Why should the church pay attention to brain research? With everything else happening in and around us, why should we attempt to understand and apply scientific research about the brain? What difference would it, could it make? Consider these scenarios:
- Catherine, age 10, has attended Vacation Bible School for as long as she can remember. She tells her mother that she learns more at VBS than she does at Sunday School. Why?
- The youth group has just returned from their mission trip to help rebuild homes in a part of the US recovering from a natural disaster. During their presentation in worship, several youth tell how this experience was transformative and made them feel closer to God. Why?
- A worship services last summer focused on all the mission and service ministries of the church. But more than just talking about each of those ministries, individuals from the congregation were visibly present at the front of the sanctuary engaged in the ministry. There was bike repair happening, communion being prepared, small flower arrangements created from the Sunday morning arrangements in the Sanctuary to be delivered to homebound members. Months after this worship service, many people continue to comment that it was one of the most meaningful services they can remember. Why?
- This year’s stewardship campaign was more successful than any in recent years. The Stewardship Committee was puzzled because everything was the same as usual: pledge cards, sermon series, personal phone calls. The only difference were the Moments for Generosity that were shared right before the offering was received each week; individuals from the congregation told personal stories of ordinary acts of generosity that had great impact on their lives and on their faith. Many of those stories were quite touching. Could this have made the difference?
We want to believe that what we do in the church and in our various ministries make a difference and have a lasting impact on students. The greatest impact we can have is not merely by imparting wisdom or knowledge but by gaining a better understanding of how learning occurs and how learning can be reinforced and become part of the long-term memory of individuals, impacting not only their thinking and reflection in the current setting, but their actions and behavior in settings beyond the walls of the church. If we become more aware of the way our brains learn and remember and if we are able to make some shifts in what we teach and how we teach, we may have a greater likelihood of being agents of transformation for those who participate in our ministries.
Let’s look at the answers to the questions posed in the scenarios above as a way to understand some of the implications of brain research for the church.
- Why does Catherine learn more at VBS than she does in Sunday School? Brain research indicates that repetition is important to learning and the formation of long-term memory. Most traditional Vacation Bible School experiences meet daily for several days and for several hours at one time. Songs are repeated, often with associated movements. Themes are repeated and reinforced through Bible stories, crafts, games and even snacks. Several senses are engaged intentionally and brain research indicates that the more senses we engage the greater the likelihood that the information will stick. The use of visual props and decorations enhance the excitement and experience for the participants and once again, brain science tells us that vision trumps all our other senses and is a top priority for our brains.
- Why are mission trips, retreats, and similar experiences so often transformative for the participants, particularly for our youth? Part of the answer may lie in the fact that the participants in these events are often physically moving, whether that is working on a job site, working on a challenge course, walking or hiking, or playing games. Exercise boots our brain power. Then there are the emotional connections that are made during these experiences. Emotion is the glue that makes memories stick. Regardless of whether the emotions we experience are positive or negative, our brains retain items of information that significantly engage one or more of our senses and evoke strong feelings.
- What made the mission and service oriented worship service so memorable? First, there was something visual for participants to watch while people were talking. More of our brain is used to process visual information than other kinds of information, like auditory. Unless your worship services are unique, most of the content is auditory. Because there was something visual for worshippers to focus on, they may have paid more attention. We don’t pay attention to boring things. Emotions were also aroused as stories of the impact of these ministries were shared. Remember emotional memories last.
- Why was the stewardship campaign more successful this year? There could have been many factors, but the fact that the one additional element was the Moment for Generosity stories, tapping the emotions of the listeners and interjecting something unexpected into the worship service, thereby grabbing the attention of the listeners as well. There is one more thing that may have affected the outcome of the campaign – mirror neurons. We learn by watching what others do and while the worshippers did not see the individuals directly engaged in acts of generosity, as the individuals described their experiences, the listeners’ brains were making pictures of what they heard, so in effect they did “see” what was being described, as if they were present.
For the most part, this is not new information. However, taking the time to apply these principles to areas of ministry outside the Sunday School classroom can be somewhat challenging, but holds the potential to be literally and neurologically transformative.
To put what you’ve just learned into practice in your own setting, give this article to others and plan to discuss the implications. Come up with your own scenarios and ask the “Why?” question for yourselves.
Rev. Dr. Holly Inglis is a Certified Christian Educator, currently serving as the Associate Pastor for Nurture at Palms Presbyterian Church in Jacksonville Beach, Florida where she implements whole-brain strategies in worship and education. She will be installed as President of APCE in 2017. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Synaptic Gospel: Teaching the Brain to Worship by Christopher D. Rodkey (University Press of America), 2012
Sticky Learning: How Neuroscience Supports Teaching That’s Remembered by Holly J. Inglis, Kathy L. Dawson, Rodger Y. Nishioka (Fortress Press), 2012
Implications of Brain Research for the Church by Allen Nauss (Lutheran University Press), 2013
Brain-based Worship by Paula Champion-Jones (WestBow Press), 2014
Brain Rules by John Medina (Pear Press), 2014 (original edition 2007)
Brain Rules for Baby by John Medina (Pear Press), 2014
Brain-Savvy Leaders by Charles Stone (Abingdon), 2015