A Holistic Model for Assessment of Spiritual Maturity
by Leonard Hjalmarson

    What can harmonize relationships, solve leadership dilemmas, and help caregivers determine the next step in personal growth? Is it a new Christian super-computer? A seminar for lay-pastors? No, its a framework for psycho-spiritual growth.

    Christian caregivers are often uncertain how to assess various problems and conflicts. Is the cause wrong thinking? Is it sin? Is it demonic? Is it family background? Is it a stage in a process? How do we sort this out? All physicians know that healing is advanced by accurate diagnosis.

    Yet assessment is problematic among Christians. We agree that we exist in the image of God as both flesh and spirit, yet the two are often set against one another so that the task of healing becomes imbalanced and compartmentalized. Some emphasize spiritual aspects of existence, others what we define as the physical or secular aspects. The old Greek division of mind and matter, physical and spiritual, sometimes divides our thinking as well as our congregations, and frustrates our attempts at healing.

    Moreover, we have baptized the democratic ideal. We import egalitarianism into the church: "All persons are created equal." Therefore, we argue, we ought not to make distinctions between persons. The recognition that persons are in different stages of growth toward wholeness as persons in Christ is seen by some as discriminatory.

    True, if we are speaking of preference because of race or sex or nationality. However, the NT encourages us to make distinctions based on both gifts and maturity. We stand as equals in the image of God, yet we differ in spiritual gifts and stages of growth.

    How then are spiritual growth, personal healing, and community cohesion related? I am concerned to point to the spiritual psycho-social unity of persons and then to present a growth model which has application in a variety of arenas, from pastoral care and counselling to leadership and church conflict.

Growth Toward Maturity

    There is no separation in the NT between psychological growth and spiritual growth. Growth involves the whole person in the network of the community. Pastoral gifts are found- ational in the church because they contribute to the spiritual psychosocial well-being of the body, facilitating the loving environment which will allow the exercise of all the gifts. Word ministries are foundational because they contribute to the insight which is the basis of obedience.We are called to "renew our minds." "The truth shall make you free."

    The NT often describes the Christian life as one in which believers grow from infancy to maturity in Christ. They move from a state of dependency in which others disciple them toward a mature walk with God where they serve and disciple others.

    One definition of maturity in human development is that the person is no longer dependent on parents and has come to beself- sufficient and independent. Most theorists go beyond the achievement of independence in defining maturity and include the capacity to contribute in a positive way to the good of others.

    The Scriptures likewise teach that maturity includes reciprocity: the ability to give to others (Phil.2). In a recent article in the Journal of Psychology and Theology the Balswicks noted that

    The capacity to be a servant to others requires a high level of maturity and unconditional love. It demands that a person go beyond the individualistic, self-sufficiency measures of maturity to an inter-dependency and co- humanity model (JPT, Vol.17, No.1. 1989, p.39).

    The explicit message is that personal growth is unfinished apart from covenant relationships. If this is the fruit of a walk with God, what are the stages in between? What is the process by which we arrive at maturity? Is it spiritual and psychological?

A Holistic Model for Growth

    Scott Peck, in The Different Drum, (1987,) advances a useful growth typology. He discerns four stages in spiritual growth: (though he notes that they shade into one another)

  • Stage I: Chaotic, antisocial
  • Stage II: Formal, institutional
  • Stage III: Skeptic, individual
  • Stage IV: Mystic, communal

    Peck places all young children and one in five adults in Stage I. This is undeveloped spirituality, which he terms antisocial because those adults who are in it are generally incapable of loving others. Although they may seem loving their relationships with others are essentially manipulative and self-serving.

    Peck terms these people chaotic because they are unprincipled; nothing governs them except their own will. If these people get in touch with the chaos of their being it is extremely painful; some ride it out, some commit suicide, and some move to stage II.

    Stage II people are attached to the form, as opposed to the essence, of religion. They oppose change because it is the forms which liberate them from the chaos of their lives. Their vision of God will be that of an external, transcendent being. They may consider Him loving, but also fear His punitive power.

    Some stage II people have become institutionalized because they need an external and imposed order to survive. Whether it is prison or the military or a strict religious structure, these people need structure.

    If two Stage II people marry and have children, the children tend to absorb the principles of their parents. Once these are internalized the children are self-governing human beings and are no longer dependent upon the institution for order. They begin to convert to Stage III--skeptic, individual--often becoming atheists or agnostics. Although individualistic, they are not antisocial. They are usually highly principled and independent thinkers. Advanced Stage III people are active truth seekers.

    If people in Stage III search for truth for long enough, they find what they are looking for. Like pieces of a puzzle things begin to make sense, and they begin their conversion to Stage IV (the mystic communal stage).

    Stage IV people have a sense of the connectedness of all things. They see themselves as good and evil and recognize that truly "no man is an islande, of itself entire." In some mysterious way we share in the destiny of the cosmos.

    Moreover, the more we grow in understanding, the more we have a sense of knowing nothing. While people in other stages often seek religion in order to escape from mystery, people in Stage IV seek to approach it. Thus Stage IV people value emptiness, the ability to move beyond pre- conceptions and even rationality to perceive the fabric of reality apart from boundaries and form.

    I rehearse Peck's stages to point out the similarity in this progression to the stages of normal psychic develop- ment. The infant exists in undifferentiated chaos (psych- ologists term it symbiotic or primary narcissism); there is no sense where "I" ends and "other" begins. If the home is relatively stable the child forms boundaries and internalizes the expectations and values of the parents. He learns right from wrong and recognize that self and other are a mixture of good and evil and that only God is perfect.

    If the child is valued as an individual and taught to think for herself she begins to question her parents' values and faith and becomes a skeptic (a process which makes the teen years more turbulent). If she continues to experience grace and search for truth she begins to understand the meaning and spirit of the law.

    I find Peck's stages helpful because his theory explains a phenomenon that has often troubled me: some non-Christians are more spiritually aware than some Christians. Peck's discussion accounts for this while pointing to the higher potential for growth of the believer.

    Furthermore, his model displays the possibility of getting stuck at earlier stages. The absence of God then becomes a period pregnant with possibility, for only the individual can choose to give himself as a gift. Only when people perceive themselves as free choosers can they experience intimacy, whether with another or the Other.

    Peck's stages suggest that both an atheistic stance and a theistic stance may be a step of growth. Where poor models of God block the experience of God as loving and caring, a journey into atheism may in fact be an attempt at differentiation. The attempt to define oneself as different from significant others who have been poor models of God precedes the recognition of God as Someone who can love unconditionally. The person stuck in Stage II may move into Stage III or even leap into Stage IV when God is discovered as the Source of life and grace and others are accepted as imperfect images.

    In Peck's stages a passage from atheism to theism is a journey from individualism into community. These people have their sense of self so well grounded that they are able to "lose themselves" in others; naturally, they are mystics. They are able to be alone in the crowd, or together with friends though they are separated by great distances. They find an interior solitude which allows them to freely give themselves to others. Henri Nouwen wrote that

    The mystery of love is that it protects and respects the aloneness of the other and creates the free space where he can convert his loneliness into a solitude that can be shared. (Reaching Out, p.30)

    From this perspective the most mature believers are those who seek community with others. They have arrived at the place where it is no longer "the community for me" but rather "me for the community." These people have achieved the inner freedom to live for others; they are empowerers of others, helping others to become competent and capable persons who in turn can empower others.

    We have arrived at an interesting position. From this place we can reflect in a helpful way on issues of membership and joining the covenant community, on leadership in the community, on growth in the community, on growth in the family, on spiritual guidance and on pastoral counselling. Moreover, Peck and others have suggested that such a framework grants insight into the nature of conflict in the church.

The Application of a Spiritual Stages Framework

    In terms of the covenant community, churches tend to accept people into membership after a very brief encounter- -perhaps one to two hours of instruction. But this giving of power to people at early stages of their journey may result in what sociologist Ben Zablocki has termed "the tyranny of the least committed." Apart from a clear concensus on the meaning of discipleship a group falls to operating on the lowest common denominator.

    An alternate way of conceiving of community life is the two- tiered entry into membership. If a person is serious about participating in the covenant and if their vision seems congruent with that of the community they are accepted as "interns." In the meantime they attend the meetings of the church and become active in a small group. They join in service to others and live under the discipline of the community. Somewhere along the way the intern is brought into full membership in the community, with all rights and responsibilities. Thus a holistic growth model, in recognizing that we are all at different stages in our personal journeys, can help us legitimate a covenant model of discipleship.

    I wonder if our lack of clarity with regard to leadership models in evangelical circles is rooted in our unwillingness to make distinctions in terms of spiritual growth? Whether cause or effect, our emphasis has shifted to skill rather than maturity and an intimate walk with God. On the one hand our lack of distinctions takes the pressure off leaders who fear being placed on a pedestal; on the other hand it takes the pressure off others who prefer complacency to growth, or who aspire to leadership but not to maturity: the lone-ranger type. Sadly, it also leaves us a vacuum in terms of mature models.

    A holistic model for growth defines the mature leader as one who is free to empower others; the Stage IV person. We have tended to shift our qualifications for leadership from maturity and character to skill and knowledge. Yet on the one hand these qualities disenfranchise others (since no one wants to be compared to the professional) and on the other hand they are not where the NT places priority. Skill and knowledge move toward independence, a tendency to protect the territory where one feels most competent and rewarded.

    A holistic model for growth gives to leaders and counsellors in the community a guide to discernment and intervention in the process of growth. Counsellors can relax knowing that the felt absence of God in someone's life may be the prelude to a new and deeper spirituality. Such a framework provides a basis for assessing readiness to lead, a safeguard for the exercise of power which may in turn empower the community to release leaders to lead.

    A holistic model for growth defines maturity in terms of the movement from individualism to ccommunity, the freedom to live for others. This is the process of becoming family. Why not, in fact, speak of the empowered family, the Stage IV family? One of the great mysteries of being is that integration and wholeness occur when having found our life, instead of seeking to save it, we lose it. The empowered family, or the empowered church, therefore, is the group willing to give away its life.

    Finally, what insights does a spiritual growth framework offer in terms of conflict in the church? Individuals who are more than one stage apart usually have great difficulty under- standing one another. What we do not understand, we fear. Fear in turn undermines trust.

    Stage two Christians tend to become tense in the face of change. They see law as the foundation of the Gospel and emphasize conformity, holding tightly to form and tradition. They tend to see stage three Christians as unconverted and stage four Christians as liberals who are flirting with humanism.

    When stage three people remain in the church they tend to tilt at every sacred cow. They ask questions that shake us and provoke us. They tend to write off stage two Christians as naive and immature, and to be jealous and mystified by stage four Christians.

    Stage four Christians are a blessing to some and a cross to others. They believe that evil lies not only in personal sins like lying or cheating but also in social sins like sexism or abuse of the environment. They place love above the law and choice above conformity, and are often accused of lacking respect for authority (since they reject the notion that ministers have a special line to God). They hold lightly to the outward form of things, preferring to worship God "in spirit and truth."

    Stage four believers often criticize those at earlier stages for too narrow an understanding of the Gospel, and of being too dogmatic. They argue that submission without examination is idolatry and criticize stage two believers for emphasizing personal salvation above social concern and life-style issues.

    How do we bring unity to the varied stages? No matter what stage we are in we need one another, need to recognize that the law and love are united as two sides of a coin. The law is like the banks of a river, defining the flow of loving actions. In earlier stages we are more focussed on the bank; in later stages we are more concerned with the flow. A river needs both.

    When the lawyer came to Jesus he was told that the law was not enough (Lk.10:25-37). Conversely, Jesus told the disciples that obedience confirms love (Jn.14:15). Where forms can be restricting, we cannot live in a physical world apart from structure. However, the wine and the skins must be fitting.

    All of us, when under stress, tend to revert to earlier patterns of thinking and behaviour. Perhaps the most common source of conflict is the effort to change in others what we deny in ourselves. Scott Peck somewhere quotes an ancient mystic:

He who can serenely bear the trial of being displeasing to himself
may become for Jesus a place of shelter.

    If we can face our own shadow and offer a non-anxious presence to others seeking to grow toward Christ we can walk together in that journey. Those in later stages have the greater responsibility to lead others to growth, and if they are honest with themselves can find the earlier stages still resident within them, a source of under-standing in ministering to those in earlier stages.

    In the meantime the most persuasive argument for growth is not an argument at all, but the beauty of a life lived in fellowship with the Father through the Holy Spirit. The mature individual, at peace with God and with themselves, will always draw us upward on our own pilgrimage of growth and service.


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• © 2005-2008 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated in May, 2008