How Does Faith Mature?

Well, apparently, keeping up a weekly blog is a bit challenging during the first faithsemester of undergraduate teaching. Nonetheless, if the previous two blog entries sought to determine what faith is and then more specifically what mature faith is then the logical next question is, “Ok, then how did it change?” This post seeks to consider the how and the what of growth in faith, and this is the place where Scripture becomes somewhat less specific.

The short answer to how faith matures is that we as Christians become more like Christ. In the decisions we make, the actions we take, and the thoughts we think, the beliefs we believe grow and develop into a deeper faith in Christ as Savior.

That still doesn’t answer how it happens.

In a generic sense, it provides a solid Sunday School answer to the growth of faith, but when it comes to the nitty-gritty of growth, when it comes to ornery words like perseverance, endurance, and steadfastness, then we come to the meat of growth. Faith does not develop in a vacuum. It grows and develops in the context of our daily lives, our relationships, and our experiences. And, when it comes to those experiences, I believe there are two kinds of experiences that we endure that shape our beliefs.

On a small scale, I believe that each day we experience what I will call Faith Informing Moments. Faith Informing Moment is a microevent that either girds or sways our faith in a small amount that does not result in change. When we listen to a sermon that reaffirms our faith or when we have a conversation with a friend about things of faith that reaffirms what we already believe; those are Faith Informing Moments. They are times when we are thinking about what we believe, but not being challenged to new heights or depths. They are faith maintainers. They are not faith alterers and certainly not faith transformers. Likewise, if we have a bad day, like a flat tire in the rain on the way to work, or an argument with someone who disagrees with us about faith, but doesn’t carry enough impact to change our view. There may be a low level of influence (and it may have a cumulative effect) but it doesn’t transform us. They are moments in time that inform our faith, but without a sufficient accumulation, there is not enough to bring about change. If you are a student of psychology, these moments do not achieve a just noticeable difference (JND). For those of you studied in Piaget’s cognitive theory, there is only assimilation here. Everything fits already held beliefs. However, if those microevents add up in a way that moves us, or if we encounter something bigger, then a leap may be triggered.

On this larger scale, faith has not only been informed, but it has been transformed. Let’s call this a Faith Transforming Event. A Faith Transforming Event (FTE) is a macro-transaction where an individual is no longer able to reconcile prior beliefs due to new information the individual either voluntarily discovered or involuntarily confronted. The macro-transaction is a large scale exchange where the individual takes in new information (vis-à-vis the event) and is forced to respond with a reexamination of prior beliefs. The FTE then forces us into a place where we recognize that what we have believed up to the point of the FTE is no longer adequate to explain what we believed previously (Piaget’s accommodation). Faith has to move.

Now, this may sound familiar to you if you are born again. This is what you experienced when you first encountered the gospel, because let’s face it. There is nothing with more transformative power than the gospel! But, that is not the end of faith development. In fact, that is where real faith development begins. So we must understand, experiencing salvation at the point of recognition of what Christ already did is just one of the faith transforming events we have the opportunity to experience. We may encounter the miraculous (a healing) or the catastrophic (the death of a child) or something in between that carries with it the weight of transforming power when we connect with it. In other words, Faith Transforming Events can happen at any time, can be different in magnitude, and universally bring us to a point of questioning, “Do my previous beliefs still explain what I thought they explained?” If the answer is, “Yes, and now I know it even more thoroughly,” then we have achieved a deeper faith through endurance. If the answer is, “No, I’m not sure what this means,” then we are led into a time of questioning and (if it matters to us enough) a search for answers.

Also recognize, we don’t necessarily need to go through the FTE ourselves for it to become an FTE for us. We may experience a vicarious FTE that enables us to learn from the FTE’s of others so that it becomes our own FTE. How often is this the point of Scripture? It’s sort of the main point of Ecclesiastes.

Here’s why this is important:

1) If these FTEs we experience help inform our understanding of the growth and development of faith, then all of a sudden we have a new variable we can begin to measure to help us understand how faith develops and how mature one’s faith really is. In other words, FTEs provide a quantifiable variable that can help us measure faith development.

2) If we can accurately and briefly identify faith maturity (or faith identity) then there are beneficial implications for the local church. On a wider view, it can help a church to understand where their congregants are. This information can be beneficial in choosing Sunday School curriculum, for example. Similarly, if there is a short questionnaire a new member can complete providing this now measurable information, then it becomes easier (and more targeted) to suggest certain Bible study groups or Sunday school classes as more beneficial than others, as targeted at their level of faith maturity.

Nonetheless, if the idea of Faith Transforming Events is accurate, then it leads to two new questions. First, if FTEs explain growth, then how do we describe the pathway through growth? Where has someone grown from and what are they growing toward? Second, if FTEs are measurable, then what exactly should be measured? These will be the foci of the next two blog posts.