How do people mature? Does it just happen automatically as we grow, or are there things we can do to aid maturity?
And do christians mature in any different way from other people?
Three stages in maturity
Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg said that there are three basic stages in maturity, particularly in relation to moral development1.
Stage 1. Self focus
Children begin life very self focused, it is necessary for survival, and their mental development doesn’t allow much else. Their behaviour is characterised by black and white thinking, controlling the environment to their way of thinking, anxiety when things don’t go their way, and thinking that “it’s all about me”.
This is all natural for children, but some adults can remain here their whole lives. Their behaviour will be characterised by promoting self care at the expense of others, only doing things for those who think like them and looking for ways to help them progress at the expense of others. When feeling threatened they tend to put up walls and only listen to each other, and so they become less aware of what’s happening in the world around them.
If leaders, including church leaders, remain in this stage of maturity, their leadership is likely to be characterised by looking for power to have influence over others, aiming to showing their own prowess and perpetuating inward looking and thinking. These churches are likely to be extremely rules-based, and when feeling threatened, they are likely withdraw and only listen to others like them, and so be in less contact with the world outside the church.
Stage 2. Conformity
Conformity gives a feeling of comfort and security, and is the natural state for teens. So teens will be moving on from complete self focus to a more group mentality, as they start to realise that it’s not all about them, and they are not the most important person. They try to read what the crowd is doing and then fit in, and suffer anxiety if they can’t work out how to fit in. When threatened, they can revert to stage 1.
Some adults can remain in this stage all their life too, and their behaviour will be characterised by complacency, security in sameness, maintaining their comfort zone and anxiety about making sure they are fitting in. When threatened by external circumstances, they will tend to revert back to stage 1, where they think they will be safest, but this make them less aware of what is happening in the world around them.
Leaders who haven’t moved past conformity to maturity will tend to be anxious about change, fear the unknown, be unwilling
unwilling to consider other viewpoints, avoid making waves. When threatened, they too will tend to revert back to stage 1, where they think they will be safest, but this make them less aware of what is happening in the world around them. Their churches will tend to be like them – complacent, like an inward looking club and not very engaged with the world outside.
Stage 3. Maturity
This is the desirable stage for adults, and will be characterised by much greyer thinking which considers all viewpoints, not just the most comfortable, thinks compassionately, not fearfully, values other people’s views and cultures, cares about the needs of the individual no matter what their background, and so accords justice and human rights for all.
Adults here will aim to be like Jesus: other-centred, not self centred; mature, not immature; self-giving, not self-preserving; wholistic, not individualistic; working for the good of all, not just a select few; for their behaviour will be driven by internal moral principles, not conformity.
Mature churches will be courageous, compassionate, stepping out to advocate for others. They will have flexible policies, be willing to consider other viewpoints and will encourage members to be individuals who think for themselves.
Maturity is a good thing!
As christians, we want to be like Jesus, and see people and situations as he would see them.
- We want to base our decisions on his values of caring for others, and not on our fears and wanting to protect our own interests. We want to resist acting as if compassion makes us unsafe.
- We want our churches to be communities that look outward and have a culture that is loving and inclusive. We seek to transform rather than refuse to engage with those different to ourselves.
Kohlberg’s insights can help us identify where we are becoming mature, and where we are not.
Moving to maturity
We can see Jesus using parables, new experiences, challenges and dilemmas to encourage people, especially his disciples, to move forward in their thinking and responses. As parents, teachers and leaders, we can do the same – encouraging those in our care to be thinking for themselves, and helping them resolve dilemmas rather than always telling them the answers we have found..
And if we want to grow ourselves, we may need to seek out new ideas and experiences by reading books from different viewpoints, attending conferences organised by groups outside our familiar church functions and be open to meeting and making friends with new people.
Questions to ponder
- What can we do to meet different people, and open ourselves to different ideas?
- What makes me feel good so I’m not willing to change?
- How can we make people feel safe even though vulnerable?
- How can we be more effective listeners and ask more effective questions?
- What do other segments of society know that we can learn from?
Read a little more detail on this at Growing into christian maturity.
Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development has three main levels, each with two stages. This somewhat simplified version was obtained from psychologist Lyn Worsley.