By Jonathan Sargeant:

What is faith, actually? In a way it’s the business of our congregations. It’s the thing that binds us together because we share fairly similar versions of…whatever it is. But faith is something we might not actually think a lot about. In common parlance, the word ‘faith’ is used in several ways and in different contexts. A person can do something, acting in good faith. Or you can put your faith in someone, expecting them to carry out some activity in an expected way. But what does this term mean for us as Christians? Let’s work this out.

It’s more than just about belief. ‘Belief’ is a word that’s used in lots of ways today as well, but it exists at a lower level than faith. You can believe in something, in the existence of God for example, and that’s where it can stay. That belief might not move into actually affecting any of your life practices. Faith suggests a more consistent set of beliefs that becomes enacted in one’s life in organised ways. In other words, you aim to ‘talk the talk’ and ‘walk the walk’.

But we should stop ourselves to check those statements. In suggesting that faith connotes consistency in belief and action, maybe we’re making a value judgment about faith; we’re stating the most positive or idealised sense in which faith can be described. If a person doesn’t do a very good job of being consistent in their faith practices, do they still possess faith? It can be suggested that they do, but it might not be the most life-giving expression of faith for that person at that time. I wonder if, when honest, most of us find difficulty in always acting in total accordance with our faith. St Paul certainly noted this in Romans!

Now in saying this, I want to acknowledge that in having this discussion, I have not used words like ‘God’ and ‘Jesus’ so far. Of course, at its best our faith is a living, breathing thing, a faith in God through Jesus and empowered by the Spirit. It’s a precious and wonderful thing, this faith. But for the purposes of this discussion I’m just trying to get at the concept of ‘faith’ in a few paragraphs, to encourage us to think about it in, what I hope, is a helpful way.

Okay, so faith. Over the years, people whose ministry it is to help us think about faith formation have been pondering the concept of ‘faith’. Some say that the more we understand how our faith works, the more effective we will be in growing our faith. This helps us to be an active part of God’s exciting mission in our world. Many theologians have come up with various models for how faith develops, but one in particular caught my attention a few years ago. It still manages to be helpful in my day-to-day understanding of faith, the Church, ministry and just about everything. It’s a model of faith styles, developed by an Anglican priest named John Westerhoff III.

Westerhoff first suggested his model of how faith grows in a slim volume called Will Our Children Have Faith? back in the mid-1970s. Since then, he’s elaborated on these ideas, but let me share with you the basics.

The first important idea is this: other theoreticians have suggested that faith grows in stages but Westerhoff talks about styles. Versions of stage theory are everywhere, used in conceptions from moral development to physical and mental growth, too. Stage theory is simple: people progress through identifiable stages. When they leave stage 1, they reach stage 2. Whatever is going in stage 2 is identifiably different to stage 1. When we think about the differences between babies, toddlers, children and youths we are thinking in this staged way. Makes sense?

Westerhoff’s theory of ‘Faith Styles’ is different to this, though. He suggests our faith grows like the growth rings of a tree. There are different styles and there can be a progression through them, but each previous stage stays within us, like the inner rings of a tree still within the trunk. Also, worth adding is that for Westerhoff, these styles of faith are not tied to particular ages of people. A 10-year-old child and a 40-year-old person can be at the same stage. Okay, this will all make more sense when we look at the four styles.

The first style is ‘Experienced Faith’. In this style, faith grows through experiences of love and acceptance from others. In effect, God is experienced though the kindness of other people of faith. Imagine a child who drops a toy in church and looks up to see smiling glances (rather than scowls). They feel loved and accepted. The same can be said for the parents of that child, visiting church for the first time. They experience love and acceptance as someone offers them seats and gets an activity bag for their child. The dropped toy produces understanding looks from other parishioners. Westerhoff suggests this is not just about feeling welcomed; this is the fertile ground in which faith is accepted and growing as people become part of the faith community. Westerhoff notes that this can be a pre-conscious faith. People may not be aware of this as a faith experience; they are more likely to see it as such in retrospect.

‘Affiliative Faith’ is the second style. If people consistently experience love and acceptance in the faith community, they move to affiliative faith (though the needs for love and acceptance are still within them!) In this style, the key word is belonging. Here people want to belong to the faith community and own the group for themselves. This is the style where people imitate and participate. They learn when to stand and when to sit. Depending on the nature of the church, they learn when to raise their hands in praise and/or cross themselves. They learn about the culture of the community by osmosis, through experience. You’ll note how Westerhoff always thinks about faith from the perspective of the community; in the affiliative style he notes that it is not just ‘I’ who believes but ‘we’. Creedal statements become more important. These are the things we, as a group, believe. Key to both of these styles is that they are characterised as “religion of the heart”. There is more emphasis on the feelings that faith produces, than on head-based cognitive ideas.

The third style is called ‘Searching Faith’. This style marks a kind of transition, as religion of the head comes to match religion of the heart. Feelings are still important (because each previous style is still within us), but now we add a desire to understand our faith more cognitively. For instance, we might start to notice the differences between gospels. Why does the Sermon on the Mount happen in both Matthew and Luke but in different places and in different ways? The big questions of faith (e.g. If God loves us, why do bad things happen?) start to rear their heads. Searching faith style people want to push beyond trite answers in dealing with them. Historically, this style has been labelled ‘doubt’. This style may appear disturbing to the faith community! But Westerhoff sees it as a normal part of faith development, one that requires safe and secure spaces for ideas to be explored. Small groups are great for this!

If people receive the nurture necessary as they search they can reach the fourth style: ‘Owned Faith’. In this style, faith becomes truly internally motivated. Whereas Experienced and Affiliative style people might state they come to church to see their friends (and this is natural for them and shouldn’t be criticised), those with owned faith come to worship God, together with their community. Westerhoff suggests it is in this style that a life-changing difference may become apparent, as the struggle for consistency and integrity becomes obvious.

Westerhoff revolutionised talk about faith back in the 1970s and 1980s by talking about faith as more of a verb than a noun. It was something people did and experienced and practised, not just a thing you ‘got’ at a single conversion point. It was a thing that required nurture and tending, just like a tree. It is a thing of journey, where learning and growth never stop. Westerhoff is at pains to suggest this is not a theory to be used to put people in boxes. Instead, where the theory is helpful to our thinking, we can use it. I find it a helpful set of ideas valuable in everything from parish faith formation planning to when I’m interviewing people for our St Francis College Short Courses or sharing my faith with my friends.

Of course, there is more to these ideas; this is just the shorthand version. But I hope you find it interesting and useful.

These and many more ideas are taught as a part of the subject THL366 Christian Education here at St Francis College. If many other subjects teach the content of faith, Christian Education teaches how to teach and think about faith. Packed to the brim with practical ideas, strategies and insights, the subject is taught every two years. It’s coming up again in Semester 2 starting 12 July! Enrolment deadline is 9 July. Find out how to enrol in Christian Education or one of the other intriguing subjects taught at St Francis College.

Take part in St Francis College’s virtual and in-person Open Days in May to find out about the wide range of study options for exploring the Christian faith, ask questions about courses, talk to staff and learn about what St Francis College has to offer.

First published on anglican focus on 14 April 2021.

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