Stages of Faith – Anxiety, Church and the Freedom to Doubt

More from ‘The Courage to Create‘ by Rollo May – an excellent book on the psychology of creativity.

May was conducting some research into the roots of anxiety, and based his study on groups of teenage mothers in a shelter in New York. He was pretty sure his hypothesis – that their anxiety would be solidly rooted in rejection by their mothers – was secure and would be easily proved.

It was in half the women. But the other half just didn’t fit. All their Rorschach and other tests showed that they were not suffering from anxiety, even though they too had been rejected by their mothers like the other half.

I’ll probably post about the way the solution to this problem came about, as the whole topic of where inspiration and breakthrough comes from is fascinating in itself, but suffice to say he suddenly had a revelation about this problem which had seemed intractable:

I suddenly saw in that instant that it is not rejection by the mother that is the original trauma which is the source of anxiety; it is rather rejection that is lied about.

…anxiety comes from not being able to know the world you’re in, not being able to orient yourself in your own existence.

I have been mulling on how this might impact on thinking on stages of faith.

My argument in the book is that it is vital that people are allowed the freedom to travel on this road, and not held back at any stage. However, this is rarely the case. Many churches, particularly those at ‘Stage 3’ – where truth and authority tend to be externally located in Scripture and the Pastor – see those who are actually moving on to ‘Stage 4’ – where truth becomes more internalised – as doubters and possible back-sliders.

This can, of course, lead to great anxiety for people at that interface between Stage 3 and 4. But what Rollo’s work seems to back up is that the root of the anxiety is not that people are struggling with rejecting the old forms of faith, but that they are ‘lied to’ about that rejection: told that they are back-sliding, flirting with dangerous beliefs etc. If the routes forward onto the further stages are not open and clear for people – which is surely a pastoral task that all churches must take seriously, then people who are moving between the stages are not going to be able to ‘know the world they are in and orient themselves in their existence.’

Unfortunately, this anxiety unrecognised and untreated can lead to rejection of faith entirely and, perhaps more immediately seriously, depression and psychological trauma. If this is further ‘treated’ by inappropriate ministry within the Stage 3 context it can actually get much worse… And I think many of us can think of examples of that.

The lessons for Emerging (and other) Churches?

1. The Stages of Faith ought to be clearly set out to people – they ought to expect that this is the likely path their spiritual journey is going to take. Ideally, people ought to be put in touch with others at different stages so that they have models and relationships to work with…

2. When doubts come, they need to be taken seriously. And this includes doubts even about the doubtless perfect new churches that we are putting together! People need to ‘know the world they are existing in.’


One response to “Stages of Faith – Anxiety, Church and the Freedom to Doubt”

  1. Kester, thanks. Much resonates in your post with regards to my own journey, my observations and pastoral concern. Reminded me of a book review I wrote a couple of weeks ago for RELEVANT mgazine. The book was Alan Jamieson’s “A Churchless Faith” –
    In it I wrote “The significant majority of leavers “were not choosing to leave their Christian faith when they left the church.” They were leaving in order to either save their faith and/or in order to deepen and grow their faith. These are post-congregational Christians; they are not what many term “backsliders,” a reality that is seldom recognised or understood by those in congregations they leave…”
    My hope is that churches will become large spaces with permeable boundaries within which, and outside of which, people are gifted room and resources to continue growing as Jesus-followers without feeling they have no other option but to leave. This will require new learning, and acompanying systemic, pastoral, and cultural changes within congregations.
    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.