Westeroff and Faith Enculturation

In the early 2000’s, as I began my formal training in Christian Education, I discovered several models of Faith Developoment.  One that resonated with me most was that of John Westerhoff, in the book, “Will Our Children Have Faith?” (New York: Seabury Press, 1976)





JOHN WESTERHOFF ‘S Faith Development Model  ( With excerpts from “An Evaluation of the Contribution of John H. Westerhoff III to Religious Education”     M. S. Bickford, Ph.D.   



Westerhoff presented  a four-stage theory published in his exceptional volume entitled Will our Children Have Faith? (1976) It was later reduced to three stages in A Faithful Church (1981). The following is his original four-stage theory. According to Westerhoff:

“Faith grows like the rings of a tree, with each ring adding to and changing the tree somewhat, yet building on that which has grown before.”   Whether it is “oaks of righteousness” or “cedars” or any other tree that one can name in the Bible, they have this structure in common.  It is the same, I believe, with whatever faith one has come to have.  There are fairly predictable stages and influences that define one’s faith development. 

Westerhoff’s  model recognizes the value of a community’s unique heritage and it also recognizes the educational significance of the many and varied events of each passing day….. from the early years in one’s family of origin, in social/education institutions,  in the choice of affiliations with other individuals and groups, etc.   Criticized as merely a socialization model, Westerhoff recognized that socialization is only able to perpetuate the status quo in a community. He chose the term enculturation because it adds the dimension of critical reflection to its structure (Westerhoff and Eusden 1982, 119; Westerhoff, 1987, 581; 2004, 80ff; etc.). Westerhoff also  emphasized the role of conversion in helping an individual go from perpetuating an inherited religion to owning one’s own faith.  One must be open to “a spirit of critical reflection” and the willingness to change long held traditions that have been proven wrong or inadequate.”  Excerpted: 

1. Experienced Faith

At the core is the faith which we experience from our earliest years either in life or, if one has a major reorientation in his or her beliefs, in a new faith system. We receive the faith that is important to those who nurture us. The way it molds and influences their lives makes an indelible impression on us, creating the core of our faith . . .This level of faith is usually associated with the impressionable periods of life when a person is dependent on others, such as during early childhood.

2. Affiliative Faith

As one person gradually displays the beliefs, values, and practices of one’s family, group, or church, there is another ring formed. The individual takes on the characteristics of the nurturing persons and becomes identified as an accepted partner, one who is part of the faith tradition. Such participation may be formalized as in membership, a rite of baptism or confirmation, or may simply be understood, as might be the case with regular participants who do not join a church. This phase of a person’s growth is recognized as a time of testing. It is a matching of the person with peer expectations. Where traditions, values, and practices are similar, there usually is a good match and the individual merges his or her identity with that of the body. There is little room for personal differences due to a strong emphasis on unity and conformity in belief and practice . . .The concerns for belonging, for security, and for a sense of power (and identity) that come from group membership are the key drives in forming one’s faith concept during this period. This level of faith is expressed, at the earliest, during adolescent years.

3. Searching Faith

Faith development reaches a crucial junction when one becomes aware that personal beliefs or experience may no longer be exactly the same as those of the group, or when a person begins to question some of the commonly held beliefs or practices. This occurs as one naturally recognizes that his or her faith is formed more by others (parents, peers, congregation, etc.) than by personal conviction. The decision must be faced whether or not to develop, express, and accept responsibility for a personal interpretation of one’s religion as over against accepting that which may be viewed as a group’s interpretation. Often there is experimentation in which persons try out alternatives or commit themselves to persons or causes which promise help in establishing personal conviction and active practice of one’s faith.

4. Owned Faith

The culmination of the faith development process finds expression in a personal, owned faith. This best could be described as a conversion experience, in which a person has reoriented his or her life and now claims personal ownership of and responsibility for beliefs and practices . . .Characteristics of this phase include close attention to practicing one’s faith as well as believing it . . .This level of faith, according to Westerhoff, is God’s intention for everyone; we all are called to reach our highest potential. 


As I have talked with people about their faith, I often ask, “Who modeled for you the character of God, as you have come to know and understand God?  What attributes of that individual did you relate to God’s character?  Generally, it is a relative or perhaps a pastor.  It is often times a grandparent or parent among the women with whom I work.  Such formative influence remains firm for many, though without regular ongoing contact with the influencer, the individual may wander away from the values and practice of the experienced faith of childhood. The loss of a strong, influencing faith example prematurely, before the individual has begun to grow into more autonomous roles in faith maturation can also be disruptive of the faith development.   When I begin working with a woman in crisis, one of the first things we revisit is the role and nature of the early childhood influence.  If there is a strong Christian character foundation somewhere in one’s life, it is often the case that, within a few weeks, the individual has reconnected emotionally to the memory of the influencer and is also feeling drawn to God again.  Emotional attachments, but not overly co-dependently so, with those who have had a favorable influence on Christian knowledge and practice for a person can help guide the person back into an attachment to relationship with God.  If a conversion experience, a “spiritual awakening”  has occurred, especially during a more recent time of difficulty or faith crisis, there is a vulnerability and openness to the message of hope through faith.