Stories are incredibly important. Think of your favorite stories. How do they continue to impact you? Now recall some not-so-favorite ones. Why do they hold that place for you? Are there hidden lessons there for you to discover?
Most of us were read stories from our earliest days, and these connect closely with our family system and culture. Perhaps they have become places of comfort and refuge. Maybe they have been shared with your own children. From short stories to novels and book series, the options among stories seem endless.
A favorite story from my childhood was Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell. The descriptive images came alive in my mind. Though I was a girl on a farm in eastern Iowa, I could see myself on that Pacific island finding food, building shelter, and making a life. (Perhaps this is why I remain a fan of the television show Survivor.) There’s something about living in the wild that intrigues me—would I actually be able to survive? I never wished to see a film portrayal of this book as I didn’t want it to ruin my own imaginings.
A favorite biblical story from childhood begins in Matthew 3:16–17, with the wonderful story of Jesus’ baptism: “As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’” Then in Matthew 4:4, Jesus says, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” My favorite story was sandwiched between these verses. On the heels of the heavenly voice proclaiming Jesus as the son of God, Jesus is put to the test: “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.’”
After the devil tested him two more times, Jesus began his work of preaching—just like that! What a story of not only surviving, but thriving. As a child, I would imagine all that transpired while Jesus was alone in the wilderness for 40 days (not unlike the Survivor timeline, I feel compelled to add). I bet he was hungry! Yet he did not give into temptation. This breathed life into those lines in the Lord’s prayer about our daily bread and being led into temptation that I was saying every week in the pew next to my grandma. It was a powerful part of my faith development.
I’m not alone in that–stories have a critical place in children’s faith development. From chunky first Bibles, to flannel boards, to Christmas pageants, to vacation Bible school skits, stories have a prominent place in children’s church. It is not only the story itself, though the Bible is chocked full of great ones, but it is the sharing of stories in community that is key. Early on, parents may rock their babies while singing “Daniel in the Lion’s Den” and “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” Later they may help their early grade-schooler sight-read the story of Jesus’ birth, watch a colorful movie about Jonah, and sing songs with harmonizing vegetables. Soon after, there are Sunday school teachers, camp counselors, and youth group leaders sharing stories. Along the way, there may be shared stories with siblings and grandparents, and perhaps even friends and romantic partners. We share stories together and they guide us along life’s path.
The role of story is central to James Fowler’s theory of faith development, particularly in the childhood stages. In the late 1960s, and through the 1970s, Fowler began his research on faith development at Harvard Divinity School. Fowler was influenced by theologian H. Richard Niebuhr , philosopher Paul Tillich, and psychologist Erik Erikson. Lawrence Kohlberg was also at Harvard, in the Graduate School of Education, establishing his Center for Moral Development (along with Carol Gilligan and Robert Selman). This setting, which Fowler described as a “formative rich environment,” was where Fowler began his faith development research.
Fowler and his students conducted nearly 360 interviews in the early phase of research (this number continued to grow over the years until his retirement in 2005, including at the Center for Research on Faith and Moral Development at Emory University). Fowler and his team talked with people across the lifespan, including children. This research formed the basis of his theory, which was published in his 1981 book, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning.
Fowler proposed that faith development is not unlike other developmental processes, and it progresses through a series of stages. Not everyone reaches the ultimate stage, in fact few do, and people do not march through the stages in stair step fashion. Each stage of faith development builds on the previous one(s). And, though written from a Christian perspective (Fowler was a Methodist minister), Fowler asked us to consider faith “in a more inclusive sense than Christian, Buddhist, Islamic, or Judaic faith. Faith, in the sense used here, even extends beyond religious faith. Understood in this more inclusive sense, faith may be characterized as an integral, centering process, underlying the formation of beliefs, values, and meanings.”
Though not a psychologist, Fowler embraced a holistic approach to faith development. He called into play various domains of human development, including biological, cognitive, emotional, and psychosocial. He considered gender and race, as well as the role of “religiocultural symbols, meanings, and practices.” What he created is a comprehensive theory of faith development that bridges the entire lifespan from infancy through late adulthood.
Fowler’s theory is too complex to review in full, so I will limit a basic overview to childhood. In infancy to around age two, a “primal” stage of faith development is put into motion. The infant’s first symbols are related to a parental presence. Attachment—a persisting emotional bond—is key in an infant’s development, and a sense of trust is crucial. Thus, the bonds formed with nurturing caregivers are central to the beginning of one’s faith, according to Fowler. Lacking such bonds and trust would result in related anxieties and uncertainties, including in one’s faith.
In toddlerhood and early childhood, language makes possible a qualitatively new ability to reflect. Language, symbols, and story dominate the young child’s discovery of and interaction with the world. Fowler termed this stage intuitive-projective faith. Young children have the cognitive capacity to question (“Can God see me?”) and hypothesize (“Grandpa went to heaven.”). Stories and symbols add to their meaning-making and wondering processes. Young children are enticed by their imaginations, and they are particularly compelled by stories of good versus evil. Fowler claimed there is the potential for deeply formed and enduring faith-based orientations as children perceive the world beyond the everyday.
Middle childhood (and beyond) entails an increased reliance on stories of one’s people. Fowler named this stage mythic-literal. Children become more logical and remain relatively concrete (referencing Jean Piaget’s stage of concrete operations). Generally, faith at this stage is not especially personal, but rather strongly aligned with one’s culture and customs. Lessons of goodness being right and badness being wrong permeate. Children tend to comply with these lessons (at least most of the time) when this has been and is being nurtured by those around them. As they approach adolescence, their eyes may be opened to suffering and an unjust world, and they take a more reflective approach—i.e., enter Fowler’s next stage of synthetic-conventional faith.
Let’s zoom back out to a broader perspective and decipher some lessons. What does Fowler’s theory tell us about nurturing faith in children? First, there is basic “good parenting” of being warm and responsive—doing everything to develop a secure attachment with our own children. Addiotionally, we all can foster supportive relationships with those children in our spheres of influence (nieces and nephews, our kids’ friends, neighbor children, kids at church, our students, etc.). The positive impact of caring adults on children’s development cannot be understated.
By understanding Fowler’s theory, as well as other ideas regarding religious and spiritual development (e.g., Richert & Granqvist, 2013), we are better equipped to do God’s work in the world. For instance, Richert and Granqvist describe how children can develop a symbolic attachment to God and experience a safe haven when lacking a tangible attachment figure (e.g., when at preschool, in cases of insecure attachment, etc.). What a powerful unseen relationship to help foster!
Richert and Granqvist also note that when parents emphasize children’s autonomy, as is the case in many Western cultures, children are less likely to view God as powerful. As a consequence, it becomes possible that this symbolic attachment may be weak or even absent. Shaping children’s reliance on others, including God, and nurturing their personal self-reliance can be a challenging balancing act. Enter modeling faithful practices in our own lives (more on that below).
Meeting children where they’re at with regard to cognitive development and drawing on their language skills and motivational forces helps us become more effective at sharing our own love for Jesus. Simply put, sit down and read some Bible stories together! There is power in the story—we do good by leaning into that notion and harnessing that power. What a lasting gift to help nurture in all children—the connection to an omnipresent, loving God.
Have you heard of observational learning or modeling? This is Albert Bandura’s concept of watching those around us and learning from them, even imitating them, particularly when we hold the models in some sort of esteem. Do we need to be better examples—walk the walk, not just talk the talk? I, for one, do. Not only will we be teaching children about the importance of faithful practices by modeling them, but no doubt we will personally benefit, too.
For our own faith journey, perhaps incorporating stories into our daily practices has a place. If we spend time reading the Bible, and with greater intentionality, we will learn and grow. Reflecting on these powerful stories and applying them to our lives affords us lessons beyond our current understanding. Even better, when we do this in the presence of others, including younger Christians, we help carry out God’s plan on a larger scale.
If you’re thinking that I am a model example of these processes, you would be wrong. I was given the gift of an infant baptism and church upbringing. I embraced my faith as my own when I was a college student. I married a wonderful man in front of God and our community of believers. I birthed a son and adopted a daughter, blessing them as infants and seeing them choose to be baptized at age 10. I have been a clinical psychologist for nearly 25 years, focusing my practice and teaching on child development. Yet I feel I am an utter failure at leaning into the power of the story and nurturing faith in children.
However, as a psychologist, I also know it is never too late to change and create new habits! Oh, to experience the mystery of God’s word as I did as a child—what a pleasure that would be—as would sharing that with the youth of today. Presently, I have some semi-dry bones, and I admit that I have neglected my spiritual well. I bet my children, though emerging adults now, perceive that. I know my husband and close relationships do. I imagine I would be a better human (mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend, teacher) if I nurtured this. God’s Word is waiting for me—as it is waiting for you. Let’s lean into the power of the story and harness the love of our omnipresent God.
 All scripture citations from the New International Version.
 Fowler, J. W., & Dell, M. L. (2006). Stages of faith from infancy through adolescence: Reflections on
three decades of faith development theory. In E. C. Roehlkepartain, P. E. King, L. Wagener,
& P. L. Benson (Eds.), The handbook of spiritual development in childhood and adolescence
(pp. 34-45). Sage Publications.
 Fowler & Dell (2006, p. 35)
 Fowler, J. W. (1981). Stages of faith: The psychology of human development and the quest for meaning. Harper Collins.
 Fowler & Dell (2006, p. 36)
 Richert, R. A., & Granqvist, P. (2013). Religious and spiritual development in childhood. In R. F.
Paloutzian & C. L. Park (Eds.), The handbook of the psychology of religion and spirituality (pp.
165-182). Guilford Press.