotgunny but expressed in the most descriptive, succinct and honest spiritually childish words I know how to use today. Thanks Joe for your tolerance! Love you!

  • I also think there’s a conversation to be had regarding how we share Christianity with Elementary kids, because they do carry those mythic/literal lenses, and capitalizing on that in order to convert them seems exploitative to me. But yes, agree with your piece here – more of us need to “grow up”.

  • Jeffrey Len Howard

    The Orthodox Christian tradition (the Orthodox Church) has been doing contemplative prayer for centuries.

  • So many tweetable sentences in this post Brian! Thank you!

  • Dan the Quaker

    As we Quakers say, this friend speaks my mind! In his 1997 book, The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard lamented, “The current situation in which faith professed has little impact on the whole of life, is not unique to our times, nor is it a recent development. But it is currently at an acute stage. History has brought us to the point where the Christian message is thought to be essentially concerned only with how to deal with sin: with wrongdoing or wrong-being and its effects. Life, our actual existence, is not included in what is now presented as the heart of the Christian message, or it is included only marginally. That is where we find ourselves today.” In his 2006 book, The Great Omission, Willard rendered the following diagnosis: “Much of the current distress on the part of Western Christianity over how to conduct our calling as the people of Christ derives from the fact that the goal and measure of Christian spiritual formation…is not accepted and implemented.” The renewed interest among Evangelicals in reclaiming the rich Christian contemplative tradition is exciting and hopeful. And, as you say, there is a tremendous need today, more than ever, for pastors and teachers who can help show the way.

  • Herm

    Thank you Dan! I am excited to hear more professing today of actual relationship with our God both in daily activities and in contemplation than at any time before in my life. I grew up being taught that it was relationship with my parent’s church family and doctrine that healed us into a better life. Memorizing the rituals and correctness of the church service was enforced very early for our goodness. It was too many years of not being contemplatively silent enough to hear the Holy Spirit’s council in my heart and mind to be led to know how to actually be constructive toward the health and welfare of my siblings of man; my neighbors. From a Spirit led perspective it seems clear that if we don’t hear the heart and mind of God we cannot expect to accept or implement any “Christian spiritual formation”. Without taking a break from reacting to the intimidation and manipulation of our noisy siblings we can never expect to find our heart, our soul, our strength, and our mind to be able to focus our love in direct relationship with our Lord God bonded by the focus of our new found all. Silent contemplation is that break from the works of this world, that Sabbath time of rest, to acknowledge in relationship with our self and our God the privilege, opportunity and pleasure of the love that gives reason to desire eternal life. Love you and the many fruits from your declared church family!

  • Thyrymn

    Wouldn’t it be interesting the link the stages of faith to descriptions in he pastoral epistles?

  • Nimblewill

    Brian, a former pastor told me that he had to preach at a certain level because the congregation as a whole couldn’t handle it all.

  • Greenbean950

    🙂 I am always happier after I visit your site. The peace He offers us can be found.

  • RachaelTMickel

    Thank you. This is good stuff!