Dr. Bruce Stevens reflects on a key reason many of our evangelism efforts are ineffective … and the reasons why might surprise you.

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In the Parable of the Sower (Matt 13:1–9) Jesus observed that the ground can be rock hard. Generations of preachers have concluded that the good news will not be embraced by all who hear it. But it does not answer the obvious question: Why do so many people resist the gospel?

I think there are some clues from a spiritually informed developmental psychology. We know there is no “blank slate” on which the evangelist writes his or her message. There is always prior writing, even before the infant or young child has any capacity for language. Some of this early learning will determine whether a person is open to a relationship with God. This predisposition is based on early, usually unconscious, spiritual learning.

This is not Freud’s unconscious or Jung’s archetypes. When we think about this in terms of psychological research, we can identify an early learning process. Various terms are used, including implicit learning, tacit knowledge and habitus, but with rare exceptions these have not been applied to the practice of ministry.

A new born child learns from his or her first breath. This happens through all the senses: sight, touch, hearing, smell, and taste. It is important to use a developmental lens because it will highlight personal growth encompassing the physical, emotional, psychological and, of course, spiritual realms. This “sets the stage” for what is played out in an evangelistic encounter.

Understanding early learning helps us to better appreciate a common difficulty. Once something is learned it feels true. It doesn’t matter whether the initial assumption is right or wrong, it is known, and the believer will have a sense of certainty. It also explains why some beliefs are irrational, but rigidly held. Since unconscious learning begins early in cognitive development, it happens before any capacity for evaluation, so it is taken in as if through a “vacuum cleaner” with virtually everything that’s experienced gets sucked up and accepted. This is understandable, especially if the source is from parents or authority figures, but it can result in ill-informed assumptions about “the way things are.” And if what has been learned remains inarticulate, there is no possibility of developing a counter-narrative, so that early learning remains unchallenged and continues to exercise influence.

It is not hard to see how such underlying assumptions have spiritual implications.

Marg was talking to her pastor. She had recently joined a Reformed Church. Marg was having some difficulty understanding what seemed an important message, “I just don’t understand it when you talk about God’s grace, doesn’t God just ‘set the standards’ for how we are expected to behave as Christians?” Marg grew up in a strict, somewhat legalistic, home. In this case Marg’s early learning proved to be a barrier to her understanding more about the love and the grace of God.

Such early learning will include both positive and negative input, leading to both adaptive and dysfunctional patterns of behavior, though the balance will differ from person to person.

In responding to this, the evangelist tends to work “blind.” It is like the children’s game of “pin the tail on the donkey.” It is easy to begin with generalized assumptions about the person we are seeking to assist, after all the donkey is there somewhere, but easily miss the distinctives of what needs to be addressed. Almost always there are elements of dysfunctional learning.

There is one exception to the absence of spiritual application to early learning. Attachment theory has been well researched and widely applied. It developed from the work of John Bowlby. The theory proposes four patterns of attachment of children to parents or carers. These patterns develop in the first year and are clearly evident by eighteen months. If a child’s needs are met, the assumption is that people are dependable. If not, attachment becomes anxiety-riden in different ways.

It is possible to think of an individual’s willingness to have a relationship to God in terms of attachment styles.

A style is avoidant. An intimate relationship has little appeal, “Let me get on with my life.” Usually this will define a relationship with a spouse or close family. There is a need for personal space. This attachment style tends to block a relationship with God. In these cases, the appeal will need to be more intellectual. C. S. Lewis was an example of such a “reluctant “ conversion.

B style is healthy. An appeal can be made either intellectually or emotionally. There is the confidence of a relational stability that can extend to God. Billy Graham responded to an altar call by Dr. Ham in 1934. I think he was an example of healthy attachment to God as evidenced by his life.

C style is ambivalent. This individual is emotionally driven. Sometimes they embrace a new idea, but it might not last. There is always a mistrust based on previous experiences of being let down. The best appeal is for a God who will be there in times of need to protect and comfort. Martin Luther King Jr. admitted to being “creatively maladjusted.” He had periods of depression and twice attempted suicide.

D style is mixed (disorganized). This confused style of attachment plays out in the spiritual realm as well. There is no consistency in relationships, including the possibility of knowing God. The inner spiritual world is chaotic. Perhaps the best hope is a stability with God. John Newton’s early life was characterized by trauma and chaotic relationships. He turned from being a captain of slave ships, was ordained, and wrote the hymn Amazing Grace. After becoming a Christian Newton was slow to abandon the slave trade, but eventually became an abolitionist.

Attachment theory provides a perspective on what an individual might expect in the interpersonal realm, with implications for the relationship with God. At the very least an appeal will need to be sensitive to an individual’s relational orientation. This will determine both how the gospel is heard and also tend to predict the nature of the initial relationship with God if there is a faith response. Although attachments are key to understanding how best to appeal to those outside the realm of faith, it is secondary to the larger issue of early spiritual learning. Understanding early spiritual learning and how it pre-programs a person to hearing the Good News in Christ is a key step to effective faith sharing with those whose hearts are hard. We need to appreciate a range of psychological dynamics that influence how the message is heard if we’re going to be effective in sharing the faith in today’s pluralistic and spiritually dynamic society.

Professor Bruce A. Stevens (PhD Boston University, 1987) holds the Wicking Chair of Ageing and Practical Theology at Charles Sturt University, Canberra, Australia. He is an honorary minister-in-association at Wesley Uniting Church. He is an endorsed clinical psychologist who has written 10 books, most recently The Storied Self (Fortress Academic, 2018). The website for early spiritual learning is www.EarlySpirituality.com

To Read Further

Tim Clinton and Joshua Straub, God Attachment: Why you Believe, Act and Feel the Way you do about God (New York: Howard Books, 2010). Easy to read and relevant.

Pehr Granqvist, Mario Mikulincer, Vered Gewirtz, and Phillip R. “Experimental Findings on God as an Attachment Figure: Normative Processes and Moderating Effects of Internal Working Models,” Journal of Personality & Social Psychology 103, no. 5 (2012): 804-18. An introduction to the research.

Check out the newest issue of Net Results

Inside the Issue

  • Evangelism In a Word
  • When Evangelism Doesn’t Work
  • Joyful Evangelism
  • The Importance of Evangelism in Church Revitalization
  • Reclaiming the E Word: Telling Our Stories
  • Creating a Ministry Flywheel
  • The End of Stewardship
  • Is Evangelism Dead?
  • How Did Evangelism Become a Bad Word?
  • The Death of Evangelism … Finally!