St. John’s Baptist Church

Worship | Sundays @ 10:30am

How Faith Grows

faith to faith

by Dennis Foust

Whether or not you grew up on a farm or have an interest in gardening, you know basic facts about plants. You know a tiny seed grows to offer beauty and/or nourishment when it is nurtured by good soil, water, and the necessary nutrients as it reaches from darkness toward the light. 

To the untrained eye, transitions in the living plant growth process may go undetected. Recognizing qualitative change occurring in the growth of a plant is more nuanced than obvious. In like manner, changes in faith are more subtle than conspicuous.  

The disciples invoked Jesus to, “Increase our faith.” Jesus replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” Jesus’ response is difficult to understand if we interpret Jesus’ words literally, He was speaking in the eastern tradition of using picturesque words in a flamboyant fashion. Jesus was basically telling his first followers, ‘the smallest amount of faith makes a huge impact.’ 

That said, faith doesn’t just appear like magic. Like a mustard seed, faith must be planted in soil. Returning to the metaphors of Jesus, we should remember that a seed planted in soil hardened along a path or in rocky soil or in thorny ground will not grow. Faith planted in good soil grows in healthy ways. In addition, we are not just one type of soil. Within each of us, every one of these four soil types exists. Therefore, the question becomes, ‘how can we increase the good soil in our lives and how can we receive God’s seed of faith in this good soil?’ Faith grows in good soil, through certain practices, during the human life cycle. 

Several people have proposed explanations of how faith grows. One of the most widely read efforts in recent decades is Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning, by James Fowler. Numerous other research studies and written volumes have been spurred by his work. In this book, Fowler writes: “Faith is interactive and social; it requires community, language, ritual and nurture.” These are ingredients in the soil of faith. Whether or not you agree with Fowler’s model of how faith grows, his concept proposes six stages: Primal; Intuitive-Projective; Mythic-Literal; Synthetic-Conventional; Individuative-Reflective; Conjunctive; and Universalizing. I will explain his presentation in more detail in future blog articles.  

Most models, like Fowler’s, suggest how faith grows throughout the life cycle. A model introduced by John Westerhoff in his book, A Faithful Church has been helpful for some. He proposed three stages: Affiliative; Searching; and Mature. In his book, Growing Faith, Bruce Powers presents five phases of faith development: Nurture; Indoctrination; Reality Testing; Making Choices; and Active Devotion. 

In future blog articles, I will introduce a few more particulars comparing and contrasting these models of growing in faith along with practices and perspectives that promote growth which have emerged in recent decades. Of course, one conversation which must be explored is this question: ‘What is the relationship between faith and spirituality?’ To this question, we will turn next.