Why We Should Pay Attention to Brain Research

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Sarang Kang and Lynn Turnage are curating a blog series on faith formation. We’ll hear from various people who are involved in faith formation personally, professionally, and perseveringly. How has your faith been formed? How has your faith formed you? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

This post was originally shared on the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators blog.

by Holly Inglis

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 service 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 tops 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. 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.

Additional Resources

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

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 is also president of the Association of Presbyterian Christian Educators (APCE).

Preaching Series: A Testimony

by Tom Are

Adapted from the 2012 Currie Lectures, given at Austin Theological Seminary.

For 19 years I preached the lectionary. I loved it. I couldn’t imagine preaching in any other way. But I have changed my mind. I am among the growing number of preachers who find the most important approach to proclamation of the word for the salvation of humankind to be preaching series. I doubt I will ever return to the lectionary. My congregation just listens differently to series.

In my lectionary days I sat with the text, studied the text, prayed over the text until a word would come. Then I would turn and look at the people and search for the point of connection.

But, what happens if that process is turned around?  The people come to the sanctuary with questions and confessions, with hopes and with their own stories of faith to tell. What happens if the preacher begins by paying attention to the people? Begins with the questions and affirmations that are in the pew?  And once a clear engagement of the community is experienced, the preacher then turns to sit with, prayer over and study the text to find a point of connection—a word to speak to the context.

I believe this is how the New Testament has come to us.  Paul’s letters are not based on a text for the day, but are shaped by the issues on the ground. Matthew rewrites Mark because Matthew is speaking gospel to a different community.  The entire New Testament is shaped by the questions in the pew.

This is “incarnational preaching.” To begin with the people is faithful to a God who chooses to take on flesh and dwell among us.

What might this look like?

Let me give you an example or two from my own context.

I live in Kansas—only six blocks from Missouri.  In 2005 the Kansas Board of Education made a change in public school curriculum.  They determined that in addition to teaching the theory of evolution, public school science curriculum should include instruction in what they called “Intelligent Design.”[1]  This time, calling supporters of Darwinian evolution “fundamentalists captured by secular dogma,” the Board changed the definition of science, saying it would no longer be limited to searching for “natural causes for phenomena.”

Kansas City also boasts the Stowers Institute for Medical Research, one of the places in the nation that does stem cell research.  It has been hotly debated in the state, and the local Catholic Bishop has organized protests declaring the medical research conducted at the Stowers Institute consists of murder.

scienceThis is my town, so I preached a sermon series exploring the relationship between Christian faith and science. It was entitled “Jesus and Galileo.”

We explored Genesis 1 and the claims of Intelligent Design.

I visited with Dr. Bill Neaves, Director of the Stowers Institute, to learn what is involved in “somatic cell nuclear transfer” or stem cell research. The sermon explained the basics of stem cell research and also offered reflections on Psalm 139… you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

The series also included a sermon on Climate Change, again providing scientific research, not limited to but including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and reflection on Genesis 2 where finitude applies to not only the human creature but to all creatures, including the planet.

This is just an illustration of how a series can hold a longer conversation with nuance that the lectionary is less likely to provide.

Another example:

A few years ago I read David Jensen’s book, Responsive Labor.  That got me thinking about work.  I preached a series entitled Labor Daze: Church on Sunday, Work on Monday. To prepare I took fifteen members of my congregation to breakfast. Each was engaged in a variety of aspects of business.  I asked them to talk to me about how their faith connects or doesn’t connect with their work.  Their comments were very instructive for me in shaping a theological conversation about vocation, call, stewardship and Sabbath rest.

Some of the sermons were “What is your calling?” rooted in Mark 1:16-20 and the calling of the disciples and Exodus 3, the call of Moses.

A sermon about stewardship entitled “trust that you are gifted” proclaimed from 1 Corinthians 12.

The final and fifth sermon in the series was preached from Deuteronomy 5, and entitled “Sabbath: it’s a commandment, not a benefit’s package.”

One last example: Bible Stories from Childhood

I invited the congregation to submit requests of Biblical texts from their childhood on which they would like to hear a sermon.  Here’s why. Almost 70% of those who join Village Church do so by Reaffirmation of Faith. They come mostly as ones who do not know our practices, our language, our holy stories. Yet they may bring memories of their childhood church days. You can imagine the stories they would know: Noah and the ark, the Good Samaritan, Daniel and the Lion’s den, David and Goliath, the prodigal.

It was exciting to see members hear anew a childhood story that has grown up to become a new word that speaks with power and grace to orient the community?

I have changed my approach to preaching because I believe we must pay attention to our particular context.   It’s incarnational. It’s Biblical. It’s certainly not the only way to preach, but in our day it has much to offer.

Other examples of series:

Joy Even on Your Last Day (a series on the Philippian Letter)

9-11: Things Remembered, Things Forgotten, Lessons Learned (preached the four weeks leading up to the tenth anniversary of 9-11)

Just Can’t Say Enough about That Baby (An Advent Series exploring the unique portraits of Jesus found in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John)

Where is God when it Hurts? (a series on theodicy)

Sacred Sound Bites (Words we hear every week in our worship liturgy)

Questions thinking Christians are asking (invited the congregation to submit questions on which they would like a sermon… preached on the most popular requests)

[1]  Both times the following election cycle replaced enough of the Creationist/ID supporters that the curriculum returned to traditional scientific standards.

Tom AreTom Are is the Pastor of Village Presbyterian Church and Co-Chair of NEXT Church.