The brain science behind why small groups are important

It's September, and small discipleship groups all over America are firing up afresh for the fall. Here's how being in a small group can contribute to your long term spiritual growth. It's about brain science.

Authors Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee begin their book Primal Leadership with the science of how people affect one another. Among the three main centers of the brain, the limbic brain is our emotional center. If you take a moment to survey how you feel right now about different things, you are accessing your limbic brain. The thing is, Goleman et al point out that the limbic brain is an open-loop system. That means our limbic brains are directly affected by the limbic brains of others around us. It's what allows a mother to soothe her crying infant. It's what makes it so fun to watch a football game with other fans of your favorite team. It can make you love or dread the thought of going to work on a Monday morning.

When we get together, our brains can enter into a dance without us even noticing what is happening. The limbic dance doesn't happen so much if we are paying for our food at a restaurant, but in a group where we have grown close to others, when someone opens up about the grief she feels after losing a loved one, the dance happens quickly and powerfully.

These emotional brain dances are incredibly important for discipleship. We can quickly pick up new information about God and the spiritual life through our neocortex. We love learning this way, and it is important for us. It's why we relish a good sermon or a retreat that makes us think. But real, long-term change happens when our limbic centers become rewired, and we come to respond to situations differently at a gut level. That's what Jesus was getting at when he said a good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit. When the limbic brain becomes rewired -- and it can, even into old age -- the tree is changing, down to its roots. If you're pursuing God, you probably feel a deep desire to be changed by God, down to your roots.

So our limbic brain is important for long-term change. And our limbic brain is directly affected by others, especially those with whom we have grown close. This means that if we want to become like Jesus, we need to be with others who are on the same journey. We aren't created to go solo.

So let those small groups meet. Let there be limbic dances in living rooms all over America. And let the music playing be that of God's Word.


  1. So true from this old Moose's experience, and the smaller the group (especially one-to-one), the more intimately and lovingly linked the limbic. };-


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