Streams of faith

Following on from stages of faith, another idea I’ve found helpful is that of streams of faith.

According to this view there are a number of ‘streams’, pathways, traditions or expressions of faith within the overall Christian church, and each of these has a valuable contribution to make to the whole. Richard Foster’s Streams of Living Water covers the subject really well, but as it’s a bit chunky and I’m a bit lazy, I’ve only got as far as skimming it.

Here are some of the main streams (by no means all, but probably the most well-known):

Faith stream Keynote Main emphases
Sacramental (Catholic/Orthodox) Sacrament Tradition, ritual, liturgy, ceremony, order, sacrament, iconography, hierarchy, saints
Evangelical Scripture ‘Sola Scriptura’, Bible as all-sufficient Word of God; ‘sound’ biblical doctrine/theology (e.g. of atonement); need for personal salvation through faith in Christ; discipleship and personal morality; importance of preaching, teaching and missionary work (evangelism)
Charismatic/Pentecostal Spiritual gifts Manifestations/gifts of the Spirit – prophecy, tongues, healing etc; power, miracles, signs and wonders; spiritual warfare and deliverance
Activist/Liberal Social justice ‘Social’ gospel – justice for poor, liberation for oppressed, care for environment; political activism, usually left-wing
Contemplative/Mystic Stillness/seeking ‘Prayer of the heart’; finding God in stillness, silence, solitude and in nature, art, music; meditation, contemplation of the divine

Foster also identifies a number of others e.g. the ascetic/holiness stream – think Simon Stylites on top of a pillar.

Bible and being

I would suggest that each faith stream tends to take its cue from a particular part of the Bible, and also tends to be associated most with a particular part of the human being or person. So the mystic stream is most linked with John’s gospel and the more mystical prophets like Ezekiel, and with the ‘soul’ or ‘heart’ of the human person. The activist tradition is linked with the justice prophets like Amos and with Luke’s gospel (and Matthew 25), and with the physical human body. The charismatic tradition focuses on Acts, miracle stories and the emotional part of the human being.

Evangelicals often claim to be ‘whole-Bible’ people, but actually they too tend to focus on particular scriptures – especially Paul’s letters. I would suggest from my experience that evangelicals place the highest value on the human mind and will, and view the body and emotions with some suspicion.

Strengths and weaknesses

According to this model, each stream or pathway has something good and unique to contribute to the whole river;  none is necessarily better or worse than another, and each need the contribution of the others.

Each stream of course also has its weaknesses and dangers, particularly when it imagines that it is the Only True Way and that the other pathways are wrong or inferior. There’s a particular tendency among evangelicals to view liberal activists as barely Christian, and among sacramentalists to view pentecostals as loony nutcases. It’s all too easy to look on people from a different stream as just odd, but it would be great if we could instead see them as different in a good way, offering us fresh approaches and insights into our shared faith.

Another danger comes in over-emphasising the focuses of your own faith stream to the exclusion of the others and thus becoming narrow, unbalanced and extreme. In the case of evangelicalism, this can take the form of literalism, legalism, judgmentalism, puritanism and pharisaism. With charismatics, it can be an unhealthy focus on signs, wonders and supernatural experiences for their own sake, devoid of any authentically Christian content. For radical liberal activists, it can be a sanctified humanism that has no room for anything supernatural or biblical. And with the sacramental tradition, it can be mere external form (ceremony and ritual) with no inward reality. We’ve probably all seen examples of most of these, and they can be quite offputting.

Complementarity and combination

The streams of faith can and should be complementary, not mutually exclusive. They can also overlap and combine – it’s perfectly possible to be a charismatic evangelical, a sacramental contemplative or an evangelical activist. (It’s perhaps more difficult to be a sacramental evangelical or a contemplative activist, but I’d like to hope it’s not impossible. Viva paradox!)

Of course, some of the faith streams tend to be particularly associated with certain church denominations – e.g. Baptists tend to be evangelical, Orthodox and Catholics to be sacramental; pentecostals tend to have their own groupings like the Assemblies of God.

Polarities and personalities

Alongside and often underlying the streams, there are also the polarities – the fundamentalist/liberal spectrum, the meditative/activist spectrum, the literal/poetic (left/right brain) spectrum, etc. Again, it’s not that either direction on the spectrum is necessarily better, but simply that it’s helpful to recognise difference and diversity.

I susect that people often gravitate towards a particular stream of faith (and therefore to a particular denomination) mainly because of their own type of personality, and also their upbringing and cultural background. And also perhaps to do with what stage they are at on their faith journey.

This is all entirely natural and there’s nothing wrong with it. However, it’s all too easy to become partisan towards my own faith stream – and project anything bad out onto the other streams – allowing my own denonimation simply to validate my personality and preferences rather than letting myself be challenged by the other pathways and traditions.

I suspect people often become stuck in one tradition for this reason and start up a kind of trench warfare with those of other backgrounds in order to protect themselves from the pain of emotional development. Those stuck in a trench will see difference and diversity as disunity, and anything outside their refuge/prison as dangerous and scary. But if you can start to move on and grow up emotionally and psychologically can you can start to receive the good from these other ways of faith.

Changing stream

I’ve noticed that people often do ultimately feel drawn to a different stream than the one they grew up in, and I think this can be emotionally and spiritually healthy. Several of my friends who have spent years in the charismatic-evangelical tradition now find themselves increasingly drawn to a more liturgical and sacramental expression of Christianity. My own experience was (initially) the opposite – I was brought up in a sacramental church in which God seemed distant to me, and when I finally decided to follow Christ more wholeheartedly, I turned to the charismatic-evangelical expression. Now, 17 years later, I’m moving more into the contemplative stream.

I’d be interested to hear your own journeys and experiences of the different streams of faith.

And if you’re interested, you can read more about my own journey of faith here.


About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Emerging, Religion, Spirituality, Stages of faith, The faith journey and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Streams of faith

  1. Julian Staniforth says:

    As someone who is instinctively ‘both and’ rather than ‘either or’, the interesting challenge is to see how one can draw on, benefit from and remain open to the insights of other traditions or streams. I’ve certainly become more sacramentally aware or more ‘catholic’ but don’t see that there is an inevitable tension with roots in the charismatic evangelical background, although maybe I might define ‘charismatic’ more widely if we see this as meaning the work of the Spirit in a wide range of ways including the reflective and contemplative rather than just the terms in which it is often expressed. Chris Cocksworth’s book ‘Holding Together’ (now Bishop of Coventry) touches in particular on the question of how the catholic, charismatic and evangelical (probably in its more ‘open’ form) streams are essential to Christian identity.


  2. harveyedser says:

    I’m very much a ‘both/and’ sort too, and I find the idea of holding together the various traditions very appealing, if sometimes very difficult! I like your wider definition of ‘charismatic’ and I think the same can be done for all the streams – so for example I would see all of life as sacramental, though in a wider sense than it’s usually used in the Catholic tradition.


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