maturity Archives - St. Croix Church

A dove from a turret at Sagrada Familia

Communities and Spiritual Maturity: Rooted with Wings

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Presented by Walter Thiessen at 2018 Society for Vineyard Scholars (Kentucky)

Some communities are good soil (Mt. 13.1-23). New seeds – new life-giving ideas spoken and embodied – are received, understood and integrated into the individual and shared lives of such groups. Some communities are not; they are closed, hard and rocky or they are fragmented, choked by competing desires for the heart, the loyalty, of their members. A dove from a turret at Sagrada Familia

One factor that helps to determine the nature of a faith community is the explicit or implicit understanding of spiritual maturity that guides it. From a practical theological standpoint, this leads us into the territory of faith development or spiritual development models.

Assessing James Fowler’s Faith Development Stages

The most important such model, in both Christian and secular circles, is James Fowler’s Faith Development Theory (FDT; 1981, 2001). This model, based on “sequential, invariant, and hierarchical” stages (2001, p.167), has been widely taught and also widely adapted and simplified (or imitated) in the stage theories of authors such as Scott Peck (1987), Dave Schmelzer, (2008), or Brian McLaren, (2012).

Much good has come out of these stage theories. In my experience, people have responded the most to these three concepts: 1) the growth value of passing through a season of doubts and individual questioning, 2) the importance of embracing paradox, and 3) the rare possibility of developing a truly selfless and universal compassion. These are the central themes in the last three of Fowler’s stages, and they have helped to broaden a sense of what spiritual maturity looks like in those communities that have given attention to such theories.

Of course, there have been criticisms of Fowler’s theory. According to one thorough assessment, the focus on clear stages is only supported by research when its emphasis is on cognitive aspects (Parker, 2010, p. 245) and when it describes pre-adolescents (p. 239). Ironically, these are precisely the aspects of FDT that are most ignored in popular presentations of Fowler or his imitators. Clore and Fitzgerald (2002) likewise found no empirical support for the stage theory, concluding that “rather than a sequential set of displacements, faith involves a progressive integration of new elements into an existing base” (p. 104).

This certainly does not mean that the wisdom that has borne much good fruit when teaching Fowler’s discussion of the higher stages has been misguided; it only means that we should hold lightly the relationship between the important developmental themes of these higher stages and our need to pass through “sequential, invariant, and hierarchical” stages. We are highly complex and unpredictable beings. One danger in not capturing this human uniqueness and complexity is that teaching the stage theories often contains an implicit elitism with which someone (or even some communities), presumably in a higher stage, invites others in lower stages to come join him or her.

Introducing the Mosaic Model of Spiritual Maturity

Considering the limitations of FDT, and similar stage models, I have looked to other sources such as complexity theory, attachment theory and other models of spiritual development to propose a model that I call the Mosaic of Spiritual Maturity. This model (Thiessen, 2015), is based on two interactive dimensions: 1) an expansive trajectory toward increasing complexity, and 2) a pattern of four facets or themes that are present throughout our lives (in relation to spiritual development) and that recur for seasons during which they take “central stage” in our awareness and growth.

Spiritual Maturity

Most relevant to this paper is my understanding of the first dimension. It is the natural pathway of all organisms to grow in complexity. For an increase in complexity to lead to maturity, it must be organized and constrained by integrity: a sense of meaningful wholeness or unity among the diverse complexity in the midst of which we live and of which we are made. Therefore, I define maturing as increasing complexity held together by integrity.

There are two important aspects of integrity that are important. There is, first, the appropriate integrity of all those diverse experiences and understandings that contribute to our growth (i.e. the integrity of the “pieces”). For new experiences and new understandings to become well integrated into my life, I need to respect the integrity of each new “piece” and not violate or distort it before it becomes a part of me. For example, if I meet a young Trump supporter and instantly assume that he is a white supremacist brainwashed by fake news, I have not permitted this to be an encounter with a sense of integrity that contributes to my growing maturity. I have violated an understanding of a real human being to fit him into my pre-existing categories.

Simultaneously, when I experience and take in the complexity around me, my larger integrity – my sense of wholeness, meaning and identity – will be affected. There is a tension between these two levels of integrity: the integrity of the pieces and the integrity of the whole. Therefore, I use the metaphor of the mosaic as central to the model; each small and meaningful piece contributes to the larger pattern of the whole.

Sometimes the tension is too much for us, when our sense of wholeness and meaning are not flexible enough to adapt to what is new. Then giving way to the integrity of the new experience or encounter threatens to fragment our larger sense of integrity. We can then resist in fear and spit out that new piece that threatens. Or we can take it in and be broken. That brokenness, in turn, can lead either to a time of meaninglessness – a fragmentation that saps my energy and purpose – or a time of conversion and re-building that enables a larger and more flexible new integrity to emerge.

The “ideal” spiritual maturity, then, for us is not to reach any particular “stage” but to grow at the pace that allows us to respond by preserving the integrity of the encountered outside world (and one might add: inner, unexplored, world) with a minimum of either hardened resistance or crippling fragmentation.

Free-flowing “Facets” or Themes

While the second dimension is less important to the purpose of this paper, I will describe it briefly. In the common stage theories, like FDT, key concepts like conformity, individualism, and paradox define the stages. I reinterpret these concepts as part of facets or themes that are always present and (hopefully) maturing in everyone. Different facets will rise to prominence in our lives at different times in relatively unpredictable but recurring patterns. I suggest that they are all somewhat linked in that maturing in one facet helps to enable further growth in other facets.

While recognizing that there is an arbitrary sense to the naming of the facets, I have proposed four facets (for elaboration see: Thiessen, 2015):

1) Chaos and order (agency, consequences, in/justice)

2) Love, forgiveness and community (primary social dimensions of spirituality)

3) Freedom and change (a bifurcated facet often taken the shape of a or b)

  1. a) Revolution and resistance (naming and countering what seems wrong)
  2. b) Imagination and hope (seeing and trusting beyond what is present)

4) Mystery, peace and trust (deep acceptance, comfort with not knowing)

Within each of these facets or themes there are many spiritual lessons to learn or potential places to get stuck. We never master a facet or “arrive” at a stage, but we mature with either a smooth continuity or a discontinuous journey of stuckness and conversion.

 The Role of Community

While some theorists, perhaps most notably Hagberg and Guelich (1989), posit the significance of a time of discontinuous change (“the Wall”), my Mosaic model does not normalize this expectation. Yet I acknowledge that many do face this kind of developmental challenge. I suggest that this has less to do with the individual (though individual temperaments do play a role) and more to do with the primary spiritual communities with which people identify. Intentionally or unintentionally, communities often limit the maturing process of their members. For example, if a community’s beliefs and narratives are devoted to an actively interventionist God who always wants to act if prayerfully given permission, then many people are going to become spiritually stuck when faced with painful experiences of injustice, undeserved suffering or unanswered prayer.

In such cases, to mature, individuals must be open to possibilities outside of the spiritual resources of their own community. This is only a small obstacle if one’s primary community encourages a “wilderness experience” – the embracing of a time of “not knowing” during which one is openly seeking spiritual growth outside of the normal bounds of the community. However, if such wandering is curtailed because the “answers are already clear” or “absolute truths are not to be questioned,” then a “Wall” will most certainly be faced.

Attachment theory suggests that a primary caregiver provides a “secure base” from which toddlers begin to feel free to reach out and explore the world (Bowlby, 1988, p.11). Glancing back, they see that their parent remains available and non-anxious, and this empowers them to engage their explorations fully, reconnecting as needed. Communities likewise need to be a secure base from which individuals can explore the larger world. If the community clings, sets up rigid boundaries or “looks on anxiously” when an individual explores new things, individuals are faced with the difficult choice of staying too close to home or losing their home all together.

Healthy communities are hospitable to strangers, value journeying into the wilderness and regularly see the Presence of God in the “Other.” Such theological concepts of openness help keep the boundaries of communities flexible and permeable. Communities that embody these kinds of openness facilitate the spiritual maturity of their members, lessening the need for stuckness and fearful resistance.

Fear and resistance, on the other hand, are easily exploited by leaders who are limited in their own spiritual maturity. Church growth is highly correlated with the giftedness rather than the spiritual maturity of its leaders. So a gifted leader can easily grow a church by emphasizing a shared cultural fear and offering a community as a haven from the dangerous society that surrounds it. In fact, I suggest that the exploitation of fear is one of the hallmarks of the immature leader, whether that fear is the fear of hell, the fear of same-sex marriage, or the fear of being politically incorrect.

On the other hand, communities, like individuals, must also maintain their integrity. Communities that do not articulate and embody a living and orienting centre may find that emphasizing openness leads to a disorienting fragmentation. Shared meaning in the community dims, and there is little shared purpose. Such communities tend to drift toward dissolution.

Does a community, then, welcome the expansiveness that maturity requires, an expansiveness that will always challenge the boundaries and past understandings on which the community has relied? Does a community also offer a cohesive centring pull with an elastic worldview with which it can meaningfully integrate new and challenging perspectives? In our community in St. Stephen, we have asked ourselves whether we, while remaining rooted, provide our people with wings to fly. In biblical terms, we see this elasticity in the way that Jesus (like the OT prophets) simultaneously questioned the boundaries of his community (e.g. Lk. 14.26, Lk. 4.24-26, Mt. 5.38-39) while affirming his connection with it (e.g. Mt. 5.17-20, Jn. 4.22).

A healthy community, then, can be seen in its elasticity. It can be strongly stretched without breaking, but there is also a pull drawing its members back to its centre. I would suggest that for Christian communities, this centre is most clearly articulated in Jesus’ embodiment of, and invitation to, the inextricably entwined love of God and neighbour.[1]

YWAM: An Example

Just this past year, Tonya Stanfield, experienced YWAM leader in South Africa, published an article on faith development in a YWAM journal. She begins by stating: “Perhaps one of the greatest hurdles Evangelicals face in pursuit of spiritual maturity is a lack of understanding about the human development process” (2017, p.1). Basing her analysis largely on Fowler, she assesses how “embodied and contemplative practices” can mediate the faith development of participants.

In both her own research project and in her reading, Stanfield came to realise the very real concern that faith communities can and do restrain the spiritual development of their members. She cites Jamieson, for example, as concluding:

that 30 percent of committed, active believers who left a church did so because they transitioned out of its modal development level. They had no offense or disagreement with their church but felt they could not continue their faith journey within it. In particular, they did not feel they had the permission or safety to raise destabilizing metanarrative questions, much less the space or equipping tools to explore alternative answers to those questions. (2002, in Stanfield, 2017, p.11)

Using the language of Fowler’s stages, she labels the “modal level” of YWAM’s public meetings as stage 3, while the “classroom culture” is stage 4. She gives a common example from her own study that in public YWAM settings, “Stage 4 voices were stifled by the modal level unknowingly maintained by those in Stage 3” (p.11).

Stanfield describes that it is the internal valuing of diversity within YWAM that helps prevent the restricting effects from being even greater (pp.11-12). This appreciation for diversity enables a relatively mature openness in the classroom and presumably provides a safe enough place for Stanfield herself to study and promote such a critique of their own culture. Stanfield also stresses the value of individual participants finding “safe” and “liminal” groups (p.13) to support those who were left struggling with “metanarrative questions, unresolved ministry disillusionments” (p. 14). Unfortunately, working against this is YWAM’s official policy that “insists their actual beliefs remain in Stage 3, peer-defined and based on external-authority that has not been reconciled with personal experience” (p. 14).

While Stanfield’s article uses the stage-bound language of FDT, it demonstrates the very real limitation of a community on spiritual development. What I would add from the perspective of the Mosaic Model is that the YWAM community is simultaneously limiting and liberating thanks to individuals within it who are committed to theological openness regardless of the stage at which they may be labelled. It is their relative ability to combine the elasticity of openness while preserving the integrity at their centre that has enabled some individuals to move beyond the rigidity of their official policies and beliefs.

The Health of Vineyard Communities

The global Vineyard community has much in common with YWAM. I would expect that Stanfield’s experiences would be mirrored in many local Vineyard contexts. While Stanfield’s critique, and Fowler’s FDT, might suggest that the Vineyard should ask itself whether it provides “Stage 4 or even Stage 5 communities,” the model I am suggesting warns against the implication that we need communities that have a certain “modal level.” I wonder how such expectations would really empower a healthy diversification (particularly across educational levels) and the necessary multigenerational needs of any community. Maybe such an emphasis in the past has, unhelpfully and divisively, made it feel like those Vineyards (and their leaders) with a more educated or progressive congregation were condescending to those presumed to be at a lower stage of development.

An example of how it is more complex than this can be seen in the life of Henri Nouwen. As a very well educated and widely respected voice of spiritual wisdom, one would have good reason to assume that he represented a higher stage in Fowler’s model and that Harvard Divinity School represented a very mature community. Yet, relatively late in his life, he left his spiritually nuanced academic world to join a L’Arche community in Canada. He writes that “[I] had to let go of all previous notions of church and community, traditional understandings about who is in and who is not, and to empty myself of long-held opinions and judgments. But in return, I have found a home of deep joy and new purpose” (2010, pp.91-92).

So instead of the modal level that a community is at, I suggest that whatever diverse mix (or not) is represented in a faith community, the key to its healthy nurturing of spiritual development is that it embodies a healthy elasticity, an openness to its members seeking insight outside, in the Wilderness, while at the same time maintaining a meaningful integrity that sincerely welcomes “home” those whose understandings have significantly changed.

I will suggest an example that many of you have seen and others will soon see. Your young people, in high school or university, will come to learn about genocide as one of the most immoral acts in which a person can participate. One day they will be reading Joshua and their eyes will be opened, and they will see a God commanding genocide. If your community has not provided them with a flexible hermeneutic or if you are not willing to welcome and struggle together with those who refuse to worship a God who commands genocide, then you will lose these precious children of your community. And I am glad in that case that you will. But I hope, rather, that you have the elasticity to centre them without stifling their minds and hearts.

I leave it to others to assess whether the typical Vineyard church demonstrates this elasticity that encourages and welcomes the true spiritual maturity of its people. But I hope that we avoid dogmatic confessionalism or, its contemporary counterpart, public statements on cultural or political stances that rigidly draw a line in the sand. In such communities we will often find spiritual maturity most in those who are ejected or sadly walk away. When Nicodemus, whose paradigms were being blown apart, came to Jesus, he heard Jesus say, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3.8). The spiritually mature will always choose to follow the Spirit rather than being entrapped by the boundaries of a rigid community, but how many of them will we lose?

[1] And, yes, I am explicitly stating this centre over and above any doctrinal statements.

*For copies or references, email Walter.