by Rev. Dr. Daniel C. Wilburn
I continue to study and apply John Bowlby’s Attachment Theory to church, spirituality and relational health.
I am re-reading A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development, 1988. Attachment Theory is based on the idea of a child’s dependency upon its mother. Like a duckling’s dependent attachment to its mother figure, all of us attach or do not attach appropriately to our family of origin, namely our mother. Originally psychologists, from Freud’s era (1920s) thought dependency was a sign of weakness and pathology. Bowlby thought the opposite. Dependency is good.This is a good God thought I believe.
A secure child (let’s say an 18 month old) should feel comfortable exploring and then returning to its parent for “refueling” – that is, security (secure base). This is good and natural. A secure child should be upset when its mother leaves the child at the sitter’s, doctor, daycare, hospital, etc. They want their mom. When the mom returns they should want them, cling to them and then finally feel comfortable exploring again. Insecure children will have a variety of reactions to their mother leaving: a) they could be very anxious, inconsolable, and be angry and mourn the loss. Or they could have no reaction. Upon the mother’s return they could ignore them; or they could “punish” their mom. The insecure child may remain inconsolable with their mother. Bowlby and other attachment researchers (Mary Ainsworth, Chris Fraley) therefore make four classifications based on the loss and return of the mother:
1. a secure child has appropriate anxiety and comfort upon the loss and return of the mom. They do not avoid nor over-react to their mother upon return and are comforted easily.
2. the child may be preoccupied – high anxiety upon the mother’s departure, and inconsolable upon return.
3. the child may appear unconcerned that mom left, not interact with the present caretaker, and busy its self with an object on the floor. Upon the mother’s return the child may appear unconcerned and not needful of consolation or affirmation.
4. the child is fearful of the parent leaving, inconsolable and clingy to the caregiver, and remain so after the mother returns, “punishing” the mother with avoidance.
The theory purports one’s attachment response or internal working method continues into the rest of one’s life, including one’s experience in close relationships like a spouse. God is viewed as an attachable figure. And some Christians may avoid and dismiss God as distance and not opinionated about their life if they have a dismissing pattern of attachment. They don’t trust God, they place their self in the position to need God, and therefore they don’t really know God relationally. God may be more aloof and more theory than intimate. Or another Christian who is preoccupied may construe God as all satisfying. This Christian is on a spiritual high all the time. However, when God “lets them down” then their world falls apart. There is no place for God now. Or they just simply lie to themselves that all the bad is meant for good and is God-sent. The secure Christian wrestles through the ups and downs of life with God present.The secure adult Christian struggles to make sense of life’s trials but doesn’t abandon or blame God for a long time. God is present, and they return to God and stay there. This doesn’t mean they do not mourn and go through the normal process of loss: anger, disbelief and hope for reunion or a new orientation or neo-homeostasis.
I run into all the various types of attachment within the church. Some congregants expect me to be their best friend. They are clingy and obsessive. Then (inevitably) I “let them down.” And if it is too much they leave. Others avoid me like the Plague. They expect nothing from me, but may think poor thoughts about me or the church or life or God – but don’t say much. If they were more honest they say their don’t trust and they are scared. Others are performers. They serve themselves to death. They have high anxiety about being good and doing well. They want the accolades and applause. But may still feel anxious and inadequate, like they need to do more. Unfortunately the church likes these kind because they can unwittingly use them to accomplish ministry.
In my opinion (that means I’m going to get in trouble now), these same responses play out in the various denominations and styles of church as well. The Pentecostals attract the obsessive clingy high exuberant styles, who grab a God who is nothing but a feeling experience. If you happen to run into someone who left a Apostolic styled church, and are not cynical and burned out, they will say it was all a sham, a show and big joke. It wasn’t real. They are still preoccupied with God, church and pastors satisfying their wildest desires – but now they are deeply disappointed in them all. They are inconsolable.
The Attachment To God Inventory (AGI) created by Richard Beck and Angie McDonald, (Beck and McDonald, 2004) measured Christian college students in Texas, and found some correlation on attachment style to denomination, though this was not their primary aim. Catholic and “Non-Denominational Charismatic groups did not differ on the AGI-Anxiety scores, each had lower scores when compared to the Church of Christ group. In addition, the Church of Christ group had significantly higher AGI-Avoidance scores when compared to the Roman Catholic and Non-Denominational Charismatic group…” (Beck and McDonald, Journal of Psychology and Theology, 2004, Vol. 32, No. 2, 92-103). They found the Church of Christ students leaned toward a more avoidant style and therefore were avoidant of God.
What this could mean is that different worship styles, views of God, theologies of sin and atonement, redemption, discipleship practices and disciplines, church ethos and culture may play a significant role in how a person chooses which church to attend and be involved with, just as within Attachment Theory a person may “choose” a romantic partner based on perceived and expected reciprocity, in relation to their own attachment needs and style. My wild hunch is that Catholics and Baptists have a more “legalistic” or moralist God and church culture need. They need to feel “bad” in varying degrees. Gen-X churches (like ours) attract “broken” men and women, which means they were “abandoned” through the excesses of their BabyBoomer parents – read “latch-key kids” here, just one example of what I’ve heard over the years. Years ago I had a Gen-X man tell me that he’d never received an apology from a BabyBoomer. He expect the BabyBoom Generation to apologize to him. I don’t think a) he knew exactly what they were supposed to apologize for, and b) I don’t think any apology would have been sufficient for him.
I have done ministry to Gen-Xers now for over 25 years, and I never found much traction with the classic Evangelical substitutionary atonement model – “as your substitute, Christ died on the cross that you were supposed to hang on – Jesus saved you, so you owe him your allegiance.” But I always get a response from the Prodigal Son redemptive story: ‘the Father is waiting and watching for you to come home.’ Our church gravitates toward a spirituality of belonging and exploring and finding one’s identity in Christ and the god-bathed universe. “Home” is a significant spiritual concept for Gen-Xers. Parenting is huge for them, even though they have had to make it up on their own. (That’s okay – most cultures always have.)
Along with a small set of spirtual direction tools, I use Attachment Theory to sort through the problems of congregants. I use it to formulate discipleship patterns and plans. Contemplative spiritual, with its emphasis on “true self” (god-defined self) versus the “false self” (sin self) plays well in an adult, mid-life Gen-X church ethos.
And I have decided to incorporate the AGI into my retreatant intake information. I will conduct my own research over the next three years and attempt to correlate my findings with spirituality preferences and denominational upbringing. This should result in a better emotional/spiritual health of the retreatant. I hope the same can happen throughout the church as well.