What is Faith Development Theory?

James W. Fowler, a contemporary of Lawrence Kohlberg, theorized a series of developmental stages related to faith. “Fowler was working to understand the psychological aspects of how people make meaning in their lives, and Kohlberg introduced him to the possibility of stages for this aspect of development” (Downs, 1995, p. 75). Much like Kohlberg’s focus on moral reasoning rather than moral content, Fowler differentiated between the content of faith (what one believes) and the structure of faith (how one believes). Jones and Wilder (2010) highlight Fowler’s definition of faith “as a person’s or group’s way of responding to transcendent value and power as perceived and grasped through forms of the cumulative tradition” (p. 167). Fowler contends that all humans believe in something and the structure of that undergirding belief lies at the foundation of his stages of faith development.

Fowler’s Stages of Faith:

Stage 0


Fowler borrowed from Erik Erikson’s psychosocial stage theory where “when an infant cries and a parent provides comfort or nourishment, foundations for future faith grow within that child” (Jones & Wilder, 2010, p. 170).

Stage 1

Intuitive-projected faith

Faith in early childhood that relates to Piaget’s cognitive development stage of pre-operational where a “young child is strongly influenced by images, stories, and symbols, which are not yet controlled by logical thinking [and where] images of faith are shaped by the significant adults in the world of young children” (Downs, 1995, p. 77).

Stage 2

Mythic-literal faith

Faith that occurs in childhood and later where Piaget’s concrete operations capability are forming and where “children begin to distinguish between what is real and what is fantastic” (Jones & Wilde, 2010, p. 171), what are stories and what is literal.

Stage 3

Synthetic-conventional faith

Faith that occurs in adolescence and later where Piaget’s formal operations are burgeoning and where “beliefs and values of the previous stages are synthesized into some sort of coherent perspective [and] conventional in that it tends to adopt the belief systems and forms of a larger community” (Downs, 1995, p. 78).

Stage 4

Individuative-reflective faith

Faith that occurs in young adulthood and later is “now operating in a fully formal operational mode [where] new beliefs and newly reconsidered past beliefs are reworked into an individualized system that is perceived as cohesive and coherent” (Jones & Wilder, 2010, p. 173).

Stage 5

Conjunctive faith

This stage of faith occurs typically in midlife and later “consolidates traditional perspectives with the individual’s doubts and with others’ beliefs to form a broad and meaningful worldview” (Jones & Wilder, 2010, p. 174).

Stage 6

Universalizing faith

Faith that occurs in midlife and later sees a “new quality of freedom emerge where matters of self are now subsumed into identification with the ‘ground of being’” (Downs, 1995, p. 81).

Strengths and Weaknesses

I sincerely appreciate Fowler’s treatise that “faith is a common human attempt to make sense out of life [and is a] hermeneutical grid through which persons interpret life and attempt to find meaning” (Downs, 1995, p. 82). In the way he defines faith, Fowler normalizes both the content and structure of faith as indicative of every human being. This is especially helpful in an increasing post-Christian and anti-Christian context where our culture has seemingly graduated from Christian values or is categorically and conspiratorially against Christianity. At the very least, Fowler’s definition of faith exposes everyone’s belief structure and contends that regardless of one’s content of faith, everyone has a set of beliefs that help them make sense of meaning and life. This allows both the Christian apologist and the Christian educator to stand on a basic human belief structure and remind our culture that contrary to a shift in faith content, one still has faith.

It is ironic that what can possibly be a strength could at the same time be a weakness. I wonder if a weakness of Fowler’s stages of faith can be related to the separation between the content of faith and structure of faith. While I accept that every human being has faith in that all seek to make sense or meaning out of life, it can be difficult to parse both the content and structure of that belief. How (structure) one comes to a particular set of beliefs (content) often occurs through the content itself. Developing through a series of stages, while predictable and sequential, is inextricably tied to the content itself. To divorce the content from the structure, would in a sense seemingly nullify the purpose of a structure all together. Structure of faithing must be connected to content, therefore it would be difficult to quantify a stage-based theory that is content agnostic.

Contribution to the Study of Human Development

Fowler seems to ascribe the development of faith to the development of cognition—from sensory and pre-operations, to concrete and formal operations. If it is possible to separate the content of faith from the structure of faith, then the progressive advancement of intellectual development should directly correlate with how one “thinks” about meaning. As an individual gains the increasingly complex tools related to thinking capacity, obviously one’s mode of understanding faith or making sense out of meaning will advance and deepen as well. Additionally, Fowler’s stages of faith are related and connected to “Erikson’s, Piaget’s, and Kohlberg’s theories” (Santrock, 1998, p. 426) and further the tapestry of human growth and development.

Contribution to the Study of Spiritual Formation

As a person who appreciates the understanding of the development of cognition, I applaud Fowler’s work and conclusions as they help us Christian educators and apologists to engage in more advanced ways of thinking about the structure of faith. It is a gentle reminder and a kind course correction to those who engage in spiritual formation that the curriculum is not merely content-based, but also deeply structural and participatory. After all, spiritual formation is not just “spiritual” (content-based), it is also “formation” (structural). Christian educators and parents should seek not to merely transmit knowledge or faith-based content, but we should concurrently seek to engage in remaking faith-based structures and the actual formation process of faith. In essence, we need to understand a person or group’s current stage of faith development and anticipate and make room for the successive stages by preparing both ourselves and the students themselves for what is coming.

Elkind (1998) offers an additional note of contribution of faith formation on spiritual formation (particularly in adolescence): “Teenagers, who for the first time realize that they can think in their heads without anyone knowing their thoughts, relish this newfound privacy and guard it zealously” (p. 52). Both realizing and understanding the effect the advancement that cognition plays in the development of faith is important. If a Christian parent or educator fails to realize the newfound intellectual tools a teenager wields, they will frustrate the teenager’s spiritual formation.

Application to Children and Youth Ministry

Heinz Streib’s religious styles of faith development is extremely helpful in the application of faith development in ministry with children and youth:

  1. Subjective style. Infants, toddlers and preschool students engage in imaginative play and simplistic storytelling. The physical and emotional environments are engineered to foster a sense of safety and overtly religious symbols and practices.
  2. Instrumental-reciprocal style. Furthermore, right and wrong are introduced early in preschool but become more intentional in the elementary environment. While we tend to focus less on rituals and commands in our children’s ministry, we are more apt to making value statements at this age level based on the good and bad decisions of various Bible characters as we walk through the biblical narrative.
  3. Mutual style. While students feel a sense of belonging to the religious social group, there is not a sense of unquestioned loyalty or dialogue. There is mutual understanding and acceptance, but I like to foster a lot of questions that allow children at this stage to wrestle with what they think and why they think. I do not want them to blindly ascribe to a group because a respected authority figure says so, but because they are invited to think openly and have differing opinions and thoughts. I like to foster in this mutual style a sense of open and accepting dialogue.
  4. Individuative-systematic style. Which leads directly into the next style of individuation where all human beings must own faith for themselves. I believe that the early social conventional level helps propel a person successfully into individuating thoughts for themselves because I have afforded them the theological room to question and think for themselves. This room allows a “person to reflect critically on religious matters and become able to give reasons for their individual beliefs or skepticisms” (Jones & Wilder, 2010, p. 187). I would rather this questioning happen within a local church community than outside of one.
  5. Dialogical style. Typically successfully individuated students become the best dialogical consolidators. They are able to embody a particular orientation based on their own unique story faith formation and are able to both teach and learn from others, either in any earlier style or in the present dialogical style.

Resources for Faith Development

Downs, P. G. (1995). The power of fowler. In J. C. Wilhoit & J. M. Dettoni (Eds.), Nurture that is christian (pp. 75-90). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

Elkind, D. (1998). All grown up and no place to go: Teenagers in crisis. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books.

Jones, T. P. & Wilder, M. S. (2010). Faith development and christian formation. In J. R. Estep & J. H. Kim (Eds.), Christian formation: Integrating theology & human development (pp. 161-207). Nashville, TN: B&H Academic.

Santrock, J. W. (1998). Adolescence (7th ed). Boston, MA: McGraw Hill.