Here's a wee excerpt from the book. I am sharing it because this week I have become more convinced than ever about the final point (3) at the foot of the post - love sullen teens in you church as much as the cutest baby and you will play such a key part in loving them through their periods of doubt, questioning and stubborn-ness.
John Westerhoff’s Theory of Faith Development
The four types of faith outlined below are helpful when thinking not just about children, but about people of all ages who make up our congregations. Westerhoff describes faith as a verb i.e. a way of behaving. He points out that these are generalizations and not meant to box children or adults into distinct categories.
Stage (1) begins with an “experienced faith” – children first learn about Christ not by what we say or teach theologically but by the experiences they have connected with those around them. They sense, explore, observe and copy the stimuli around them, and experience through interaction.
This stage is where children form their impressions of God from their experiences of Christians and church. This means that I would like to do all I can to ensure that the child’s experience of church is marked by love, trust and care. The volunteers who look after him/her need to be taught about the importance of these early days. The church crèche/nursery therefore becomes a hothouse environment for demonstrating the love and faithfulness of God. The physical space becomes very important – clean, warm, well resourced. The very best volunteers who want to be in crèche (not hard pressed parents!) serve the youngest members of the congregation. Loving grandparents, aunties and uncles become the voice and touch of Jesus to the babes they cradle. The community can help faith to grow - belief that children possess spirituality which we expect will grow to personal faith in a loving God.
Stage (2) “affiliative faith”.
This follows naturally on from Stage 1, assuming the needs of experienced faith have been met during childhood/early adolescence. Belonging is key - membership of an accepting community of faith is important. A clear sense of identity is formed – for example, this is my church, we sing these songs as we gather together. The children join in with the activities of the community, such as story-telling or singing, and share something of the awe and mystery that holds the community together. The child needs to be accepted and to feel a sense of togetherness and will take on board much that a significant and trusted leader gives to them.
So I would, as a pastor/team leader, make sure that I was visible and consistent in my love for and time with the children and young people. I ask my volunteers to give a regular and sustained commitment to the children so that relationship was built up and a group identity was formed. Again, physical space is important – for young people to have a place that is “theirs”. Story cushions, rhythm and routine are all things that help – although with teenagers a degree of flexibility (exhibited by skilled leaders) within a routine is preferable.
Westerhoff points out that the church must be constantly aware of its story and tell it often . Therefore Christmas and Easter all age services and celebrations are of immense significance to growing faith not just in the young but to adults as well. The church celebrates her shared story.
Stage (3) Providing the needs of affiliative faith have been met, the child/young person/adult then enters a “searching faith” phase, where s/he will question, experiment, look at other points of view and finally arrive at a faith that works because it makes sense to them, rather than because someone else has taught them to believe it. This is a necessary part of gaining identity and a strengthened ability to trust in God.
This is a time where young people’s leaders need to tolerate – and dare I say, welcome, questions and comments that express doubt or fear. Here, in my personal view, is one of the most important quotes from Westerhoff’s seminal book, written in 1976 but with deep prophetic significance for church leaders today:
“It appears, regretfully, that many adults in the church have never had the benefit of an environment that encouraged searching faith. And so they are often frightened or disturbed by adolescents who are struggling to enlarge their affiliative faith to include searching faith. Some persons are forced out of the church during this state and, sadly, some never return; others remain in searching faith for the rest of their lives….we must remember that persons with searching faith still need to have all the needs of experienced and dependent faith met, even though they may appear to have cast them aside. And surely they need to be encouraged to remain within the faith community during their intellectual struggle, experimentation and first endeavours at commitment ”.
Key here is the word “community”. The community must be awash with the love of God that accepts the fragile newborn as much as the cute toddler as much as the difficult, moody teenager. And also important is consistency. People who will stick around young people and exhibit love. Who have some flexibility in the way they teach and model Christian living and who are experienced too in the supernatural; to be a gateway into the experiential side of faith so that it does not become a dry set of rules, an inappropriately cerebral bible study or a collection of oft-told stories (did you know that can happen in your teenage groups too?)
Stage (4) Once the needs of searching faith has been met, “owned faith” should follow. This is a mature holding together of things that have been taught so far along and alongside a demonstrated change in behaviour and attitudes. The person with owned faith tries to show it by both word and deed. At this stage the Christian is prepared to make a stand for their faith in the face of opposition.
What can we learn from Westerhoff?
1.Faith is growing and dynamic.It is tempting to put an age of each of these stages but that isn’t always possible. I know young people who demonstrate all of the hallmarks of owned faith and live for Jesus with a passion that is firey and infectious. Many adults have not progressed in their faith past the first couple of stages, preferring the “warm fuzzy” stage of belonging and not yet appreciating the lifelong cost of following Jesus.
Note that in Westerhoff’s categories, the conditions for one stage have to be met before advancement to the next. These conditions are vitally important for lifelong discipleship to occur: everything from the warmth and furnishing of the rooms to the love and care shown by the adults to the very young plays a part. The “whole package” is needed – lovely rooms on their own won’t do it if the faith community just manages to tolerate children (knowing that a “good” church should have children in it) but neither will lots of loving adults working alongside children in cold and bare rooms give a consistent message. Think of the gardening metaphor – we want the optimum growing conditions for the seedlings to flourish.
And is it possible that the simple love and trust exhibited by a child who loves Jesus because they have been taught that he loves them, is – in God’s eyes – faith in him? Trust has been exhibited at the cognitive level of development appropriate to that young child.
Westerhoff uses the analogy of a tree to describe the growth of faith in developing human persons. He says “a tree with one ring is as much a tree as a tree with four rings” , in other words experienced faith is as valuable for a person to possess as owned faith.
However he makes it clear that faith is a journey and the goal should be to move towards owned faith; which is the point at which one would lay their life down for their faith. I want to make it clear that repentance – saying sorry – for the things the child does wrong is a vital part of this journey, which leads neatly into further points to pick up from Westerhoff.
2. Children and young people need to make the faith and belief their own – just the same as adults!
The searching faith phase indicates that a period of questioning is natural and normal and may in fact be necessary for young people to fully commit to the Christian faith. It is therefore helpful for a child/teenager to have experiences of God as well as lots of information – head knowledge - about him. This helps him weigh up whether he wants to know more about him!
It is possibly at this stage that a lot of youngsters give up on the church, as they weigh up and test what they have been told. We as leaders must not be afraid of letting young people try things out, ask (what seems to be) antagonistic questions and disagree with our theology. Patiently loving them through this time is not an option if we are to retain our children.
I think it’s really important not to walk in expectation of rebellion. There is a difference between asking questions because the young person sees a disconnect between what they are being told and what they see, and outright rejection and rebellion.
Because we suspect that the end result might be rebellion, we (parents/leaders) may tend to “crack down” on questions or attitudes on display that we feel we have already answered or should not see, and become impatient, intolerant and perhaps even angry with the young person. Consider the following, which seems entirely logical to me:
How do I know he is with me if I don’t feel he is near?
Am I just to believe without substance?
How do I know God still does things today like the amazing things in the Bible?
Is this rebellious talk? Or are these not genuine questions from a child or adolescent at the “searching phase” of faith development?
The role of the pastor/parents/adults involved with young people at this point of their faith development is one of loving acceptance, not rebuking. Instruction IS needed, but only after we have exhibited:
(a) patient listening to the things that young person have to say as this allows them to draw their own conclusions
(b) good modelling of the truth of Jesus’ words as lived out by us as adults and
(c) opportunities to experience (practice) the things read about in the pages of the New Testament
I am absolutely convinced that if these three things are determined and sustained practices by the church community, the haemorrhage of children, teenagers and young adults from the church will be arrested and we will end up with confident, secure adults who have “owed faith”. The church community I grew up in exhibited those three things in abundance.
Here is a concrete example. At the time of writing, I have a pre-teen daughter exhibiting sophistication and maturity (in some ways) far beyond her genetic age. She has loved Jesus for as long as she can remember. She has been taught about repentance, about how sin separates us from God and how confessing the things we do wrong and our own selfish attitudes regularly keep the relationship between us and God close. Yet, she has times where she doubts her beliefs. She has moments, regularly at the moment, where she will sit with me and say: “what if I’m wrong, you’re wrong? What is heaven doesn’t exist? What if it is all a fairytale?”
My reaction could be one of deep disappointment, or even anger. Does she not know after all these years of being taught, that God is faithful and true? Is she rejecting the faith of our family outright? What if she says these things in her young people’s group? Woe is me, I am a pastor after all!
But we listen patiently. As parents we reassure her of our love for her and tell her that it is entirely natural to have these thoughts. We let her express them in whatever way she wants to – sometimes this is with tears. We share with her that we have doubts sometimes and when she is ready to listen, we tell her stories of the perseverance of saints who have gone before us. We chew over some Bible passages with her, such as 1 Peter 1:6-9 and talk together (not lecture or teach) about what it means to have testing times, and what reward there is ahead for those who love Jesus even though they haven’t seen him. We tell her how Jesus poured out his heart for us in John 17:20ff and how he lives now to intercede for us.
In short, we offer instruction without loving her any less, nor worrying unduly, nor being disappointed nor angry and we share honestly about our walk with Jesus and testify as often as we can in daily conversation about God’s interaction in our lives. We love her through each and every episode of negative outpourings and deep questioning. I am confident she will continue to walk through this stage into owned faith – the mature holding together of all things. This demonstrates just how necessary it is throughout the teenage years that people love youngsters deeply and listen wisely.
I have become even more convinced than ever before that a much more joined up approach to children and young people is required, because we manage the demonstrated love and affection thing much more with the youngest.
3. An accepting and nurturing community is needed. Love like we might have never shown before.
I've said already that the church community must exhibit deep love towards children and young people. They are to be places where children AND teenagers are valued, can make mistakes, can try things out and most of all can be loved and accepted as individuals who are very special to God.
My observation is that young children, babies and toddlers are easy to love. They are smiled at, passed around and cooed at. We want to have them in our church as “signs of life”. Children who tear around, fidget and make noise during quiet moments of our church services are not quite so easy for some of us to love, particularly if they pick their noses or emit smells. Pre-teens who question everything and might have rather a lot to say can be quite annoying. And insolent, sullen, undemonstrative teenagers are best left to their own devices at the back of the church!
My point from this unflattering and hopefully (!) in accurate pen portrait is that we can tend not to be consistent in our love towards the younger generations. Maybe we are only getting what we deserve when suddenly the younger generations appear to have left the church? Are they a chief consideration in the plans of your church? Is every decision we make loving the young people well? Ignore the need to love on your under-18s and you risk losing a chunk of your church’s future.
Look for staff and volunteers with a heart to love on your children and young people and encourage parents and the whole congregation to love well.
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
[I Corinthians 1:1-7]
Westerhoff source: Will Our Children Have Faith? (Revised Edition)