The Critical Journey examines the distinct phases of spiritual life. Though the authors readily admit that it is impossible to dogmatically define something as subjective and unique as the individual spiritual walks of people, by examining common traits and experiences they have identified six distinct "stages" in people's spiritual lives.

  1. The Recognition of God
  2. The Life of Discipleship
  3. The Productive Life
  4. The Journey Inward/The "Wall"
  5. The Journey Outward
  6. The Life of Love

In discussing each stage, they discuss these traits along with pitfalls and ways to grow through each of the stages. In reading the book, I found myself identifying many of my own experiences in these characteristics of the various stages.

Understanding The Stages

The Critical Journey does a great job describing these stages, which have nothing to do with leadership ability or other visible elements. This can lead to a better understanding of our own present stage (whatever that stage might be) as well as the stages of others:

People at the discipleship stage (stage 2), secure with what is right for them and with a strong sense of belonging, may think that people who appear to be questioning or even losing their faith on the journey inward (stage 4) are not strong enough, not faithful enough, not willing enough, or just plain not Christian. Because of their present security in the journey, they find it difficult to comprehend the questioning on the inward journey as another step along the way. When they too fall into the throes of confusion, dissatisfaction or uncertainty, they may experience other people's questioning of their behavior and only then understand how they were viewing people like themselves earlier. Those on the inward journey (stage 4), on the other hand, can look judgmentally on those people in the discipleship stage (stage 2), who seem to have such ready answers, rather than appreciating them and remembering the times when they too felt secure. That comes not from misunderstanding stage 2 as much as from the general insecurity of being at stage 4. (p.12-13)

Of course, understanding stages means understanding people and their needs as they grow through various stages of their spiritual lives. This has profound implications in a number of areas of special interest.

New Christians

New Christians grow from the early days of their faith to a strong group setting that enhances their growth, after which they reach a stage of productive service. These first three stages are readily seen in most of the people in all sorts of church settings. Hagberg and Guelich make it clear that these stages are quite common (if not universal) for people beginning a journey of faith.

Mature Christians

Mature Christians, after times of growth and productivity, are eventually presented with challenges of faith and life that are seemingly orchestrated by God. What is needed at this stage is a journey inwards to solidify and mature their faith.

At this time, the pat answers and familiar ways are no longer good enough for their faith to be solid. There are honest questions, and these must be addressed. This process of seeking God and surrendering to his will during these times of soul-searching has marked the lives of great men of God since Abraham

After going through these more "inward" stages, people again desire to meet the needs of others, but now with a more mature faith and more harmonious world view.

Older Christians will find support and validation for the need to address honest questions and deep issues they need to resolve before feeling adequate in their faith. This is in direct contrast to some (usually those not as far along the journey!) that might advise them to "just repent" or be more "fired-up."

The Journey Inward, "The Wall"

The authors especially discuss the journey inward, also known as "the wall." It is a time of profound seeking, reconciling, and seeking understanding, requiring an enormous amount of courage. Many Christians and churches are uncomfortable with this stage. The authors identify middle age as a common time for people to reach the "inward journey" stage, though this questioning stage will come to pass at any age as the previous stages are experienced.

One of the greatest benefits of The Critical Journey is that is removes some of the stigma and mystery from this difficult time of life, validating it as noble and necessary.

The Wall invites us to integrate our spiritual selves with the rest of us. And that involves facing our own and others' demons. We must face that which we fear the most, and that is why it is so unsavory, and why so many people only enter the Wall under duress. At the Wall we are usually asked to embrace our illnesses and addictions and to relinquish that which we've clung to or which we worship. We encounter oceans of unresolved grief covered by anger, bitterness, martyrdom, hurt or fear. The Wall is a place where we confront the desire to deny or disguise the inner self and begin to mentor the truth self- the self God intended for us- and recognize the meaning of our shadow.

The two qualities that are most helpful to have in the Wall, although difficult to ask for, are clarity to know the truth or the call in the Wall, and the courage to face the truth and to move forward. The Wall is the work of the heart but it is not for the weak of heart. That is why we have so many clever ways to avoid it. (p. 233)

The Critical Journey and Churches

Churches can benefit greatly from this clear and practical description of the stages of Christian life. They can "be there" for people at each stage, and affirm individuals at each step along the way.

However, many churches don't recognize these stages. They may take a particular stage and make it the standard. Those not in this stage can be made to feel unspiritual, unfaithful or strange. When members reach stages outside of where a church is comfortable (and it will come), the church may expect members to conform to the more preferred stage(s), lest they be considered "lukewarm" or "backslidden." Members may be shamed or considered rebellious, heretical, unsubmissive, a poor disciple, unteachable, having a bad attitude, etc. Clearly, a church that does not recognize these stages and educate its members about them is doing them a disservice, guaranteeing it cannot meet their needs in these areas.

The Critical Journey and "Revolutionaries"

As one can see from the previous section, certain aspects of spiritual growth may be outside of the realm of what most churches often do. This deficiency cannot be minimized. The authors recognize that Christians at these stages may find themselves having to look outside of their churches, or at least their church's standard programs, for direction at these times.

The church is generally best at working with people in stages 1 through 3 so the fact that the highest number of people is in stage 2 fits with how the church sees itself. It does raise some issues though as to what and how the church relates to people beyond stage 3. So many people leave the church when they experience stage 4 or the Wall, since there are few resources or programs available for them, and they feel estranged when the faith they held dear does not work for them anymore. Their seeming collapse of faith may also be uncomfortable for those in ministry who are focused on more faith strengthening programs, like Bible Study and discipling (p. 258)

In all, The Critical Journey is a powerful and helpful discussion of the stages of spiritual growth. Everybody with a spiritual life needs to know about these stages-- especially those who are feeling stifled in their present experience because they, their church and/or their other spiritual relationships don't understand their current stage. I heartily recommend The Critical Journey.

(For more on this topic, see the Barnabas Ministry article "The Spiritual Life Cycle.")