How Going to Church Benefits Brain and Body

As a committed follower of Jesus, I’ve gone to church literally my whole life. My parents took me when I was a kid. I wanted to go as an adult. And in another sense, I’d better go now. After all, I am a pastor. Most believers understand that church attendance does (or should) help us grow spiritually. But did you know that God wired our bodies and brains to benefit from both attending church and developing a healthy spiritual life? Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg notes that since the year 2000 over 400 papers have been published each year on this topic. Consider these ways science shows us that church attendance benefits both brain and body.

brain working out

How Going to Church Benefits Brain and Body

First, two caveats.

  • I’m assuming your church is a Bible-based, grace-filled place. If your church atmosphere is legalistic, harsh, and overall condemning, it can actually harm your body and brain.
  • These studies don’t necessarily show a causal relationship (attending church causes such benefits). Rather, most of the studies show a correlation. That is, attending church and these benefits are closely related. Nevertheless, science continues to discover more body and brain benefits from walking with Christ and being with His people

1. It decreases stress. The stress hormone cortisol is released by the adrenal glands that lie on top of our kidneys. Good stress (eustress) keeps us keep motivated and alert. So cortisol is not all bad. But prolonged stress that keeps unhealthy high cortisol levels in our body damages both it and our brains. Heart problems, a dampened immune system, and diminished memory result from prolonged stress. However, church attendance can decrease the stress response thus decreasing the amount of cortisol in your body.

2. It increases the trust hormone, oxytocin. Oxytocin is one of the ‘feel-good’ brain chemicals (called neurotransmitters). If the church you attend is filled with kind and caring people, your brain will release this chemical helping you bond with others. Biblical community is really good for you.

3. It may thicken your brain. One brain study discovered that those who place a high value on spirituality (though not necessarily tied to church attendance) showed thickening in some brain areas. Many other studies now show that reflective and contemplative spiritual practices grow several parts of your brain.

4. It can help lessen depression. A group of Canadian researchers discovered that those who attended church more regularly experienced less depression. They surmised that social support made the difference resulting in people being more resilient. (see number 2 above)

5. It may help you live longer. One study showed that attending church increased the lifespan for whites by an average of 7 years and potentially 14 years for African Americans. The more people go to church, the less likely they are to die sooner than those who don’t go to church.

6. Finally, church attenders commit suicide less often, deal with pain better, have less cardiovascular problems, and recover quicker from surgery.

A final word.

We follow Christ, not because of the pragmatic benefits, like taking aspirin for a headache. We follow Him because he created us with a soul thirst that can only be quenched in Him. However, when we do turn to Jesus and His Body, He gives us some nice brain and body benefits as well.

So the next time you are in church, thank God for these brain and body benefits.

What other practical benefits have you experienced from attending church?

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Are You a Brain-Savvy Leader? 4 Advantages of being One

I’m passionate about how brain insight can enhance our leadership. I’ve lived in a neuroscience world for over 25 years battling the effects of my youngest daughter’s brain tumor. I recently received an executive masters in the neuroscience of leadership. And my fourth book, Brain-Savvy Leaders: the Science of Significant Ministry shows how leaders can effectively apply brain insight to their lives and leadership. Recently, Canada’s largest Christian TV program, 100 Huntley Street, interviewed me about my recent book. You can view the video here. I believe leaders who learn about how their brain works can enhance their leadership effectiveness. Here are the top 4 advantages of brain-savvy leaders.


1. Brain-savvy leaders lead teams more effectively.

One example is called emotional contagion. Our brains and behavior mirror the emotional temperature of those around us, whether it’s good or bad.

Leaders who understand how the brain works seek to bring a positive, hopeful tone to their meetings and their leadership culture which makes for happier and more effective teams. Learn how to motivate your teams here with these 4 brain-savvy insights.

2. Brain-savvy leaders understand how best to control their emotions.

Within our brain two forces vie for our energies, thinking and feeling. When negative emotions take precedent in our brains, we don’t think as clearly. When emotions rule, leadership suffers. However, brain-savvy leaders learn to monitor and control this see-saw dynamic resulting in more consistent fruit of the Spirit (Eph. 5.22-23). Learn here how pastors and leaders sometimes lead out of their lizard brains (our emotional side).

3. Brain-savvy leaders effect lasting change better.

Often our change efforts fall flat. However, by incorporating how people’s brains respond to change, leaders can create change initiatives that reflects such insight. The result? The change you hoped for can go much better. Learn 6 brain barriers to healthy church change here.

4. Brain-savvy leaders experience greater personal productivity.

One example involves multi-tasking. Although we may think we can multi-task (i.e., write an email and talk on the phone at the same time), we really can’t perform more than one task at a time that requires our attention. Our effectiveness actually drops when we attempt to multi-task. It’s called dual-task switch cost. It’s the proverbial feeling we get when we switch back and forth, the “Where was I now” effect that actually takes more time than focusing on a single task at a time. Here you can learn 7 ways multi-tasking dumbs down leadership effectiveness.

Leaders in today’s complicated world can enhance their leadership effectiveness and joy by learning how to leverage brain-savvy insight. You can learn more from my book, Brain-Savvy Leaders.

How would you rate your brain-savvyness?

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3 Ways Leaders Break Unhealthy Dependencies

Good leaders help their followers grow. They keep their followers’ best interests a priority. They invest in their followers. But sometimes we unintentionally hold them back by creating an unhealthy follower-leader dependency. How do we do that? We solve their problems by giving them answers instead of fostering insight. Consider the following scenario.

Become Independent red 3d words on chains breaking to illustrate gaining freedom and becoming self reliant to control your own destiny

A staff person who reports to you comes into your office with a problem. She explains the problem. As she explains it, because you’ve had more experience than she, you quickly know the solution. She then asks, “What do you want me to do?”

What should you do in that situation? I see two choices.

Choice 1: You can save time, cut to the chase, and give her the solution. One problem solved: she got the answer she needed. Another problem created: the next time she has a problem, she will probably come to you again for your answer. You have potentially started to create a dependency.

Choice 2: You can take a bit more time and instead of solving her problem, you can coach her through a process so that she discovers the answer for herself. With this choice, the problem gets solved and you avoid creating an unhealthy dependency on you.

So, how could a leader implement such a coaching process? I suggest three guidelines.

1. Ask questions. When a staff person asks you for your solution, instead of reflexively giving an answer, respond with this question. “What do you think?” If you routinely give answers, your staff may need time to adjust to this new way of relating as you loosen the dependency.

2. Begin operating with a new mental paradigm. Solving problems is not the main issue, developing problem solving skills in your staff is. This new process will help your staff solve their own problems rather than them counting on you to solve them.

3. Realize the power of this process. This process, called insight generation, actually engages more of the brain. When someone generates her own solution (an insight) the fastest brain wave, the gamma band, sweeps over her brain. It’s called synchrony (think of how a conductor ‘synchronizes’ an orchestra’s instruments when he steps on the podium and lifts his baton). When synchrony results in an insight in your staffer’s brain (she discovers the solution) she will implement the solution with greater motivation because it is now her solution rather than yours.

So, examine how you respond to your staff when they want you to solve their problem. If you regularly solve them, try this new approach and see what happens.

Should leaders always apply this process? Or are their times we should give an answer?

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5 Brain Benefits from Creating Routines

I’m reading a great book called Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown. In one chapter on ‘flow’ he describes the routine Michael Phelps has practiced before every race. For years he has kept the same routine… from the same time he shows up before a race… to the same number of warmup laps he swims… to the same time he removes the infamous ear buds from his ears. His routines have contributed to both his Olympic golds and his world records. Routines not only benefit Olympic athletes, but can benefit us as well. Consider these 5 brain benefits to creating routines.

Routine Word Odometer Letters Repetitive Everyday Ordinary Same
  1. Routines help minimize uncertainty.
    • Our brains don’t like uncertainty. Uncertainty engages the fight-flight-freeze-appease part of our brains (the amygdala) which can stifle clear thinking. Routines, however, help give you a greater sense of control which creates certainty, what the brain loves.
  2. Routines make space for clearer thinking.
    • In the front part of our brain, the pre-frontal cortex, executive functions like planning, abstract thinking, social intuition, and emotional control occur. However, that part of our brain tires easily. The more we use it, the more it tires which can affect our ability to think clearly, make wise decisions, and relate to others well. However, when we create routines and habits, the brain stores those routines in our habit centers (basal ganglia). As a result, routines free up working space in our pre-frontal cortex so that we can think and concentrate better on new tasks and relationships.
  3. Routines can reduce the drain on our daily energy.
    • Ego depletion refers to the concept that we all possess a limited pool of mental resources available for self-control and willpower. And it gets used up during the day. If we spend that resource on activities that could be routinized, we waste energy that we otherwise could dedicate to more important tasks and relationships. Routines help conserve our energy for what’s most important.
  4. Routines help us focus and maintain attention.
    • The ability to pay attention to what’s important is a key to successful living, leading, and learning. When we are scattered (Where did I leave those keys?) attention gets diluted. Routines, however, can help you direct your attention where you truly need to direct it.
  5. Routines help quiet the tyranny of the urgent

    •  The tyranny of the urgent beckons us to worry about insignificant issues that seem important at the moment. The term rumination describes the mental process of rehearsing something that happened in the past or something that might happen in the future. The tyranny of the urgent breeds such rumination. McKeown writes that routines helps us focus on the life’s essentials rather than spending precious time trying to prioritize everything. Years ago Charles Hummel wrote a classic booklet Tyranny of the Urgent! If you’ve not read it, I strongly recommend it. It’s a real gem.

So, building routines into your life offers many practical benefits.

How have routines helped you?

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3 Thinking Errors Leaders often Commit

God gave us an amazing 3 pound dynamo called the brain. And although it weighs on average 2% of our body weight, it requires 20% of our body’s energy and blood flow. So, it follows that we should steward well our energy and consider what goes on in our brains. Great leaders recognize that great leadership demands great thinking.

Unfortunately, we often commit serious thinking errors that muddies thinking and hinders leadership. Ask yourself if you commit these thinking errors.

thinking error

Before I list them, it’s important to understand a concept called metacognition. It simply means to think about what you are thinking about. In other words, when we pay attention to our inner chatter, we’re more likely to catch ourselves in these critical thinking errors. Neuroscientists tell us that we have five times more negative networks in our brains than positive ones so we naturally default toward these errors.

Here are the three thinking errors.

  1. Catastrophizing: We assume the worse-case scenarios. We don’t get an email response from a critic and assume that they are causing trouble. It’s Chicken Little saying, “The sky is falling, the sky is falling.”
  2. Discounting: Because we biologically tend toward negative thinking, discounting minimizes the good. If you are a pastor, after a Sunday service you may have received several positive comments but the one negative comment casts a shadow over all the positive ones.
  3. Mind reading: We think we know what someone is thinking even though we have no real evidence. The fight-fight-freeze-appease structure in our brain, the amygdala, has twice as many neurons looking for the negative than the positive. As a result mind reading often results in negative assumptions.

So, how can we minimize these thinking errors. Consider using the STOP process, often used in mindfulness exercises. Here’s what it means.

S: Stop. When you feel anxiety rising, catch yourself before the emotion gets out of hand. Literally stop what you are doing to attend to yourself.

T: Take a breath. After you stop what you are doing, take several deep breaths. Studies show that deep breathing calms our sympathetic nervous system (the body’s response to an activated amygdala).

O: Observe. Observe and pay attention to the thoughts in your mind. What’s happening in your mind, in your body, or in your environment at this very moment? Don’t listen to the narratives in your mind about how bad everything is, how wrong he or she was, or what may happen at the meeting coming up. What negative emotions are you feeling? Pay attention to them. When we name them we actually reduce their intensity.

P: Proceed. By now you’ve probably paused for a few moments. You are ready to move forward, probably having caught some of these thinking errors.

The Apostle Paul understood how we easily get caught in these thinking errors. To counter that tendency, he counsels us with these words in Philippians 4.8.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.

Which thinking error challenges you the most?

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