Fred looks up and sees his friend George walking down the sidewalk towards him and immediately is overcome with bewilderment. “George,” he says, “I heard you had died!” “Hardly,” says George laughing, “As you can see, I am very much alive.” “Impossible,” says Fred, “The person who told me is way more trustworthy and reliable that you!”
Think back when we were very young children. No one was more reliable or more trustworthy than our parents. If they said it, we believed it. In fact, they didn’t even need to say anything, we automatically grew up like them. Yes, they taught us things, but we all know we caught far more than they taught. Children are like that. They absorb all sorts of things, including their parents’ faith.
In this series, we are talking about the six stages of faith. Stages are distinguishable periods of growth and development that take place in everyone’s faith journey. These stages are the steps of a process that are distinguished by certain predictable patterns or characteristics. They are also sequential. You always start at stage one and then progress through the stages until you reach the final stage. Of course, at any time you can stop and “live out your days” in any particular stage prior to the last. Think of the stages as floors of a six-story building. There are no elevators or express escalators. You arrive on the first floor; and to get to the top floor, you have to journey up the stairs and visit each subsequent floor.
Maybe another example might help. Our good friend Perry Downs would always ask a new mom how big her newborn baby was. The mom would gladly offer the information by saying something like he or she was “six-eight.” And Perry would then act shocked and say, “Six-eight! That’s really tall for a baby!” Of course, he knew that the mom was walking about weight and not height, but the joke works because there is a pattern of development that all people everywhere experience. Babies start small and grow bigger. They don’t start off at 6’8” and shrink. And to get to 6’8,” you have to go through all the appropriate stages, the 2-foot stage, the 4-foot stage, the 6-foot stage and so forth. Now, at any time, genetics can raise its hand and cause a stoppage; or a disease or malnutrition can throw a wrench into things. But generally speaking, there is a predictable pattern of growth that we can observe; and if all goes well, you will reach the height appointed for you. My genes said I was going to reach the five-foot stage. Your genes said you were going to reach the six-foot stage (but it is clear that your genes are just trying to show off).
This principle is true about stages, as well. Sometimes things happen that cause us to move on to the next stage. Call it a prompt or a push. We were at stage four, but there was something inside of us that compelled us to push on to stage five. Sadly, the opposite is also true. Sometimes we reach a particular stage and decide that’s enough. And so, we choose to call it quits and not proceed any farther. Here’s the truth: while there are six stages of faith, most of the time, we find an earlier stage that we like and stop there.
One more comment before introducing Stage 1. I lied. In a previous post, I said there was a basement in our six-floor building analogy and those in the basement had no faith (faith began on floor one). But that’s not true. Everyone starts out on the first floor because we all believe something. Even if that faith is a faith in nothing, we all believe something (remember, we are talking about this as a sociologist and not as a theologian). Remember, everyone, they say, believes in something. And in stage one, it is very clear what we believe in. We believe in our families and in whatever they believe.
Let’s label Stage 1, Receptive Faith. Stage 1 faith, generally speaking, is occupied by very young children. We can sum up stage one by saying: “I believe what my family believes.” No matter who you are or what type of family you were raised in, you adopted their faith. If they were atheists, you were an atheist. If they were Buddhists, you were Buddhist. If they were a Ravens’ fan, you became a Ravens’ fan. You received their faith. They didn’t hold a class on “Family Beliefs 101,” you just caught what they believed.
Now, this is good news if you were raised in a home where your parents were following Jesus because you absorbed from a very early age that God loves you and is good. Later on in life, you won’t have to wrestle with doubts about who God is because you have known him all your life (I’m overstating my case here as you will see when we reach a later stage, but it is a valid point). But even as a small child, you are going to experience a “real” faith. Yes, it is a “borrowed” faith, but it is still real. If you could articulate a statement of faith, it would look something like this:
- I believe that God loves me and is trustworthy because my family believes.
- I feel God’s love and care because my family loves and cares for me.
- I receive and respond to God’s love by participating in my family’s rituals and practices.
Now, just like toddlers can’t do algebraic equations because they lack logical reasoning, so people with a Stage 1 faith can’t process all that is necessary to own their faith. All they can do in Stage 1 is to receive the faith of their family. And that is not a bad thing. That is all we can do. As kids, we receive our family’s faith. We go to their church. We “pray” their prayers. We sing their songs, and we embrace their way of life without question. We don’t evaluate their beliefs and practices. We just receive them. Whatever our family believes and does, we are right there with them. We breathe in their faith.
Now, what this says to us as parents is huge. In some way, our faith will shape the faith of our kids. And if that is true, then we need to do everything we can to provide our kids with a great faith foundation. We need to love our kids because that is how they will learn of God’s love. We need to be available to our kids because that is how they will learn that God hears them when they pray. We need to play with our kids because that is how they will learn that God is for them. We often erroneously think that our kids will absorb our faith only when we are doing something religious (praying, worshipping, giving thanks, etc.), but that is not true. They receive our faith in everything we do. And that should charge all of our interaction with our kids with a holy joy. The good news is that God is also at work here, and so our kids’ faith is not completely up to us (we are not going to mess up their chance at heaven because we snap at them when they are throwing their food on the floor again, for the sixth time). Instead, we see our calling as parents to partner with God, to put our kids on the right path by praying with them, by singing to them, by sharing Bible stories with them, by participating in church, and, most importantly, living out a genuine, dynamic and vibrant faith in front of them. In short, this stage is a call for parents to seize the moment by intentionally introducing our kids to Jesus at every opportunity, not in an artificial way, but in a way that is truly you.
It is also telling that men and women who grew up in a no-faith home and inherited the atheism of their parents often struggle with engaging in spiritual beliefs in their adult lives because the influence of their growing-up home still has a hold on them. Let me just say it: It is hard to break out of the faith we received in Stage 1. It is possible, and it happens frequently, but it requires added effort. The faith we receive in our earliest years shapes us significantly.
This is the challenge of Stage 1: that parents live out their faith in a way that is visible, that is genuine, that is contagious, that is loving, so that they can shape their kids’ lives for eternity. James Baldwin said it this way: “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” I agree completely. That’s Stage 1. There are five more to go.