Why Seeing Isn’t Always Believing When It Comes to Christian Community
I stood by and watched the roller coaster. I could hear the screams. I could feel the rush of the wind as it went by. I could see the smiles of people as they exited. But I was staying on the sidelines.
I knew all the right things about the safety of roller coasters. I knew how rare it was that one would break or fall or get stuck. I heard the testimonies of friends who said “Austin, it’s awesome! You'll love it! You've got to do it!"
But I didn’t believe it.
Why? My top brain knew it, but my bottom brain didn’t.
Top Brain vs. Bottom Brain
Here are answers to a few questions you may have about the brain before I get to my point:1. What’s a top brain?
Our top brains are made up of what’s called the prefrontal cortex (PFC). It uses logic, facts, and reason. God made us with this part of our brain, which means it's good and necessary.2. What’s a bottom brain?
We also have a bottom brain. This is made up of the limbic system and the middle brain. The limbic system is responsible for basic survival needs like eating, sleeping, breathing. The middle brain handles emotional processing. Our bottom brains default to emotions, instincts, and experiences. God made us with this part of our brain as well, which means it too is good and necessary.3. What’s the difference?
Here's where things get really interesting. Our brains are always scanning our environment to look for threats in an effort to keep us safe. The top brain takes in and processes 60 bits of information per second. Our bottom brain takes in and processes 11 million bits of information per second. (Read that again, because it wasn't a typo.) This means our bottom brains are much more sensitive to threats. And, if and when they do sense a threat, they will take our top brains offline in order to deal with the threat.4. Wait… our brains go offline?
Yep. “Going offline” means our brains send a signal to our adrenal glands to start pumping cortisol and adrenaline through our body. A signal will be sent to our heart to start pumping faster so that we can have more energy and oxygen to fight the threat or flee from it. All of this happens in an instant. The bottom brain takes the top brain offline because it's too slow and won't react quickly enough to the threat.
And that's why I didn't get on the coaster. A part of me (informed by the top brain) knew it would be fine to get on. But another part of me (informed by my bottom brain and flooded with anxiety) knew getting on would mean death. In the end, that part won the day and said, "You're staying put. No matter what." Seeing wasn't believing.
You, Your Brain, and Your Church
What does any of this have to do with you and Jesus and his church? Could be a lot. Are you craving a deeper community of Christian friends, one where you can grow, learn, and become more like Jesus together? That’s great!
…So, what’s the hold up?
What's your "roller coaster" regarding following Jesus and getting more involved in his church? What causes you anxiety, fear, apprehension, or discomfort when you think about diving in? Is it…
Coming in person on a Sunday morning?
Serving regularly on a Sunday morning?
Becoming a member?
Going to a large group social or class?
Joining a small group?
Talking, opening up, or being vulnerable in a small group?
You might not have a super intense emotional experience like I did with the roller coasters, but there might be something there. Whatever it is, and however intense it might be, you've likely got at least a couple different parts talking to you as you consider getting connected at church. One part might "know" that all those things are good and right and that you should give them a shot. Sounds like your top brain to me.
But another part—your bottom brain?—might be wary or uncomfortable or downright scared. For all sorts of reasons, it’s saying, "Nope. We're not getting on that coaster." Seeing isn't always believing.
So what do you do?
Getting on the Roller Coaster
Eventually, I got on the roller coaster. After seeing me on the sidelines for 10 or so minutes, a friend said, "Dude, just do it once. Then you'll really know if you hate it or not." That was good enough for my bottom brain. And guess what… I didn't die! In fact, much to my surprise, I had a lot of fun. After it was over, I got on it again, and then again, and then again.
It turns out, doing is believing.
Now that I had a few roller coaster rides under my belt, my brain had a new experiential category for roller coasters. Before, the only category was "roller coasters will kill you." But the new and growing one was "roller coasters won't kill you. In fact, they're fun!" This illustrates what's called Hebb's Axiom, which says "neurons that fire together wire together." It's as if my brain was creating a brand new experiential path that was getting wider every time I traveled down it.
Did I still have anxiety and stress at the thought of getting on the roller coaster? Yes. But it was more manageable. Now my top brain could remind my bottom brain "Yes, I understand you're scared. But remember how much fun we just had? Come on, let's go!" And the bottom brain could now say "Oh, yeah. You're right. Ok let's go!" Doing helped me believe.
Have you figured out what this has to do with you?
I'm not sure what your "roller coaster" is or how you came to view it as one in the first place. I also don't really know what's at stake for you if you decided you do want to take a next step.
So hear me loud and clear: If your bottom brain is screaming "No don't do it!" then you need to honor and listen to that message. Slow down and get curious. Learn more about what your bottom brain might be trying to tell you.
But if and when you sense you're ready to get on that roller coaster, even just one time, I'd be willing to bet that you won't die. Instead, what I think you'll find is that you'll grow in your desire and ability to tolerate all your emotions. And maybe, just maybe, you'll begin to believe more and more that a life spent following Jesus and getting more involved in his church is actually better than one spent watching from the sidelines.
The way you grow to believe this more and more is not only by seeing, but by doing.