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Stages of Faith Journey
By: Lyle E. Schaller

What do the following have in common? The educational journey of babies born in the United States in 1960? The design of retirement communities in America for the grandparents and eventually for the parents of those babies? The training of B-17 bomber crews in 1943 who were being prepared to fight the aerial war over Germany in World War II? The most effective single strategy in 21st century America for the transformation of self-identified Christian believers into fully devoted apostles of Jesus Christ? A crucial agenda item for the Strategy Task Force of the congregation averaging 350 or more at Sunday morning worship that has decided to relocate their meeting place from what has become a functionally obsolete building on an inadequate site at a poor location that places a low ceiling on their future to a larger parcel of land at a better location with new physical facilities?

Learning New Lessons
The answer to all five of these questions is that most people find it easier and more effective to master the new lessons required to live the next chapter in their lives if they can do that in, what is to them, a new physical environment.

Most of the babies born in America in 1960 learned the first lessons they needed to survive outside their mother's womb in a new and loving and supportive physical environment called a home. A tiny percentage had to spend those first few weeks or months in a hospital as part of that womb-to-hospital-to-home journey.

A few years later, they entered what to them was a new learning environment called kindergarten or pre-kindergarten. For many, that also was part of a new physical environment for learning called an elementary school. For the next stage of their educational journey, they enrolled in a different physical environment called a middle school or junior high school followed by a high school and, for an increasing proportion, either a college or a technical school. For many, the next stage was a new physical environment called graduate school or professional school. In recent years, the next new learning environment is an internship.

The learning process was facilitated by moving into a new physical environment at each new stage of that journey. Perhaps the most highly visible example of providing a new physical environment for important new learning was illustrated by the one-teacher public school. By 1942, that number had dropped to 107,692, down from over 200,000 in 1916. The "three Rs" of reading, writing, and arithmetic were taught by the teacher in that one big room with about 20 to 32 pupils. Social skills were learned outside on the playground at recess, during the lunch hour, and while carrying wood in the winter from the woodshed to the wood-fired furnace in the basement of that school.

In 2008 and 2009, a series of research reports suggested the best way to improve the performance of children in the classroom is take them out of it for outdoor walks in natural settings or structured recreational activities and other experiences in playing with children. Learning how to play as a child helps that individual enjoy life as an adult.

A second example is the campus of that new retirement community designed for residents age 55 and older. One section is designed for independent living by mature adults without children in the home. Another part of the campus houses an assisted or supportive living center. This new physical environment is designed for people who need help in the daily routines of life. The third section of that campus contains what formerly was called a nursing home, but now often goes by the more attractive name of a health center. This physical environment is designed to help residents learn the skills required to enjoy life at that stage of their life journey.

Back in 1943, the United States Army Air Force was graduating young men from technical schools where they began the process of mastering the skills required to pilot a four-engine bomber, to serve as a navigator, bombardier, flight engineer, radio operator, aerial photographer, or aerial gunner. For some, that was followed by a new physical environment for additional specialized training. For others, they were assigned to a military base in the United States where, in that new physical environment, they met the nine strangers who together became a 10-man crew. That collection of strangers became a mutually supportive crew in that first month, moved to a second physical environment for the next stage, and moved to a new physical environment for the third month before that crew was prepared to go to England to join the Eighth Air Force.

During the past two decades, American Protestants have perfected an interesting process for transforming believers into apostles. This is the challenge to lay persons to spend 10 to 30 days doing ministry with fellow Christians in what to these Americans is a completely new physical environment. This is a sister church on another continent.

A New Beginning to Reach New Generations
The last of these five examples requires a date. If that relocation of the congregation's meeting place effort was launched in 1975, the temptation often was to recreate the past in modern facilities. (As recently as 1948, an estimated 50 percent of all Protestant church buildings in America did not have running water.) The architectural design was driven by an almost universal affirmation of the need to house three activities: worship, education, and fellowship. The price of land and improvements, plus construction costs and the paving of the church-owned off-street parking lot, often required a temporary compromise of holding worship in the fellowship hall. In retrospect, the need was to house four learning environments: worshiping, education, fellowship, and "not having to hunt for a vacant parking space on the street."

One-third of a century later, many of the babies born in 1975 were married. Some were "shopping" for a church home with excellent ministries with young children. Others placed the top priority on finding a church where "their worship speaks to where I'm at on my personal faith pilgrimage."

Four Relevant Themes
As the generations born in the 1970s and later explain to a stranger why they chose this congregation as their current church home, four themes surface repeatedly. The first is the old terminology "worship service" is being replaced by "worship experience." The old spectator role for the people in the pews is being replaced by a demand for "meaningful and memorable worship experiences."

That sentence introduces the second theme. This is a classification system that began to become popular in the 1960s. Back in the nineteenth century, the Sunday School movement had designed what became a widely used classification system by the 1920s. It divided the population by age, grades, gender, and marital status into classes. That system had a huge impact on the design of Protestant church buildings. Another one of the old systems divided adults into two groups: "churched" and "unchurched."

One version of this new system consists of ten categories: (1) contented agnostics, (2) happy atheists, (3) defensive atheists (this category has gained greater visibility since about 2004), (4) adults and older teenagers on a self-identified faith journey who are focused on a quest to find meaning in life and are looking at organized religion as a possibility for answers, (5) the seekers or inquirers who have narrowed their search to the Christian faith, (6) the seekers who have taken the next step to become new believers, (7) the new believers who "want to know more about Jesus" and can be described as "eager learners," (8) the eager learners who are now prepared to be challenged to become deeply devoted disciples or Christ-followers, (9) the Christ-followers who are prepared to be equipped to be engaged in doing ministry in the name of Jesus Christ (most of them as lay volunteers but others as paid lay staff or to become missionaries or to enroll in a theological school), and, finally, (10) that category that can be summarized as apostles.

Other versions of this new system that focuses on the personal faith journey of adults is expressed in five to 10 categories.

Systems theory teaches us that every system produces the outcomes it is designed to produce. One common outcome of classifying church members by the stage of their faith journey is that married couples frequently discover the wife is one or two or three stages ahead of the husband in this pilgrimage. This is the third theme that helps recent new members explain "why we picked this church." One version is the Baptist married to an Episcopalian. They decide to choose a church home that is between those two on the denominational spectrum, often a nondenominational congregation. Another version is the wife who is at stage 8 or 9 of the classification system described earlier and is married to a husband at stage 5 or 6. She insists they choose a new home with a weekend worship experience designed for believers at stage 5 or 6 or 7. Her goal is to choose a congregation with a learning environment that will challenge and enable her husband to advance to the stage where she is at on her personal faith journey.

A fourth theme surfaces repeatedly when worshipers in larger congregations explain where and when they go for the corporate worship of God on the typical weekend. "I go to the Seekers Service in the chapel at 9:30 Sunday morning." "We go to the contemporary service Saturday evening." "I worship with the small crowd in the old sanctuary at 5:00 Saturday because my husband is Catholic. The Catholic parish where he is a member schedules a Mass at 5:00 Saturday. His church is a block east of mine, so we drive to church together and then go our separate ways for a little over an hour, followed by dinner with one or two other couples in an interfaith marriage." "We always go to the traditional service with classical Christian music in the sanctuary at 11:00. That is the type of worship that room was designed to accommodate. Both of our teenagers worship at 11:00 in the jazz service in the gym."

One Road to Revitalization
If that customized ministry plan for your congregation emphasizes reaching, attracting, serving, and nurturing older teenagers and adults at stage 4 or stage 5 or stage 6 or stage 7 or stage 8 or stage 9 of those 10 stages described earlier, you probably can do that with one room designed for the corporate worship of God and a series of short pastorates. If that customized ministry plan includes reaching, attracting, serving, nurturing, challenging, affirming, and equipping for volunteer ministry persons at three or more of stages 5 through 10, that effort will be facilitated if your physical facilities include at least three, and preferably four or five, different physical environments for worship, plus pastorates of at least 12 to 20 years.

In summary, from this observer's perspective, the most productive road to the revitalization of a congregation that has been gathering in the same room for the corporate worship of God for a decade or longer is to challenge and equip believers for the next stage of their personal faith journey…but choose a new physical environment for that next stage.

Lyle E. Schaller is a retired parish pastor and parish consultant.

Copyright 2009 by Lyle E. Schaller

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