The New Science on Spirituality

The New Science on Spirituality

I just finished reading Dr. Lisa Miller’s most recent book, The Awakened Brain: The New Science of Spirituality and Our Quest for an Inspired Life, and I’ll warn you up front — I am even more convinced that we need to include young children in as much of the life of the congregation as possible. Please hear me out:

I read her first book, The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving, several years ago and it changed the focus of my ministry. This new book, written in 2021, provides updates on her research into the profound effect spirituality has on mental health.

The most applicable finding for those of us who minister in congregations (bonus if you also are currently a parent of children and/or teens), is that a child whose spirituality* has been nurtured from a very young age, is up to 80% protected from severe bouts of depression as an adolescent and an adult. Yes 80%! And a child is five times less likely to become depressed when that spirituality is engaged with a parent (or parents/caregivers). Of course, every person has a different life experience; however, this research shows that a negative trajectory has the potential to be reversed.
"Whether or not we participate in a spiritual practice or adhere to a faith tradition…our brain has a natural “docking station” for spiritual awareness."

These studies also found that a person’s degree of spirituality is determined 29% by heredity and 71% by the environment. We have known for a very long time that a faith community can support parents and families in positive ways as they raise their children in the faith, and Miller’s research shows us just how much. Just as we are cognitive, physical, and emotional beings, we are also just as much spiritual beings.

Another key finding is that this innate spirituality must be engaged on a regular basis or it can become atrophied. In order for its protective attributes to remain effective throughout one’s life, regular spiritual practices must be engaged — a kind of “use it or lose it” effect.

Other findings from Miller’s research can also be helpful to those who minister in a congregation. She and her colleagues studied people who were depressed and who had issues with anxiety and substance abuse. They found that when spirituality was addressed, many healthy behaviors could replace these forms of mental illness, such as openness to experience, conscientiousness, and agreeableness.
"I have often wondered…if some types of depressions might be a…call for the spiritual self to awaken."

This does not mean that spirituality can “cure” depression and mental illness, rather that it can work alongside it to guide the individual through the struggle toward a more positive outcome. Miller asks, “What if the elevated rates of addiction and depression we [see] in teens [is] because young people [are] struggling to form spiritually and we [aren't] supporting them?”

There is not enough room to include the intricacies of Miller’s research here, and I admit to having glossed over quite a bit of it. Yet the implications for ministry in our congregations are many, and I will follow up this blog next month with a focus on how this research can inform how we support our children and their parents within a faith community. 

I encourage you to read Miller’s books, to listen to her TED Talks, and discover for yourself how you and your congregation can actually change the world based on how you minister to the children and parents in your congregation.

The ability to be spiritual is our birthright. Let us nurture our children into healthy and spiritual adults!
* Spirituality is defined by Dr. Miller as being in a relationship with a higher power.


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Debbie Gline Allen

Debbie Gline Allen serves as a Minister of Faith Formation on the Conference’s Faith Formation Ministry Team. She also serves as the administrator of the SNEUCC Faith Formation Leadership Program.  Her passion for ministry is with children and family...

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