New Brain Research Captures What I'd Done Differently in Ministry

Kara Powell | Oct 9, 2012

As a fan of TED talks, I was pleased to watch this TED talk by Sarah-Jane Blakemore on “The Mysterious Workings of the Adolescent Brain.”

The Mysterious Workings of the Adolescent Brain

While friends and fans of neuroscience (I know there are many, many of you!) won’t learn much new information, Blakemore’s video is a great primer on some of what we’ve learned recently about changes in adolescence, such as:

  • The prefrontal cortex, which is involved in a range of high level cognitive functions like decision-making, planning, behavior inhibition and self-awareness, goes through extensive development in adolescence.
  • There’s extensive pruning happening during adolescence in the prefrontal cortex and other parts of the brain. This pruning actually allows synapses in other portions of the brain to grow stronger (similar to what happens when we prune branches in trees or bushes).
  • Adolescents use a different cognitive strategy to make social decisions, one that lacks the ability to take into account another person’s perspective (parents of teenagers are nodding emphatically here).

Blakemore concludes with one major implication for adolescence: Proper schooling and intellectual challenge are pivotal.

If I could go back and re-start my season in youth ministry, one of the top three things I’d do differently is help students wrestle more with theology and Scripture until they pinned down answers. I don’t even want to admit how many times I cobbled together a talk in only a handful of minutes - a talk that sounded very similar to previous talks I’d done. I regret that.

Now that I’m a parent and a volunteer in our youth ministry, I am more and more aware how important it is for parents to proactively stretch their own kids’ intellectual development. As a volunteer small group leader, I teach 5-10 girls per Sunday at various intellectual and spiritual maturity levels. There’s no way I can adequately respond to each of them. Those of us who are parents generally have the best opportunity to respond to our own individual children - if we make time to do it that is.

As a parent or leader, how do you try to stretch young people’s brain development and simultaneously deepen their faith?

Kara Powell

Dr. Kara Powell is the Executive Director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI), a faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary, and Fuller's Chief of Leadership Formation. Named by Christianity Today as one of “50 Women You Should Know,” Kara serves as a Youth and Family Strategist for Orange, and also speaks regularly at parenting and leadership conferences. Kara is the author or coauthor of a number of books, including Growing Young, Growing With, The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family, Sticky Faith Curriculum, Can I Ask That?, Deep Justice Journeys, Deep Justice in a Broken World, Deep Ministry in a Shallow World, and the Good Sex Youth Ministry Curriculum. Kara lives with her husband Dave and their three children, Nathan, Krista, and Jessica, in Southern California.

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