It’s all in our heads…

I grew up as a teen in youth ministry. The 1980’s and 1990’s were simpler times. My schedule wasn’t so fast paced.  I didn’t have to choose between club soccer and youth group. My youth pastor didn’t have to compete with my smartphone when teaching me the scriptures. Life was slower. Face to face was the way we communicated.

Growing up in youth ministry back then was awesome, but our leaders also didn’t know what they didn’t know. There’s no way they could have prepared us to be adults in today’s rapidly changing and attached at the face, tech-focused culture. With that technology has also come amazing advances in how we understand ourselves.

Brain science has made huge strides in the last 20-25 years. Before the introduction of the MRI, no one had ever seen a human brain outside of a highly invasive surgery or autopsy. Our ideas about how our brains operate were just that – ideas. Since the MRI, study after study has brought us amazing insight into how our brains work.

We’ve known for several years now that the prefrontal cortex, or decision making part of the brain is not fully developed until 24 or 25 years old. Wow. That explains so much of our stories, no? Using that information helps us understand why a teen struggles to make good decisions even after making bad ones. I found myself saying this to my own teens – “Making mistakes I’m ok with. Not learning from them…now that’s where we will have a problem.” Maybe our teens lack of learning comes more from our approach than their “refusal” to learn.

We’ve also learned that the amygdala (an almond shaped part of the brain, responsible for how we process emotions) will literally shut down our prefrontal cortex when confronted with emotions such as fear. All of us, adults included, have issues managing good decisions when we are overly emotional.

I have an irrational fear of flying. So irrational, that it has kept me grounded most of my life. In the past, I restricted myself to air travel to only destinations four hours and under. To this day, the longest flight I’ve been on is Indianapolis to Los Angeles. I cognitively know and understand the statistics on air travel. I would make my mind up to go on an international mission trip, only to get to the place where my fear would abandon any plans to actually follow through. My fear has even kept me from getting a passport. Why? Why is this fear so strong even in the face of so much hard evidence? It is our friend, Amygdala. She’s a dream-killer. So how do we balance ourselves between strict rational thought and over emotional fear?

Youth Ministry Leader, Mark Oestreicher talks about new research that helps understand what we can do to live in the balance. More than that, the implications for guiding our teens as they develop fully-functional human brains and a faith that lasts a lifetime.

(You should go listen to his interview on the Rethinking Youth Ministry Podcast: Episode 18.)

This new research centers around a part of the brain called, the anterior cingulate. Its function is to balance the rational thought of the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. Here’s the amazing part: you have to develop your anterior cingulate to see any results. And how can we develop the anterior cingulate? Researchers (non-Christian researchers at that!) have discovered that the two main ways to see measurable results in developing the anterior cingulate is by prayer and meditation, and faith-based singing.

God’s plan to help us balance our fears with rational thought was for us to come to him in prayer and worship! So what does that mean for our teenagers? The most important thing we do to help them grow their ability to make good decisions is to help them process their mistakes, and learn to seek God in prayer and worship. The cool thing is, by coming alongside them and helping them process their decision-making we build community. It is in community we model prayer and personal worship.

AH! I’m geeking out. Let’s get to work!

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