Hagberg and Guelich identify a progression of six stages (plus one substage) in spiritual maturity. They describe both the desires that the person is moving towards, as well as things like how they relate to the church body, ways the church body can help them, and even ways they might get stuck. It seems more like a spiritual direction reference manual than a personal guide, although understanding what stage you are in does go a long way towards understanding how you should be relating to life at the moment.
The first stage is recognition of God, and surrendering to him. God is experienced with awe and amazement, as well as a sense of need. This is a simple-faith stage, where even our own faith seems like a miracle. Ideally this naturally leads to a hunger to know more about God and a transition to stage two, but it is also possible to get stuck in feeling worthless.
Stage two is the life of discipleship. We think, “I found the Way!”, and we are hungry to learn about the flavor of faith we have found, and learn to belong to our community. We often identify with a particular leader or denomination, and we see everything with a sense of “we”: our beliefs, our practices, etc. We learn what our gifts are and begin to use them to serve in the community as we transition to stage three. We can get stuck if we get rigid in our “us-ness”, with an us-vs-them mentality, or an inflexible set of rules for living.
In the third stage we live the productive life. We are tangibly contributing to the community and the work of God through our gifts and ministry. We get personal satisfaction from accomplishing the work. We have responsibility and a respected place in the community. We can get stuck by focusing on ourselves, either self-worship (“I’m so awesome”) or by getting our self-worth through our performance. This is the stage that most North American churches view as the highest level of maturity.
The fourth stage is scary. We start to lose the confidence that we had in stage three and become unsure that we actually did find it. We have a crisis of faith, often through an external event that reveals the inadequacy of our beliefs. We tend to feel that we are losing our faith, and it may look that way to others, too. Unfortunately, most pastors have not been through this stage so they cannot guide us—and if your career is working for God, a crisis of faith is extra scary. This stage is the inward journey, characterized more by a direction than by answers. This is a scary journey, and one way of getting stuck is to go back to stage two or three, possibly in a different stream. Another way of getting stuck is to give up on God, and we can get stuck if we are unable to be intimate and so are unable to identify what is going on inside to process it.
An important substage is the Wall. This is where our will comes up against God’s will. In some ways this is a repeat of stage one, except deeper. We cannot go over the Wall, or around it, or under it. We can only confront our internal terror and learn that God is with us. We learn to forgive others and to forgive ourselves. We identify our fears and needs, we learn how our past has wounded us, and we get healing. We start to experience God-with-us in the muck. It can be a long process, years even, and it is painful. But it also transforms us into someone deeper than before. There is no well-travelled path to help people along the way like there is in the previous transitions; in stage four and the Wall, the Holy Spirit guides us. However, it is rare, perhaps even essential, to have some person, like a counsellor or spiritual director, who can shepherd us through working through our pain.
We emerge from the Wall into stage five, the outward journey. In this stage we learn to live with God’s purposes. We have an experiential knowledge that God is with us, from the Wall, and we become content to journey not knowing where we are going. We discover the calling God has for us, and we may change the direction of our career in response. The inward journey focused on our vertical relationship with God, and now we begin to focus on loving and serving others horizontally. It is not really possible to get stuck in this stage, although others might think we are stuck, because we no longer think the “important things” are necessarily important. Since most churches are at stages two or three, we are likely to not be as concerned about these things, because we have our own independent direction. Some people may think we are stuck at stage two, since it looks similar, but the difference is that we are journeying with internal motivation and partnership with God (going outward), instead of internalizing the values of our community (going inward).
Stage six is the life of love. It is similar to stage three, but people in stage three give what the can give; stage six gives sacrificially, but does not even consider it a sacrifice because they are working from God’s value system. We are truly led by the Spirit, and even though people in previous stages may not understand us, being in our presence bring peace. We are in constant communion with God, constantly experiencing his love, so what others would consider sacrifice is simply the obvious thing to do. We become detached from the things of the world—not that we do not enjoy them, we just are no longer attached to them. Our lives are lived in loving others, just as Christ gave his life in loving others. Clearly, one cannot get stuck here, either, although people in previous stages may think that we are living our lives unwisely or impractically because our value system is so different.
Some more detailed descriptions of the stages are:
I encountered this book from a summary sheet a friend of mine sent me. At the time I was in the middle of the Wall, and everything in the description felt like me, matching the crisis of faith and wondering if I was failing as a Christian. Just knowing that this was a stage on a known path was so relieving; I had not run off the edge of faith, I was just in the Dark Night of the Soul. Now, emerging from the Wall, I can actually imagine myself living the life of love of stage five (although it will take some practice—if you can call changing mindsets “practice”).
This is a rare perspective on life, especially in American Christianity. It outlines a deeper view of the Christian life. A friend of mine that became Catholic said that Protestants are “thin-soup” (compared to Catholicism’s “thick soup”). At the time I did not understand what he was talking about, but basically American Protestantism is stuck at stage three. Critical Journey is not written by Catholic authors, but it brings the thick soup of deeper intimacy and a Christianity that offers a path beyond a list of answers or the Bible being “the instruction manual for life” into a journey of intimacy and God-with-us.
My first job out of university had a chart of engineering positions with characteristics of each position. So if you wanted a promotion, you could see what you needed to look like. I have been looking for that sort of thing for spiritual maturity, not even knowing how to search. This book is that chart. It is especially helpful for those in stage four and the Wall, to know that the lostness is part of the stage, that they may be lost but that they are not off the path. It also seems like a useful guide for people in stage five and six who desire to shepherd others through the critical journey.