Toward a Deep Blue Ocean: Forging a Robust Spiritual Development Stage-Theory, by Gary David Stratton

This paper was originally delivered at the 2012 Society of Vineyard Scholars in Minneapolis, MN. 

Jonathan Edwards placed the blame for Satan’s victory in the First Great Awakening on the failure of the stage-theory used by the pastors of his day. Are Blue Ocean churches in danger of a similar gaffe?

By Gary David Stratton, PhD • Bethel University

The great New England divine Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) penned perhaps his greatest work, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections,[1] in the aftermath of one of the more remarkable religious events in American history—the (First) Great Awakening (1740-1741). By the time he wrote Affections Edwards was already known as the chief apologist for an outpouring of the Spirit that had resulted as much as a quarter of the total population of New England professing conversion to Christ (See, Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God). Yet, in a tellingly autobiographical passage, Edwards opens Affections with the declaration that the real winner of the Great Awakening was Satan.

“I have seen the devil prevail… against… the late great revival of religion in New England, so happy and promising in its beginning.”[2]

What is interesting for our discussion today is where Edwards placed the blame for this Satanic victory: the failure of the stage-theory used by all New England pastors to guide seekers from initial stirrings to genuine conversion and spiritual maturity. This Puritan “morphology of conversion” comprised of seven distinct stages [3] was the centerpiece for nearly all preaching and spiritual counsel in New England.[4] Despite one of the most remarkable outpourings of the Spirit in history, resulting in tremendous spiritual hunger, enormous crowds, and multiplied professions of faith, Edwards believed that the Puritan stage-theory “sevenfold veil of prejudice” had actually left the church in New England in worse shape than it had been before this “mighty pouring out of the Spirit of God.” (More on why later.)

My remarks today deal with the stage-theory in use by a new generation of Christian leaders—also based in New England—who are seeking God for another society-wide spiritual awakening among, not among biblically literate Puritans, but post-Christian urban skeptics. I invoke the thoughts of Jonathan Edwards in hopes of highlighting just how crucial this conversation might prove for the future of faith in America. For as Edwards painfully discovered in the Great Awakening, whether they realize it or not, every Christian leader shapes their ministry and the lives of their followers from within the framework of an assumed spiritual stage-theory. The critical question is whether or not a given Christian leader’s stage-theory is thoroughly examined and up to the challenge of guiding individuals, congregations, and even society-wide movements spiritual maturity. As in Edwards’ day, developing such a stage-theory will require a collaborative project of careful intellectual, theological, and practical reflection, of which this paper is little more than a preliminary remark.


One of the more unique and influential “identities” surfacing in the Vineyard movement over the past decade has been “Blue Ocean”[5] churches seeking to apply M. Scott Peck’s four-stages of spiritual development to church practice. Peck’s paradigm first applied to the local church by Dave Schmelzer and Charles Park in the Cambridge (MA) Vineyard Christian Fellowship[6] and chronicled in Schmelzer’s 2008 book Not the Religious Type[7]  significantly shaped, not only the Cambridge Vineyard’s cultural engagement and rapid growth in a highly secularized and radically “unchurched” city, but also the growing Blue Ocean movement as a whole.

Unfortunately, as easy to understand and helpful as Peck’s four-stage model might be, its incomplete and oversimplified summary of developmental psychology, coupled with its disconnection from theological and spiritual direction paradigms not only limits its usefulness for guiding congregants into spiritual maturity, in time it could even prove as dangerous as the Puritan morphology scheme.

In this paper I will briefly explore Peck’s framework and the strengths of its Blue Ocean application in reaching skeptical secular communities, as well as the dilemmas of this paradigm stemming from weaknesses in Peck’s foundational model. I will then offer preliminary starting points for developing a more robust development theory based in a broader understanding of stage-theory and theological reflection.


The seminal work for most Blue Ocean faith development stage-theory conversations is M. Scott Peck’s 1993 book Further Along the Road Less Traveled.[8] Schmelzer describes his debt to Peck in chapter entitled, “How M. Scott Peck Saved My Life,”[9] and anyone who doubts that Peck is king in these discussions need only read the ongoing conversation on the Blue Ocean platform blog Not the Religious Type[10] to disabuse themselves of this notion.

A Four-Stage Model of Faith Development

Peck describes Stage One in faith development as “Chaotic/Antisocial” (simplified to “Criminal” by Schmelzer).[11] It is the state of lawlessness “absent of spirituality” into which all human beings are born and which 20% of the American adult population never surpasses.[12]

Peck’s Stage Two is “Formal/Institutional” (Schmelzer “Rules-based”):[13] a phase perfected by prisons, the military, and more importantly, the church. “Indeed, most churchgoers fall into stage 2.”[14] It is a stage marked by “rigorous adherence to the letter of the law” and the forms of religion.[15]

Peck’s Stage Three is known as “Skeptic/Individual” (Schmelzer, “Rebellious.”)[16] It is a transitional phase of religious doubt accompanied by inquisitiveness in other areas of life that marks adolescence for most Americans.[17]

Peck’s labels his most mature phase, Stage Four as “Mystical/Communal” (Schmelzer keeps the word “Mystical”).[18] While the content of Stage Four faith may look similar to Stage 2, the engagement is more nuanced and based upon the underlying principles of the “Spirit of the Law” rather than a rules-based system. [19]

A Fruitful Approach to Church Planting Among Young Urban Skeptics

Peck’s four-stage system has proven an ideal paradigm for churches seeking to reach skeptical university-educated adults in secularized urban settings.[20] Peck provides a marvelous structure for interpreting the spiritual journey of most highly intelligent and liberally educated Americans, such as Stanford grads (like Schmelzer and Park) and MIT/Harvard grads (like the Cambridge residents Schmelzer and Park are trying to reach).[21] By definition “Blue Ocean” leaders are seeking to reach Stage 3 skeptical/individual rebellious populations,[22] not by building Stage 3 formal/institutional rule-based churches, but rather by fostering Stage 4 mystical/communal churches.[23] Furthermore, Peck’s Mystical Stage 4 lines up extremely well with another key Vineyard and Blue Ocean value: John Wimber’s adaptation of Fuller Seminary professor Paul Hiebert’s[24] “centered-set” versus “bounded-set” thinking.[25] (See, Schmelzer on Centered-set thinking.)


Unfortunately, the very simplicity that makes Peck’s paradigm so easy to communicate and apply to church-planting strategies also makes it extremely shallow. While Peck admits his debt to the work of other developmental psychologists[26], he consciously “refines” more complex schemes of spiritual growth into four stages based mostly upon his own personal spiritual journey and adult counseling practice.[27] And there lies the rub. Some elements Peck leaves out of his developmental psychology are nearly as important as his stage-theory itself.  Allow me to briefly survey three gaps in Peck’s thinking, and suggest three ways that a deeper commitment to understanding and applying developmental/educational psychology to church practice might lead to a deeper blue ocean.

Peck’s Toxic View of Stage 1 Childhood Faith and Children’s Ministry

First, it seems to me that a deep blue ocean stage-theory would require a more robust understanding of children’s faith development than Peck’s scheme offers. By limiting his stage-theory to his personal and professional experience with adults, Peck unintentionally skews his Stage 1 toward its most toxic form. While there is clearly something defective in the maturity level of any adult still trapped in Stage 1; a child in Stage 1 is simply being a child. Age-appropriate Stage 1 children are clearly not “absent of spirituality” as Peck asserts.[28] So despite its value for guiding church planting among skeptical adults, Peck’s theory is often confusing for parents (and those ministering to children) seeking to build the faith of the next generation.[29]

Peck’s Missing Stage 2 “Constructive Social Hedonism” and Evangelizing Youth

Second, a deeper blue ocean stage-theory would need to develop a more robust understanding of the relationship between the “Constructive Social Hedonism” of Mythic-Literal Faith and adolescent evangelism.  Peck’s age-skewed paradigm virtually ignores the key transitional phase from childish faith to adult faith in adolescence.[30] This actual “Stage 2” is the critical phase in which children begin to transfer their experiences with the key adults in their life onto God. They begin to tell the master stories for themselves as they assimilate the beliefs and behaviors of their faith community (or non-faith community) into their own life patterns; albeit with a great deal of age-appropriate wooden literalism and a “what’s in it for me?” perspective.[31] Stage 2 is a crucial season of “Constructive Social Hedonism” wherein the community provides the rationale for why entering into this type of faith is in the best interest of the individual.[32]

No one enters Skeptic/individual faith directly from Chaotic/antisocial faith. We need a stop in Formal/Institutional rule-based faith to get there, and the only way to make that stop is through the exploratory transitional phase of “Constructive Social Hedonism.” By skipping this stage, Peck omits the need to “evangelize” young adults (not out of) but into Formal/Institutional Rules-based faith.[33] Attempts to create “Blue Ocean” faith in adolescents (and delayed adolescents in their 20’s and 30’s) without first guiding them through some sort of “Stage 2” catechism can and will create significant misunderstanding among parents, children, and young adults themselves.[34]

Kohlberg’s “Regressive Hedonism” and Adult Lifespan Development

Third, a deeper Blue Ocean stage theory would develop a more robust understanding of “Regressive Hedonism” and age-appropriate Mystical/Communal Post-conventional faith. Peck’s truncated scheme misses an important parallel between the exploration done in early adolescence and the exploration done in later adolescence.[35] Lawrence Kohlberg’s stage-theory of moral development highlights this omission. Kohlberg uses a scheme of three primary phases—pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional—but also emphasizes the important transitions between the major stages.  This scheme enables Kohlberg to note the parallels in the transitional phase between pre-conventional and conventional faith, Stage 2 “Constructive Hedonism,” and the Skeptic/individual transitional phase between conventional faith and post-conventional faith. He calls this phase 4.2 or “Regressive Hedonism,” because many if not most young adults who are rebelling against Formal/institutional faith are normally more motivated by hedonism and freedom from rules than by an actual pursuit of Mystical post-conventional faith.

This approach fits with the broad educational psychology paradigm pioneered by Piaget—assimilation, accommodation, disequilibrium. Development stage-theory insists that we gradually move through cycles of embracing systems (stage 3), doubting them (stage 4), and reengaging them at a deeper more principled level of understanding (Stage 5) in various areas of our lives over the course of our lifetime. People who do finally arrive at Mystical/Communal Post-Conventional faith in most areas of their life, do not so until after they turn 40 or even 50 years of age. We can point young adults toward mystical/communal post-conventional faith, but we dare not allow them to believe that they have achieved it in their twenties or thirties.[36]


Filling in these gaps and others like them will make for a much more robust Blue Ocean stage theory.[37] However, it will not fix the primary dilemma in Peck’s paradigm: the simple fact that it is a content/value neutral scheme. Like all contemporary developmental/educational psychology systems there is nothing uniquely Christian about it. As Peck points out himself, the faith of Buddhists, Muslims, and Presbyterians develop more or less through the same cognitive stages. As someone’s ability to reason abstractly increases[38], they progress along Peck’s “stages of faith.”[39] While this is certainly an important aspect of reaching intelligent and highly educated adult learners, it misses some important connections to historic Christian spiritual formation paradigms and connections to the key Vineyard doctrine the gospel of the kingdom. Allow me to suggest three preliminary starting points for developing a deeper blue ocean theology.

The Gospel of the Kingdom and Mature Faith

First, it seems to me that a deep Blue Ocean stage theory would need to develop a more robust understanding of the relationship between Jesus’ preaching of the kingdom of God and the “heart difference” between Formal/Institutional Conventional Rules-Based Faith and Mystical/Communal Post-conventional Principle-based faith. For instance, if you somewhat artificially overlay stage-theory onto Jesus’ proclamation of the gospel of the kingdom as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount, the usefulness of stage-theory becomes immediately obvious. Jesus’ call for a kingdom righteousness that “surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law”[40] is very much a contrast between Stage 3 Formal/institutional (rules-based conventional faith) versus and Stage 4 Mystical/communal principle-based post-conventional faith. Every teaching couplet comprises a statement from each category:

  • Statement 1: “You have heard it said: Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, etc. (Stage 3: Formal/Institutional rules-based conventional faith).
  • Statement 2: “But I tell you, do not hate, do not lust, etc.” (Stage 5: Mystical/communal principle-based post-conventional faith.)[41]

This seems to make at least one element of stage-theory crucial for preaching the gospel of the kingdom, not only to young urban educated skeptic, but to everyone everywhere. It is not merely a matter of intellectual development. It is a matter of spiritual apprehension directly related to entrance into the kingdom. It is a principle so simple children can grasp it, yet so complex it requires a lifetime to master. A deeper blue ocean stage-theory can and must explore the crucial role of discerning between stage 3 and stage 5 minds and hearts of Christ followers on their journey to spiritual maturity.

Jonathan Edwards Emphasis Upon the Fruit of “Disinterested Love”

Second, it seems to me that a deep Blue Ocean stage theory would need to develop a more robust understanding of Jonathan Edwards views on religious affections and “disinterested love” as the highest stage of spiritual development. While Edwards rejected the Puritan’s strict seven-stage morphology, he still believed that it was possible to guide seekers through predictable pitfalls of immature faith into genuine maturity. What Edwards found so deadly in the Puritan system was its focus upon external actions, spiritual activities, and physical manifestations that could easily be counterfeited by the devil rather than upon the inner transformation made possible only by the work of the Spirit.[42]

For Edwards, “True religion, in great part, consists in the affections” [43]—meaning the heart’s[44] inclination toward God and away from the world and even one’s own interests.  While the beauty of Edwards’ thought is much too complex to unpack here, the bottom line is that he believed he had found the holy grail of genuine spiritual transformation: what he called “disinterested love”—what Bernard would call “love of God for God’s sake” (see section below)—which manifests itself in a Christlike love for others. Whatever a deep blue ocean stage-theory might look like, the final stage must cannot be limited to a contentless Mystical/Communal faith in anything. It must be a faith marked by a love of God for God’s sake, that manifests itself in selfless love for other believers, the poor, and even enemies.

Bernard of Clairvaux’s Phases of Loving God and the Dark Night of the Soul

Finally, it seems to me that a deep Blue Ocean stage-theory would need to develop a more robust understanding of historic spiritual formation paradigms such as the stage-theory utilized by Bernard of Clairvaux, John of the Cross, and Teresa of Avilla. Twelfth-century spiritual director, Bernard of Clairvaux envisioned the true Christian’s spiritual journey progressing through three primary stages—1) Love of self for self’s sake, 2) Love of God for self’s sake, 3) Love of God for God’s sake.[45] Bernard’s scheme fits nicely with Edwards’ highest level, but is simpler than Edwards’ exhaustive shotgun approach.

Bernard’s approach also provides a framework for better understanding the critical stage of faith John of the Cross first labeled as “the dark night of the soul” as the transitional stage from “Love of God for self’s sake” to “Love of God for God’s sake.”[46] It is a stage of “Deconstructive Individual Asceticism” that purifies of the soul of the innate idolatry of “Love of God for Self’s Sake” present in all Formal/Institutional faith. A deep Blue Ocean stage-theory can and should train believers to expect repeated visits to the dark night of the soul on their journey to truly Christian Mystical/Communal faith—love of God for God’s sake. [47] A fully developed spiritual development stage-theory might like something like the following diagram.


Jonathan Edwards’ challenge to revise the failed “stage-theory” of his day is as pertinent to the pastors and scholars of the Society of Vineyard Scholars today as it was to the pastors of colonial New England. Fortunately for America, Edwards challenge did not fall upon deaf ears. So many “New Divinity” pastors adopted his approach that they were able to help birth a Second Great Awakening (1800-1865) that moved beyond a short-lived flowering of spiritual interest into a decades-long movement of personal and cultural transformation.

So the question remains: will the Vineyard in general and the Blue Ocean movement in particular rise to his challenge? No stage-theory system is perfect, but one that has proved as fruitful as Peck’s is worth improving. While this paper has been merely exploratory, my hope is that it will help foster an ongoing conversation in the Blue Ocean movement and among all Vineyard churches toward the end of developing a robust paradigm for understanding the stages of spiritual development rooted in a deep understanding of developmental psychology, kingdom theology, and historical spiritual direction paradigms. As Edwards declared:

“Till this be done, it may be expected that great revivals of religion will be but of short continuance; (and) there is but little good to be expected of all our” efforts.[48]

See also


[1] Edwards, Jonathan. 1959. Religious affections. New Haven: Yale University Press. Originally, Edwards, Jonathan. 1746. A treatise concerning religious affections, in three parts; Part I. Concerning the nature of the affections, and their importance in religion. Part II. Shewing what are no certain signs that religious affections are gracious, or that they are not. Part III. Shewing what are distinguishing signs of truly gracious and holy affections. Boston: Printed for S. Kneeland and T. Green.

[2] Ibid, 5,6

[3] Some pastors added up to three more stages and some used as few as five stages.

[4] Bloesch, Donald. 2000. The Holy Spirit: Works & gifts. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 106-110. See also, Gerstner, J. H. (1995). Jonathan Edwards, evangelist. Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 12.

[5] “Blue” in both the popular political sense of “red state” Republican/conservative versus “blue state” Democratic/liberal sense, and the blue ocean “untapped market” sense of Kim, W. Chan and Mauborgne, Renee. 2005. Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

[6] (now Greater Boston)

[7] Schmelzer, Dave. Not the Religious Type: Confessions of a Turncoat Atheist. Carol Stream, Ill.: SaltRiver, 2008.

[8] Peck, M. Scott. 1993. Further along the road less traveled: the unending journey toward spiritual growth: the edited lectures. New York: Simon & Schuster, 120-145, 230-248.

[9] Schmelzer, Chapter 3, 17-27.

[10] Not the Religious Type website,

[11] Schmelzer, 18.

[12] Peck, 238. Adults often move out of this stage only by a sudden and dramatic “conversion” to a sub-cultural system of externally prescribed rules and roles in order to escape the personal chaos of their Stage 1 life. See, Ibid., 123..

[13] Schmelzer, 19.

[14] Peck, 123.

[15] Ibid., 238. Stage 2 people are extremely resistant to changes in or challenges to any religious system that brings order to their lives.

[16] Peck, 125; Schmelzer, 20.

[17] Peck, 238-240.

[18] Peck, 124; Schmelzer, 23.

[19] Peck, 238-240.

[20] As Schmelzer has stated repeatedly, this is the only purpose for which he intended its use: “the bottom line is not about this stage-theory stuff, no matter how helpful or insightful it might be,” the bigger story is about encountering God (27).

[21] Interestingly, Danish Christian existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard uses a similar paradigm to describe the faith development of intellectuals. Kierkegaard’s Aesthetic stage roughly corresponds to Peck’s “Chaotic/Antisocial” Stage 1 faith. His Ethical stage roughly approximates Peck’s “Formal/Institutional” Stage 2. Kierkegaard Religious stage is an ongoing integration of the Aesthetic and the Ethical into what Peck would call “Mystical/communal” faith. Blue Ocean devotees who function out of a sense of “arriving” at Mystical/communal post-conventional faith are in for a rude awakening as the Lord leads them into the next cycle of deeper maturity. See, Kierkegaard, Søren, and Alastair Hannay. 1992. Either/or: a fragment of life. London, England: Penguin Books, 475-590. Special thanks to Caleb Maskel for reminding me that one of my former (Wheaton) college professors, C. Stephan Evans, had been using Kierkegaard’s stages to describe the intellectual’s faith journey since the 1970’s.  See, Evans, C. Stephen. 2009. Kierkegaard: an introduction. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 68-137.

[22] In both the “new customer” and “red state” meaning of the word.

[23] For an outstanding expression of this vision, see Charles Park’s 2007 National Vineyard Conference address “The Vineyard and the Urban Challenge,” available at .

[24] Hiebert, Paul. (1994). “The Category of Christian in the Mission Task,” in Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 107-136. See also, J.I. Packer’s tracing of Hiebert’s influence on Wimber in a chapter entitled, “The Intellectual,” in David Pytches, ed. 1998. John Wimber: his influence and legacy. Guildford, Surrey: Eagle.

[25] See, Not the religious type, vii, 37-50. For a great treatment of Hiebert’s influence on Wimber (and its problems), see McAnnally-Linz, Ryan. “The Problem of the Contested Center.” Paper delivered to the Society of Vineyard Scholars, 2010.

[26] He specifically mentions Piaget, Erickson, Kohlberg, and Fowler, 119.

[27] Also, his private counseling practice, and his interactions with Christian churches.Peck, 119-121.

[28] In fact, Jesus seems to indicate the exact opposite in highlighting something exemplary in children’s faith. Matthew 11:25; 18:3; 19:14; 21:15.

[29] One of the major struggles one hears expressed in the Blue Ocean circles is the complications created by parents/pastors raising second-generation Blue Ocean children with an eye on Peck’s scheme.

[30] Fowler, James W. 1981. Stages of faith: the psychology of human development and the quest for meaning. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

[31] Fowler, 52-57.

[32] As Richard Rohr observes, without the strong sense of self that is created by joining and internalizing the values of a rule-based community, we live “very warped and defeated” lives. Rohr, Richard. 2011. Falling upward: a spirituality for the two halves of life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 26.

[33] Or, dishonestly fails to admit that the professed Mystical/communal values of Blue Ocean churches actually function as a Formal/Institutional Rules for young adults in the movement.

[34] For a great treatment of how Skepticism has become the new Institutional/formal rules for the Millennial generation, see, Friesen, Mike. 2012. “Are Millennials Creating a New Religion?” Retrieved 4/6/2012 from

[35] An omission that can lead to misunderstanding and arrogance among stage-theory devotees.

[36] Anyone who has worked with undergrads and twenty-somethings in Blue Ocean settings knows exactly how important a teaching point this can be. This is not to pick on Blue Ocean twenty-somethings as unique. Anyone who has hung out with emerging/emergent church leaders will note some of the same semi-hedonistic arrogance masquerading as thoughtful deconstruction and engagement. But I digress…

[37] And I am deliberately omitting concerns that Peck’s model lionizes creative/entrepreneurial personality types (such as church planters) who are hard-wired to continually test boundaries, rather than more late-adopter personality types, who are hard-wired to stay within boundaries, so that being “edgy” is equated with “spiritual maturity.”

[38] Both by brain maturation and education.

[39] And Fowler’s and Kohlberg’s, etc.

[40] Matthew 5:20 (All verses in NIV)

[41] Matthew 5:27

[42] Affections, 255.

[43] Affections, 237.

[44] Heart, soul, and will are roughly synonymous terms in Edwards’ vocabulary.

[45] Bernard of Clairvaux. 1978 (originally 1153). On Loving God. trans. Jean Leclerq and Henri Rochais, 1978. Kalamazoo, MI: Cisterian Publications.

[46] John of the Cross, and E. Allison Peers. 1990 (originally 1586). Dark night of the soul. Grand Rapids, Mich: Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

[47] Note: When I teach this framework in retreats/workshops with pastors, faculty, and leaders in Christian higher education, over one half of attendees identify “the dark night of the soul” as the best descriptor of where they currently fall in these 5 phases of faith. This is not surprising in that one-third to one-half of the Psalter are laments, written to process and worship dark nights of the soul. What is surprising is how the triumphalism of American Christianity wars against the acknowledgement of the importance of this crucial stage in Christian maturity. Few pastor/leaders can recall ever being taught to ‘lament’ in public or private worship, nor even hearing a public worship song written in a minor key.

[48] Affections, 7.

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