Incorporating ‘Whole-Brain Discipleship’ in Your Ministry

When discipling teenagers in the church, we are often only addressing half of their brain. The left hemisphere, to be exact. 

Speech, problem solving, writing, logic, and mathematics are all functions of the left hemisphere. Yet, consider the spiritual disciplines we encourage with middle and high schoolers: reading the Bible, speech (praying), and memorizing Scripture top the list. 

With some students, we quickly see spiritual fruit as they read, pray, and learn God’s Word. But what about students who have learning disabilities and struggle with reading and writing? What about students with ADHD? What about students who have experienced trauma, depression, anxiety, or grief, which affects their motivation, reading comprehension, and concentration? 

Left hemisphere discipleship does not meet these students where they are cognitively or developmentally. Engaging in whole-brain discipleship seeks to integrate biblical truth, taking things we read or hear and connecting them to how we feel and live.

As we think about whole-brain discipleship, consider the following three suggestions: 

Utilize Visualization Exercises

“Ashley, I don’t really like praying. I don’t really want to pray, and I’m guessing that’s a problem.”

These comments came from a twentysomething who approached me after a Bible study on the Lord’s Prayer. I appreciated her honesty and vulnerability. 

As we stood facing one another, I asked her to close her eyes and to imagine who she’s talking to when she prays. When she opened her eyes, I asked her what she saw. Without words, she mimed someone looking down with lips pursed and eyes squinted, wagging their finger at someone in trouble. 

Her lack of desire to pray made sense! I wouldn’t want to talk to someone like that either!

Rather than ask how she viewed God, I’d requested she use her imagination to engage the right hemisphere of the brain. It’s worth noting that she didn’t use words to describe what she visualized; she acted out what she had seen. What she visualized explained her view of God, and it also revealed her perception about how God views her.

Utilizing visualization exercises with students can also involve having them close their eyes and place themselves in the scene as you read or study the Bible, particularly narrative. What do they see, smell, taste, touch, or hear if they’re in the scene with Moses and the burning bush? What do they feel as they experience the storm in the boat and realize Jesus is sleeping while their lives are in peril? If they were the prodigal in Luke 15, how would they feel as they journeyed back to their father?

This is so much richer than simply being told “God forgives sinners who repent.” I’m more likely to turn toward God for forgiveness if the image I have of him is that of someone embracing a returned prodigal, rather than a domineering judge or volatile authority figure. 

Since we can recall images faster than we can recall spoken or written words, the imagined picture of the jubilant father throwing his arms around the prodigal and welcoming him home will stay with that student as they learn about God’s compassion towards sinners. 

Nurture Gratitude and Joy

As I discipled a young woman who used pornography as a coping mechanism, who had not read the Bible in months, and who did not desire to read the Bible, I knew that we would have to take small steps to nurture motivation for spiritual things.

 This young woman exhibited little joy. She seemed flat, numb, and apathetic, and I could tell she had little appetite for the Lord.

A few months earlier, a mentor had given me four prompts and challenged me to do them daily for eight weeks in order to build joy, thankfulness, and resiliency in my relationship with the Lord. I asked this young woman if she was willing to commit to journaling these same four prompts a couple of times a week for two weeks. 

She agreed, and when we met again in two weeks, I asked her to do this activity for another two weeks. She agreed, and the next time we met, she asked for help with reading God’s Word!

There’s nothing magical about these four prompts, but they help us meditate on the Lord’s character. And expressing thanks to God and personalizing truths from Scripture reminds us that he is actively working in our lives. These prompts help us acknowledge who God is and how he sees and feels about us. This can produce a joy in the Lord and have a positive effect on one’s motivation to read the Bible and die to sin. 

I’ve seen them benefit the people I disciple, and they’ve helped me personally to orient my heart and mind toward the Lord.

  • Write two statements about the Lord based on Scripture. (For example, “God who is always with me” or “Shepherd who leads me.”)
  • Write one statement thanking God for something.
  • Take a truth from Scripture and personalize it as though God is speaking it to you. (For example, “My child, I see you and am with you today.”)
Incorporate the Arts

My small group recently spent six weeks studying Zechariah. With each of Zechariah’s prophetic visions, I pulled out crayons, markers, and colored pencils and had the group draw the visions. It made us all pay attention to the details of what we read and gave us an opportunity to laugh and marvel at the resulting artwork. 

Weeks later, the young women could recall what they had drawn and the truths associated with those drawings.

Additional ways I’ve tried to incorporate creativity in my teaching and disciple-making include:

  • Watching a Bible Project video where the narrator explains an overview of a book of the Bible while simultaneously drawing the events in that book
  • Singing biblical truth with one another
  • Reciting creeds and liturgy with one another
  • Creating and listening to playlists that communicate truth that’s harder to remember when feeling anxious or depressed
  • Reenacting aspects of the festivals, feasts, or events in Scripture
  • Coming up with songs, raps, or poems that express biblical truth
Create Healthy Attachments

While reading and hearing God’s Word provides us with instruction for how God wants us to live, this alone does not shape our character.

 In addition to relational attachments and identity formation, character development largely occurs in the right hemisphere of the brain, and it is primarily shaped by who we are around and what we value. 

As we spend time with and watch fellow believers, our brain identifies how we respond to conflict, treat our siblings, deal with stress, react when someone challenges our faith, etc. This requires proximity and relationships with God’s people. Our students don’t just need to hear us teach; they need to live life with us

Consider how Jesus spent three years with the twelve disciples. Before learning what to believe and how to behave, they first committed to following Jesus. Through their belonging to this group, they observed how Jesus lived, interacted with people, and cared for them personally. 

They learned how to live as God’s people by daily watching Jesus year by year, and any correction they received from him occurred in the context of a trusted relationship. They knew that the person correcting them selflessly loved them and understood what was best for them.

I also imagine Jesus laughing at their jokes, affirming the gifts he saw in them, and genuinely enjoying time with them. We can teach people truth, but do they know that we enjoy them as people made in God’s image? Does your face light up when you see your students come into the room? When you ask them about their day, do you genuinely care about their response and express that care with your body language? We can help develop secure attachments with our students by delighting in them, pointing them to the God who made them and enjoys them.

As you walk alongside students, consider how you can address both hemispheres of the brain. In using visualization exercises, nurturing joy and gratitude, incorporating the arts, and creating healthy attachments, you can help students connect with the truth they read and hear from Scripture. 

By integrating biblical truth with right-hemisphere activities, you’ll better point students to the God who knows them, loves them, and desires them to come to him— both hemispheres included.

Ashley Chesnut serves as the Associate Young Adult Minister at The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama, and she’s the author of It's Not Just You: Freeing Women to Talk about Sexual Sin and Fight It Well. She has a Master of Divinity from Beeson Divinity School, a Certificate of Biblical Counseling from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and is currently working on a Doctor of Ministry in Spiritual Formation at Denver Seminary. When she's not at the church or meeting with girls, you can probably find her at the farmer's market or trying some new local restaurant.

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