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  • Rebecca Parks, MA, LMFT Associate

The Other Half of Church: Review Pt. 2

Rebecca Parks, MA, LMFT Associate

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


If you missed Part One, you can read Rebecca’s summary of “The Other Half of Church” here before continuing with Part Two.


In Part One of this blog series, we covered the introduction of a central problem facing the Church today, as presented by Jim Wilder and Michael Hendricks in “The Other Half of Church”. According to Wilder and Hendricks, “half-brained Christianity” has led to incomplete discipleship efforts that depend on left-brain skills but ignore essential right-brain skills, such as emotional regulation and relationship building.


Hendricks states that we must assess the “soil” of our faith communities and relationships to discover what is lacking in order to live out “full-brained Christianity”. In Part Two and Three, we are going to review the necessary ingredients for healthy “soil”: Joy, Hesed, Healthy Group Identity, and Correction.


Joy

“God designed our brains to run on joy like a car runs on fuel.”


Dr. Allan Schore, a researcher and psychologist in neurology, says that joy is what our brain experiences when someone is glad to be with us. When we see a person’s face light up upon seeing us, we feel their joy, thereby filling our own “joy tank”. Joy is more than a feeling; it is evidence of a relational and neurological bond.


Our biology reflects what we see in Scripture. God’s joy-giving gladness to be with His people is written all over the bible and our hearts. Much like Dr. Schore’s findings about the brain, we feel joy and safety when God’s face “shines on us”, a metaphorical phrase Hebrew writers used to illustrate His presence:


“The Lord bless you

and keep you;

the Lord make his face shine on you

and be gracious to you;

the Lord turn his face toward you

and give you peace”’

-Numbers 6:24-26


Just as God is glad to be with us and gives us abundant joy through His presence, He calls us to create similar joyful bonds in our Christian relationships. Joy is a necessary ingredient in the healthy soil of communities because it signifies people who are glad to be with one another and know how to show it, reflective of Christ’s love for us.


Expressing Joy


There are many ways to show joy and “gladness to be with” others. But, the primary way our brains communicate and receive joy is through facial expression.


“God designed facial recognition circuitry into our brains and linked it to our joy center.”


Joy is neurologically signaled through our eyes, or gaze, and through the sound of our voice, all nonverbal cues of emotion. Likewise, Hendricks emphasizes the role our bodies play in conveying such emotions. Our bodies’ sense of the world and people around us is processed and coordinated in our right-brain hemisphere. Neglecting growth of our right-brain, aka “losing sense of our bodies”, may hinder joy and bonding in communities and lead to depleted soil. As Hendricks writes, “we are meant to sense the emotional signals of life in our flesh and bones”. Half-brained Christianity relies on cognitive understanding and doctrinal agreement with others as proof of bondedness, but the felt-sense of joy in our bodies has a much more powerful effect in forming highly connected people.


We can express joyfulness toward others by simple nonverbal gestures that elicit right-brain activation: eye contact, smiling, giving someone your direct attention, hugs or physical touch (as appropriate), etc. We can verbally express gladness toward others, as well, through joyful greetings and bold encouragement.


Benefits of Joy


There are several benefits to facilitating joy-building through right brain skills. First, joy helps us endure suffering. When we are relationally bonded through joy, we have energy and connection to aid us during life’s challenges. Second, joy serves as a “supra-emotion”. If we regularly practice joy-building, we build up reserves of joy that persist even when distressing emotions are triggered (anger, grief, pain, etc.). “Joy does not replace the unpleasant emotions [of suffering]; instead it combines with my emotions to keep me relationally connected in distress”.


Lastly, joy strengthens the identity center of our brain. A joyful person knows who they are, acts like themselves, and, maybe most transformative of all, knows they are loved by God.


Building More Joy


One way to build more joy is through gratitude. Specifically, Hendricks recommends nonverbal memory recall of moments from the past that fill the body with a felt-sense of joy and gratitude. When we regularly meditate on gratitude, we strengthen neural pathways to joy and resiliency.


Another way to increase our joy is to be involved in a closely bonded community. Relationships fill our “joy tank” and allow us to increase the joy of others, as we experience gratitude and identity-building through human-to-human connection.


Practicing joy in our walk with God and community creates new neural pathways between big emotions and joy. Meaning, when we experience big distressing emotions, our brain is trained and developed to link those emotions straight to joy. These pathways regulate big emotions, instead of getting stuck in them.


In pursuit of full-brained Christianity, churches can integrate knowledge about joy and joy-building practices into their discipleship and teaching. Doing so may be a divergence from the typical methods of discipleship, but as Hendricks writes, “only when we are convinced that character transformation is the central task of the church will we be intentional about raising the level of joy”.


Hesed

The bible speaks frequently about the type of love Christians should pursue for God and with one another. We see Scriptures like 1 Peter 1:22 (“Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart.”), which emphasize deep attachment between Christians. There is a Hebrew word, even more precise than “love”, found in Scripture that helps us understand this deep attachment: hesed.


Jim Wilder teaches that hesed, often translated as “loving kindness”, captures the essence of the neurological concept of attachment.


“This Hebrew word carries the sense of an enduring relationship that brings life and all good things into a relationship.”


In other words, hesed is the strong relational glue that bonds Christian communities together. A “high-hesed” community prioritizes attachment and, by doing so, reflects the love of God. God loves His people with a hesed love, attaching Himself to us eternally. In order to live out full-brained Christianity, churches need to facilitate the development of the same hesed attachments in their communities.


Hesed and the Brain


“Attachment is the strongest force in the human brain…Attachment is a life-giving forever bond with no mechanism in the brain to unglue us.”


From the beginning of life, the attachment system in the brain works to bond us to others who will love us and meet our needs. Our attachment system never stops working toward this goal: to deeply bond us for our growth and sustenance. We know from studying the attachment center that joyful, loving attachments throughout life lead to a strong identity, confidence, resilience, and general satisfaction with life. Relational connection feeds neural pathways of joy that remain throughout life and free us to grow into our God-given identity.


“When we live in a family of joyful hesed relationships, we put our brains into the ideal zone for developing us into the image of Christ… Our prefrontal cortex is energized to build a stable identity.”


Attachments that are shallow or based in fear do not produce the fruit of strong character. Instead, they produce chaotic, disorganized identity and unstable relationships. Many churches suffer from relationships that are built on fear of shame or condemnation or bonds that never reach any true level of depth. Our brains, nor our communities, can thrive on low hesed.


Benefits of Hesed


In addition to the neurological benefits of hesed, we grow emotionally and spiritually when we have hesed relationships. Jesus taught that when Christians are “attached” to His vine, they bear fruit. When we are deeply attached to Jesus, His character flows into ours, transforming our character to produce the fruits of the Spirit. We experience similar closeness to the Father as Jesus had when we are attached to Him, giving us a clearer picture of who God is. Likewise, hesed with Jesus brings us into more than just a friendship with Him and others. We are adopted into a spiritual family. God comes and makes a home with us, and we gain many spiritual brothers and sisters.


“God’s hesed puts our prefrontal cortex back in the brain’s working range by converting our fear into love and adopting us as His children.”


We have hesed with God through Christ, but we need it with people, too. Neurologically and spiritually, we have less reason to fear in life when we have hesed with others. Having secure attachments is proven to increase confidence and peace amidst life’s challenges because the brain is able to hold on to a felt-sense of safety in many different circumstances.


Additionally, we need hesed with Christians more mature than us, so that we may imitate their own Christ-like character. Imitation is frequently discussed in the New Testament as a means of character transformation. Without hesed, we cannot properly learn how other Christians have endured personal hardships and how we might imitate them in our own struggles.


Low-Hesed Christianity


Unfortunately, many churches and Christians do not place a high value on relational connection or emphasize emotional health. Half-brained Christianity may lead to low-hesed communities that look fine on the outside but are shallow and lacking in character change.


“Prioritizing plans and vision above hesed attachments (the prime movers of growth) produces little transformation.”


Without the flow of hesed through relationships, Christian communities fail to become the light of Christ to the world. Vulnerable and deep relationships are a key feature of communities that truly reflect Christ’s love; without them, the Church does not shine as a “light on a lampstand” for all to see and imitate. Rather, these groups are characterized by loosely connected friendships based on transactions and performance.


Building More Hesed


“Hesed is different because it requires restructuring how we think of church and the way we relate to each other. We must practice being a family; it doesn’t happen automatically.”


Churches can begin to build more hesed in their communities by, first, assessing the health of their leadership, finances, staff, and use of time. If these resources are characterized by hiding or secrecy, low joy, and lack of vulnerability, there may be a need for training and acquiring of right-brain skills.


Churches may incorporate relational language into their values statement, displaying their commitment to connection externally and internally. Churches can also implement joy-building exercises discussed in this book into their staff and community training, as growth of joy and hesed coincide. Groups can build hesed by regularly partaking in meals together and vulnerably sharing weaknesses, modeled by their leaders. Lastly, Hendricks states that churches must be vigilant about rooting out any narcissistic behavior for hesed to flourish.


Joy and hesed are two nutrients necessary for relational health and emotional strength within a community. In Part Three, we will discuss the last two nutrients necessary: group identity and healthy correction.

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