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  • Rebecca Parks, MA, LMFT Associate

The Other Half of Church: Review Pt. 1

Rebecca Parks, MA, LMFT Associate

Supervised by Cristy Ragland, MA, LPC-S, LMFT-S, RPT-S™

Community and discipleship are two of the most invested in areas at most churches. Pastors, church staff, and congregants continually seek out how to best facilitate discipleship, character change, and deep community relationship when walking with Christ. Numerous theologians and leaders over time have offered their theories and strategies for living this full, Christ-following life.

In The Other Half of Church, pastor Michael Hendricks recounts his journey seeking these answers for his own church congregants and the obstacles he wrestled with along the way. Through the information he gathered learning under neurotheologian Jim Wilder, Hendricks named the gaping problem he encountered, which many Christians and others in church leadership face today in their attempts at growing Christ-likeness.

The problem Hendricks and Wilder discovered was “half-brained Christianity.”

In part one of this blog series, we will review the problem of “half-brained Christianity,” how this trend came to be within church culture, and the neurologically-informed antidote that can help churches foster true character formation and deep relationships within their communities.

The Problem

To learn how to facilitate successful discipleship, Hendricks states that church leaders must first understand the problem that hinders growth and maturity for many Christians. This problem points to the root of why so many churches, his own included, struggle to witness true character change within their discipleship efforts. Understanding this problem is not only for leaders in the church, but for those of us seeking to grow and deepen an authentic Christ-likeness in our personal spiritual journey.

For many churches, resources are exhausted teaching and training members along the path of discipleship and growth in Christ-likeness. But, Hendricks notes, there is a substantial issue in these efforts: a sweeping trend of “half-brained Christianity” within church culture:

“As [we] listened to Jim explain the role our brain plays in spiritual formation, we looked at each other and realized, ‘We are half-brained Christians!’ More specifically, we were left-brained Christians. We were pursuing discipleship by focusing on strategies centered on the left brain and neglecting the right brain.” (pg. 24)

Left vs. Right Brain

God designed the human brain with two hemispheres, the left side and right side. Both hemispheres have their own distinct jobs, or functions, yet they collaborate and wire together to sustain whole neurological functioning on a daily basis.

Left-Brain Functions:

  • Conscious thought/awareness

  • Speech/verbal processing

  • Problem-Solving

  • Logic

Right-Brain Functions:

  • Preconscious awareness

  • Emotional attunement and regulation

  • Relationship and attachment

  • Assessment of surroundings (good, bad, safe, unsafe)

  • Identity

“Half-Brain Christianity” speaks to the phenomenon that occurs when we only focus on left-brain functions and neglect right-brain development in our discipleship process. When the right-brain is neglected, so are all the parts of life that it is primarily involved in, including “who we love, our emotional reactions to our surroundings, our ability to calm ourselves, and our identity, both as individuals and as a community” (pg. 22).

Hendricks observes that this problem of neglect has led many churches to lead and disciple by overemphasizing thinking correctly, believing, making good choices, and gaining knowledge as means of forming character. While Hendricks clarifies that these functions are essential pieces of a Christian lifestyle, they are not the best “starting point,” so to speak.

So, if these left-brain strategies alone do not change our character as followers of Christ, then what does?

The Significance of the Right Brain

Because our right-brain (and its preconscious awareness) operates faster than our left-brain thinking, humans are most driven and controlled by what is occurring in the right hemisphere in daily life, not the left. A concept which is commonly but mistakenly understood backwards.

Because the right-brain’s main jobs are directly related to the formation of identity, relationships, and emotional regulation, then strengthening the right-brain will strengthen these areas of a person’s life. But if a person’s right-brain development is stagnant, damaged, weak, or neglected, their character change and relational health will be as well.

The left hemisphere may continue to grow in environments that inundate left-brain “nutrients” – doctrine, willpower, beliefs, information, etc. But, if right-brain “nutrients” – positive relational experiences, emotional health, sense of identity – are not prioritized in discipleship, spiritual maturity that leads to more Christ-likeness will be incomplete or, worse, non-existent.

The Causes

How did the church get here? How did this phenomenon of left-brain Christianity occur in the first place? We can gain insight by taking a brief look at history.

Cultural and Historical Influences

The philosophical underpinnings of the church began to shift during the Enlightenment. During this period, “the mind was elevated to be the most important part of our humanity” (pg. 45). In other words, you are what you think. Christians followed suit with the rest of society and knowledge, doctrine, and correctness became the primary aims of church engagement and Christian lifestyle.

“In this new world, it became more important to be right than loving.” (pg. 45)

Many of us feel the impact of this cultural shift still today, as the emphasis on teaching, information, and how much you know persists. Some of the consequences being denominational splits, rifts over “correct” theology, and a high standard of “rightness” in Christian communities. In teaching and discipleship, there remains a heavy imbalance toward left-brain development over the promotion of right-brain health.

An additional shift occurred with the Industrial Revolution, which dispersed families across the country and created a dominant lifestyle that revolved around industry and work, rather than community. As Hendricks puts it, “relational skills were slowly being lost” and continue to suffer with the advancement of technology.

“The Great Omission”

In The Great Commission, Jesus gives His followers a mandate: make disciples by

  1. baptizing them and

  2. teaching them to obey all that He had commanded

We can understand the first part as “getting people in the door”, i.e. inviting them to church, bringing them to small group, and telling them about the Gospel. The second part speaks to the process of maturing in Christ once someone becomes a believer. A mature Christian desires to obey all that Jesus commands of them and does so out of a loving attachment to Him. The greater the loving attachment, the greater the obedience and maturity.

Dallas Willard, a theologian and prolific writer on discipleship, observed the neglect by many churches to foster maturity in their congregants, witnessing instead a prioritization of gaining numbers and growing church size (“baptizing”). He called this neglect “the Great Omission”.

The overemphasis on the first part of the Great Commission may explain why many churches invest the majority of their resources into gaining numbers, bigger buildings, and evangelism tactics. While spreading the Gospel is absolutely necessary and good, a culture that does not equally invest in the maturity of its members may prioritize the wrong things and experience poor relational health and lack of maturity because of it. Hendricks states that “the great omission” often becomes a breeding ground for emotional disconnect and even narcissism in many churches, where presentation and numbers become markers of success in the culture.

The Antidote

In light of the problems he observed, Willard urged churches to refocus their efforts and invest in paths toward maturity for their members. While Willard emphasized training in spiritual disciplines as the means to this end, Jim Wilder and Michael Hendricks offer an alternative solution. They present a case for making right-brain, relational skills “among the first things we teach new believers because this is the pattern we see in Jesus’ life. Our love for Jesus (a right-brain attachment function) is what produces obedience.” (pg. 40)

Rather than a “half-brained” or “left-brained Christianity”, Hendricks proposes the need for believers to pursue “full-brained Christianity” to achieve loving, fruitful, and Christ-like discipleship and community. By following how God designed our brains to naturally operate and increasing investment in right-brain strategies, true character formation and relational health thrive.

“…a full-brained Christianity would include developing areas of our lives that are not under conscious control [right-brain]… The right brain integrates our life, including our connection to loved ones, our bodies, our surroundings, our emotions, our identities, and our community. Character formation flows out of these connections.” (pg. 28)

Healthy Soil

Hendricks ultimately calls for a look at the “soil” of our lives, families, communities, and churches. Does our soil exclude the importance of the right-brain? Does the culture support or neglect right-brain development, including relational health, emotional well-being, and identity-formation? Is our soil depleted of the “nutrients” it needs to thrive relationally and emotionally and ultimately produce fruit and maturity? If so, how can we start to enrich our soil with the ingredients it needs?

Hendricks outlines four major ingredients necessary for healthy soil:

  1. Joy

  2. Hesed (Loving Attachments)

  3. Healthy Group Identity

  4. Correction

In Part 2 of this blog series, we will discuss each of the four ingredients necessary for healthy soil in detail and how Jesus empowers us to live as full-brained Christians.



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