In case you haven’t noticed, brain science is coming to a church in your neighborhood, perhaps even your own. Just like sociology, furnace repair science, and adolescent psychology, neurobiology has moved from the front pages of newspapers and science magazines right into your congregation.

Why Pay Attention to Neuroscience?

Over the past two decades neurobiology has emerged as an integral part of almost every facet of contemporary human endeavor. Consider these recent developments:

  • The discovery that the role of addictive mechanisms in any kind of human behavior may be stronger—and more universal—than the usual chemical addictions.
  • Entire theories of learning—in schools and in advertising—are now routinely based on emerging facts about how brains process information.
  • “Neurotheology” is approaching its tenth birthday. (Go ahead, Google the word and see what happens.)
  • Adroit politicians have joined avaricious advertisers in using the brain’s fear and anger mechanisms to sell ideas, newspapers, and quasi-ethical behaviors.

Like it or not, brain science is perched literally at the front door of your church, ready to walk right into your meetings, your programs, your people’s lives. As educators and management gurus already know, sooner or later neurobiology will be required knowledge for your role as congregational pastor or other leader.

What to Do with the Brain in Your Church Basement

You might think about brain science like an elephant in your living room. That means that you have three basic choices:

  1. Ignore yet another branch of human knowledge and enterprise. You could decide that brain science is fundamental proof that the folks who built the Tower of Babel survived in some deep underground cave and have emerged lo, these many centuries later, to wreak havoc with their postmodern idolatry. (“See what I told you, Gertrude? These folks are worshiping their brains instead of God.”)
  2. Decide to be a pioneer in the burgeoning neuro-ecclesiology industry—yes, you heard it first right here!—and concentrate all your energies on learning how brain science affects the workings of a congregation. You could try to drink from the fire hoses that pour out new facts about human brains almost every day. (“Children, be quiet because Daddy is reading about his hippocampus.”)
  3. Stay alert and filter out what’s not useful. The obviously preferred option, this action allows you to take advantage of others’ work in sifting and sorting wheat from chaff, useful from interesting, wisdom from platitudes. (“No, I don’t think I need to know about the use of neuro-linguistic programming in training Sunday morning lectors.”)

Once You’ve Made the Decision

Presuming you chose door number three above, your next step is to determine how you might be able to transform interesting ideas into practical knowledge. You might:

  • Read basic primers about brain science—my favorite, A User’s Guide to the Brain by Dr. John Ratey, is a good place to start. Keep a list of the questions that are raised by what you read. (As-yet-unanswered questions keep you searching, curious, prone to learning.)
  • Order and read the new Alban entries that engage brain science, Your Brain Goes to Church: Neurobiology and Congregational Life (Bob Sitze) and Paying Attention: Focusing Your Congregation on What Matters (Gary Peluso-Verdend), and see how their insights connect with the dynamics of your congregation.
  • Peruse easily understood science journals—such as Scientific American—or popular newsmagazines, looking for places where brain-related discoveries or news is reported. (The filter: “Hmmmm, I wonder how this might connect with someone in this congregation, or with something we do here.”)
  • Anytime you don’t understand what’s going on—during some wonderful or vexing moment in congregational life—ask yourself this question: “How can I explain what’s really happening inside the brains of members?” Keep track of the questions as guidance for your further searching or reading.
  • Have coffee every so often with an emerging “expert” in brain science, perhaps someone you already know. Consider teachers, psychologists, managers, counselors/consultants, avid readers of non-fiction, rocket scientists, and high school students. Ask good questions so that you get good answers.
  • Let your fingers—and your Web search engine—do the walking. Try “neurotheology” (68,200 entries as of this writing) or “neurobiology and congregations” (9,470 entries). See what’s happening in the blogosphere by asking a few questions at some popular blog addresses.

Bob Sitze is the author ofNot Trying Too Hard: New Basics for Sustainable Congregations (Alban Institute 2001) andYour Brain Goes to Church: Neurobiology and Congregational Life (Alban Institute 2005). He serves as Director for Hunger Education for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.


Other articles in this 5-part series

Parsing Platitudes

Synesthetes and the Poets among Us

The Charismatic Leader and the Brain, Part 2 

The Charismatic Leader and the Brain, Part 1