How Discipleship Builds Your Brain

Insights from interpersonal neurobiology

This article originally appeared on MissioAlliance.org and is reposted here by permission.

“I’m actively brainwashing my kids.”

That’s what the pastor who married Cyd and I said about his parenting style. While processing how inappropriate this sounded, he added, “If I don’t do it, then the culture will!”

He was talking about raising children. But do the same sentiments apply to discipleship?

Stay with me as we explore two different options of raising children and how this might influence how we disciple believers along the way of Jesus. The question we’ll be asking is, “How does neuroscience help us understand discipleship better?”

SHELTERED OR FREE?

My initial response to my pastor’s parenting statement was that it sounded like a conservative, culture war mentality. Surrounded and embattled, this “brainwashing” kind of parenting will resist, flee, and overcome the world by standing against it. Raising your kid this way probably means resisting the hard and soft sciences, toeing the line on conservative cultural issues, and going to church as much as possible.

In other words, parenting is brainwashing your kids.

But a progressive sensibility would probably balk at brainwashing children. The goal of parenting isn’t to control, but to nurture freedom and independence, to cultivate critical thinking, to open up a curious mind full of compassion and empathy—not to fill it with conspiracies and fears.

In other words, parenting is allowing the child to fill in the blank slate themselves.

So which parenting approach is best? To stand as a bulwark against dangerous influences, or to cultivate a free and open mind? To keep a blank slate or to brainwash?

To answer this parenting question is also to answer our discipleship question. If discipleship isn’t just about getting people saved for heaven, then it means learning to follow Jesus here and now—which for me is nothing less than learning to be fully human.

BOTH ARE RIGHT, AND WRONG

Conservative Brainwashing

Conservatives (in parenting and discipleship) are right about the process, but wrong about the goal. They are right that someone or something is going to brainwash their kids. This is human nature. We are social creatures that grow—physically, mentally, relationally, and spiritually—in community.

We become ourselves in community. We are not first individual “selves” who then enter into community. We are first immersed in community, and then find our particular selves (our unique contribution, our particular style) within the community (or even against our community, if it comes to that).

But conservatives are wrong about the goal—to protect and shelter. Our goal should always be to grow capable adults who are independent, open, and empathetic.

Progressive Brainwashing

Progressives (in parenting and discipleship) are right about the goal, but wrong about the process. They are right that adults become independent, open, and empathetic. But they are wrong about this goal if freedom and openness merely means the freedom to do what you want as long as you don’t hurt anyone else.

The truth is that life is full of constraints and limitations. Our biological existence cries out about our limitations. We need to eat and sleep or we will die. And our social, sexual, and spiritual existence also requires boundaries. We can’t just live free or explore any and every identity on a path toward individual fulfillment. Living in this manner reflects being brainwashed a certain way—a way that says, “No one can tell you what to do. Just discover who you are.”

In other words, progressives are wrong about the process. Children and adults actually learn freedom through constraints—they grow independent by embracing limitations. They need to learn to care for themselves and for others—and that “for others” is the particularly tricky part.

BRAIN-BUILDING, NOT BRAINWASHING

In reality, we shouldn’t be talking about brainwashing at all. What is happening is really brain-building. And this is also what discipleship is, allowing the mind of Christ in one mature believer to be a model for a more immature believer.

The development of a brain has always been a “brain-filling” or “brain-structuring” process—and this is a good and necessary thing (I’m drawing from what has become called interpersonal neurobiology—developed by Dan Siegel and Allan Schore, and extended to spiritual formation by Curt Thompson).

All brain development (which leads to emotional and spiritual maturity) is done in connection with another brain—with another person or community of people. Here are some of the developmental stages in which we connect with the people around us (see this from Jim Wilder for extensive details):

• Infant: Develops physical and emotional regulation by interacting with caregivers.

• Child: Develops narrative processing of memory and identity through story telling/acting with in community with caregivers.

• Adolescent: Develops emotional and identity integration of multiple “selves” into larger identity in relationship to broader community.

Each of these stages provides opportunities for brain-filling or brain-structuring that will have lifelong consequences (for good, and sometimes for bad). Instead of brainwashing, we are actually brain-building. A more mature brain (mentor) helps to form a less mature brain (disciple).

This is what happens in both parenting and discipleship—growing people in maturity in community.

WHAT TO FILL A BRAIN WITH?

So what is the best way to fill a brain? Through stories, mostly.

Stories connect the right and left sides of the brain, and are therefore the best at integrating emotion and identity, memory and empathy. Whether you are trying to form children or those you are discipling, you will want to hear the story of their own lives and share the story of your life, the story of your life with God, and the story of God’s life both with Israel and with Jesus.

You will want to explore together the life of Jesus—asking why Jesus says, and does and feels the way he does.

Is it any wonder the Bible is mostly stories?

In a cosmic-redemptive way, God is offering his mind to us, to restructure our brains to overcome sin and to become healthy and whole again. And this happens over time, through the story of our lives.

As Paul writes (non-italics added for emphasis):

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing, and perfect will.” —Romans 12:2

“Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. … Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice.” —Philippians 3:17; 4:9

How have you benefited from this kind of positive brainwashing, otherwise known as discipleship or mentoring?

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