The Critical Journey by Janet O. Hagberg & Robert A. Guelich

Being a Christian is a journey, and it seems we follow a similar path. The authors describe what this journey of faith may look like. They have found six stages:

  • Stage 1: Recognition of God (Discovering God)
  • Stage 2: Life of Discipleship (Learning about God)
  • Stage 3: Productive Life (Working for God)
  • Stage 4: Journey Inward (Rediscovering God)
  • Wall (Our will facing God’s will)
  • Stage 5: Journey Outward (Surrendering to God)
  • Stage 6: Life of Love (Reflecting God)

A few thoughts on these stages:

  • The progress is not straightforward. We actually move back and forth between the different stages on a regular basis. We ought not to see this scale as a means to assess who is “better.”
  • There is a stage where we feel most comfortable, and we may be stuck because we are afraid or do not know how to move forward.
  • We experience movements with the help of the Christian community, whether friends, pastors, etc.

Stage 1: Recognition of God (Discovering God)

It is the beginning of the journey… a stage of romance. We are passionate. Enthusiastic. We do not see negative points. We run as if our journey was a 100m sprint. We have accepted the reality of God in our lives.

Characteristics:

  • a sense of awe,
  • a sense of need (maybe due to a difficult situation that led us to Christ),
  • a natural awareness (experiential presence of God),
  • greater meaning in life,
  • a sense of innocence.

Caged at stage 1:

  • Worthlessness (feeling of being too sinful to be worthy; afraid that people will see what is in us),
  • Spiritual bankruptcy (feeling God is not there for us; we feel insufficient to ask God for help)
  • Martyrdom (feeling the whole world is against us, and we deserve the pain we are in).
  • Ignorance (feeling of being incapable to think correctly coming from our low self-esteem)

Being stuck in this stage can be summarized by this statement: God is so great… but too great for me.

Moving from stage 1 to 2:

  • Become part of a strong group
  • Let life take on more significance
  • Find a charismatic leader to follow
  • Discover the way: we are secured by a group of people and a set of beliefs we understand

Catalysts for this movement:

  • Accepting self-worth (we are loved the way we are)
  • Reduce isolation

 

Stage 2: The Life of Discipleship (Learning about God)

The life of discipleship is defined by learning and belonging. We grow in affirming our beliefs as part of a community. We start to understand the reasons for our faith.

Characteristics:

  • Meaning from belonging
  • Answers found in a leader, cause or belief system (we are still unsure and we depend on someone more mature. We gather behind a cause or belief system)
  • A sense of rightness (“I found it” feeling)
  • Security in our faith (position of comfort where we have someone we rely on).

Caged at stage 2:

  • Rigid in righteousness (tendency to be legalistic and moralistic. Rigid on what is right and wrong. Possible group arrogance)
  • We against them
  • The switchers (we grow disillusioned by the group we have been part of, or by the leaders)
  • The searchers (we live a confusing experience leading to push back on what was learned. We search for a genuine spirituality away from the hypocrisy we have experienced.)

In stage one, we think we are wrong and weak. In stage two, we think others are wrong and weak.

Moving from stage 2 to 3:

  • Recognize uniqueness (we grow through focus on developing ourselves)
  • Identify gifts (we need to find ways to contribute to the group with our uniqueness)
  • See yourself as a contributor (we start to participate rather than acting only as a recipient)
  • Seek responsibility

Catalysts for this movement:

  • Risk taking
  • Acceptance of gifts

 

Stage 3: The Productive Life (Working for God)

This is the “doing” stage. We have found our gifting and now we employ them to serve others. We have a positive outlook. We want to be productive for the advance of the faith. We define goals and plan to achieve. For many, it is the “mountain” moment in their spiritual journey.

Characteristics:

  • Uniqueness in the community (use of unique talents, exploration of what we can offer to the community)
  • Responsibility (leadership and teaching position, desire to be faithful to the task)
  • Valued placed in symbols (acknowledgment from others)
  • A spiritual goal reached (desire to do something with the level of maturity reached)

Caged at stage 3:

  • Overly zealous (we believe others need us, or need to be like us)
  • Weary in doing good (we may be disappointed that what we do seem to be useless)
  • Self-centered (For more successful, tempted to fall in “self-worship.” Denying any challenge and charging “opponents” with jealousy and immaturity)
  • Life as a performance (addicted to the praises of others if successful, but we are actually lonely)

Moving from stage 3 to 4:

  • Lose sense of certainty (we accept uncertainty and questioning, but we wait for God’s answers to our questions)
  • Experience faith or personal crisis (initiates deep questioning of our faith)
  • Feel abandoned (we feel God has left us in the dark. We feel overwhelmed)
  • Look for direction (we desire the help of those who went through similar experiences)

Catalysts for this movement:

  • Letting go of success
  • Accepting vulnerability

 

Stage 4: The Journey Inward (Rediscovering God)

This stage is a deep inward journey of questioning, exploring, falling apart, and doubting. The focus is on personal issues, healing and resolution in our relationship with God.

Characteristics:

  • Life or faith crisis (pain challenges our faith. Faithful Christians may say things that do not fit)
  • Loss of certainty in life and faith (we know there is a truth, but we are confused about how to get there)
  • A search for directions, not answers (we do not want answers, but healing and peace in our brokenness)
  • Pursuit of personal integrity in relation to God (Ps 139)
  • God released from box (Our conception of God is shaken. God does not fit the box we had for Him)
  • Apparent loss of faith

Caged at stage 4:

  • Always questioning
  • Consumed by self-assessment (“Self-growth can be addictive” p. 106)
  • Immobilized (we cannot face our pains. We are cynical. We lose hope. We may even “lose” our faith)

Moving from stage 4 to 5:

  • Let go of spiritual ego (we experience a renewed surrendering and intimacy with God)
  • Accept God’s purpose for our lives (instead of us chasing God to make the most of ourselves, we now let God find us for the work He has for us).
  • Seek wholeness through personal healing and pilgrimage (we are well aware of our brokenness and sinfulness, but we are less “vulnerable to being crippled by those faults” p. 107)
  • Be willing to commit whatever it takes (we let go of insecurity, anxiety, fears, etc. to embrace what God has for us)

Catalysts for this movement:

  • Finding peace through giving up the search for self
  • Allowing for new certainty in God
  • Open to the cost of obedience

The WALL (Our will vs God’s will)

Technically, the wall is part of stage 4. Not all experience it, or in the same manner. It depends on the type of personality and struggles.

Types of resistance at the wall:

  • Strong egos: egocentrism refuses to let God be at the center
  • Self-deprecators: low self-esteem refuses God’s love and freedom
  • Guilt/Shame-ridden: painful experiences from church or family can lead away from God for other form of spirituality.
  • Intellectuals: rationalism can be a form of arrogance, trying to put God in a box.
  • High achievers: may believe they can perform well enough for God.
  • Doctrinaire: knowledge may shatter when we cannot box God in a rigid system.
  • Ordained: Can fall in the trap of being God for the congregation. Spiritual pride refuses to see the need for God.

Going through the wall may include:

  • Discomfort (God has left us)
  • Surrender (We turn to God out of desperation)
  • Healing
  • Awareness, forgiveness, acceptance, love
  • Closeness to God (a renewed closeness to a God we have not well understood before)
  • Melting, molding (We let God transform us)
  • Solitude and reflection (Need for rest and loneliness to hear God)

 

Stage 5: The Journey Outward (Surrendering to God)

Following a renewed inner life, we seek the interests of others having surrendered our will to God’s. We are “aware but unafraid of the consequences” (p. 133). Our motives have gone through purification. We desire to be genuine and faithful to God’s calling.

Characteristics:

  • A renewed sense of God’s acceptance (“We grow into the full awareness that God truly loves us even though we are never fully whole” p. 134. We are not afraid of our weaknesses anymore. On the contrary, we embrace them knowing God is displayed through them.)
  • A new sense of the horizontal life (“reaching out to other people from a sense of fullness, of being loved by God, and being asked to love others in return” p. 136)
  • Sense of calling, vocation or ministry (We experience God’s calling without us planning)
  • Concern and focus on others’ best interests (winning, losing or achieving are now secondary. The focus is not ourselves, but others).
  • A deep calm or stillness (“We let God direct our lives from a calm stillness inside” p. 140)

Caged at stage 5:

Being caged at stage 5 or 6 is much different from the previous stages. We may actually look caged for others, but we are not really stuck.

  • Seemingly out of touch with practical concerns (For those in stage 3, we may look like we lost the productivity drive)
  • Apparently careless about “important” things (such church activities)

Moving from stage 5 to 6:

  • Not striving, evolving (“the less we know about or care about this transition, the more likely it is to happen” p. 146. Our relationship continues to deepen. We truly experience what it means to be sons and daughters of God)
  • Seeing God in all of life (in all we do. At any time)
  • Being God’s person (Being God’s instrument through weaknesses. Learning to love unconditionally)

Catalysts for this movement:

  • “Vocation” is satisfying (desire to continue to do what we are called to do)
  • Being whole seems enough (gratefulness to experience wholeness, but need to “lean  into the unknown” because there is more to love)

 

Stage 6: The Life of Love (Reflecting God)

This stage is the maturation of stage 5. Loving God and others is our daily life… and without thinking of ourselves as saviors nor martyrs. “We have lost ourselves in the equation, and at the same time we have truly found ourselves.” (p. 152).

Characteristics:

  • Christ-like living in total obedience to God (even in painful situations)
  • Wisdom gained from life’s struggle (No more fear of pain because we know God is with us. Struggles become source of wisdom instead)
  • Compassionate living for others (coming from God’s love for them)
  • Detachment from things and stress (the need for earthly things decreases)
  • Life underneath or on top (we accept menial or prestigious tasks the same way)
  • Life abandoned (our needs become secondary to obedience to God)

Caged at stage 6:

Similarly to stage 5, being caged in this stage is not being stuck, but it may not be understood by others.

  • Separation from the world (others see us as being too “casual” with what seems to be important in life)
  • Neglect of self (others see us too “simplistic”)
  • Apparent waste of life (others see us as wasting our life that seems unimportant)

 

The authors consecrate a chapter to these stages in the church context. There is a summary of each stage and what people need and what leaders can do. Rather than rewriting everything in this post, I encourage you to get the book if  you are interested to know more. The main idea is that the role of the church is most effective for stages 1-3 (though not less important after), while the role of leaders – more directive at the beginning – becomes more supportive in the later stages. We train and form “younger” Christians. We walk with “older” ones. We would make a mistake to think that the older ones who look less involved and less “passionate” are not striving Christians. They may actually play roles of “unofficial” mentors to many younger Christians… Isn’t it what we are training younger Christians for (i.e. disciples making disciples)? The only question for leaders is “are we afraid of sharing power or influence?”

The spiritual stages are particularly useful for leaders to see what ministry could be based on where people are. Indeed, they endured critics from members who point out what is “missing.” With the understanding of spiritual stages, leaders are able to explain why some things are done or not, and also address why some members may feel a certain way towards the church (= the complaints often say: the church does not meet my needs… but it may be that they are stuck in a stage and do not see what is next).

Those stages are helpful to process some of our feelings and views. As we grow, we may have questions about why we feel the church does not seem to be effective anymore, or “Christian busyness” was attractive at some point, but not anymore; or why we seek to relive our revival retreats from our youth without “success.” It helps looking back at moments of struggle and pain and realize how God was leading us to surrender. I found it personally useful for me to see how those stages are somehow true. Sometimes we wonder if we should use those kinds of books because it is not “biblical,” but I think we can learn from insights and wisdom lessons from those who went before us without elevating their experiences to doctrine. I would not say this book is a “must read,” but it is certainly beneficial.

 

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