“Priming” -the Science Behind the Reason for Sunday School

This post is going to get around to the reasons WHY Sunday School and youth groups really are IMPORTANT.  They are the primary way we “PRIME” our kids to become receptive to matters of faith, knowledge and a relationship with God and the church. And the thing is, we can also PRIME them AGAINST those things if we mess up the priming. But first, I’m going to briefly describe the SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH that supports this conclusion!

Malcolm Gladwell’s latest bestselling book “BLINK” is about “why we behave the way we do.” It offers up a treasure trove of scientific case studies and experiments that describe how the brain makes decisions both consciously and sub-consciously.  [Note to preachers: Every chapter has a sermon waiting to be unearthed in it.]

  • Marriage  …the surprising research into warning signs of failing marriage
  • Racism and Age-ism  …research into how we can be conditioned
  • How We Make Snap Decisions -the science of how the brain does it (“thin slicing”)
  • Priming people for certain behaviors
  • Why we prefer “tall, dark and handsome”
  • The Wrong Way to ask people what they want
  • Mind Reading
  • Listening with your eyes

These are just a few of the subjects explored in the book.

Now on to the point of this post….

For better or worse, our students are being “primed” about coming to church or staying home, joining and not, pursuing an active faith or being agnostic. Everything we do primes them in on direction or another. We are not alone in this priming, but we in the church also cannot afford to be part of the negative priming.

In his chapter: “The Secret Life of Snap Decisions”, Gladwell offers up NUMEROUS research findings into how people “thin slice” –his word for how the brain makes quick decisions (reacts) consciously and sub-consciously. Within that chapter he quotes several scientific studies into a process called “PRIMING”.

Priming is how the brain can be prepared in advance to make certain type of decisions and behave in certain predictable ways.

(The numerous experiments) “…suggest that what we define as ‘free will’ is largely an illusion…. that much of the time we are on auto-pilot, …and the way we think and act, and how well we think and act on the spur of the moment,  are a lot more susceptible to outside influence than we realize.”  (Blink, Ch 2, page 58)

The research points out just how IMPORTANT LANGUAGE IS in PRIMING THE SUB-CONSCIOUS.

In several famous experiments described in Blink, groups of college students were primed with a written pre-test. One group’s test was full of positive & kind words, the second was full of negative & aggressive words.  Then the students were individually presented with a situation after the test and their reactions recorded.  Those who’s pre-test primed them to be polite were 82% more likely to be polite in the interpersonal situation presented to them (without their knowledge) following the test.   82%.

Numerous similar research projects found that priming works to create all sorts of impressions in the participants, including their feelings about race and age. “Conditioning” or “brainwashing” are extreme examples of priming. Priming, however, is often more subtle…  and has been used by teachers and parents for eons to shape student behavior and thinking.

Importantly, the research is showing us that PRIMING is the WAY the brain works. It’s not an aberration. Everyone is subject to priming and conditioning.  Put bluntly, the science suggests that “faith” and faithful behaviors are something we can be primed for, just as easily as we can be primed in the direction of being agnostic or athiestic. 

Of course, we’ve always sort of known about priming, but that fact that the brain works this way should cause us to consider how we can do it BETTER.

The scientific understanding of “priming” also explains why we have different types of churches… we acclimate ourselves and our children to different styles, language and circumstances. And some people respond better to certain types of priming than others.  Take for example, a child with conservative parents and a conservative church. They reinforce each other.

THE BRAIN LIKES PRIMING, …and is built to do it, …and we can harness the power of priming for good. In fact, you cannot NOT prime.  And equally important: we can negatively prime people too, and this brief posting will mention that as well!

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Over the years I’ve been asked to “define Sunday School”, or asked “why do we have them?” The science of priming gives us an important behavior answer:  Sunday School and Youth Groups EXIST TO PRIME OUR CHILDREN in the way we hope they will go, behave, speak, and think.

What we say, how we say it, the words we choose, the feelings we impart, the atmosphere we create,  –they all prime our children’s sub-conscious and conscious decision making processes. Yet in so many churches, we get the kids in and begin to negatively reinforce their decision-making about God and church.  Indeed, we almost DARE some children (and adults) to come back -in spite of our lame-ness.

(I’m using “lame” here in the slang sense. “Weak” or “mediocrity” can also be substituted.  John the Elder might have added, “lukewarm.”)

Over time lame churches and teachers and Sunday Schools continue to do things that reinforce people’s opinion of the church’s “lameness.” (And remember, this opinion is often sub-conscious).

Lame churches PRIME their members to expect lameness through a series of subtle messages, such as, peeling paint, unclean nursery floors, unprepared leaders, crappy sermons, mediocre pastors, boring atmosphere, lack of quality control (etc etc).  PRIMING can happen by onslaught, or by a steady drip, drip, drip. (Not one to complain without offering help, I’ve addressed solutions in other posts in this blog.)

As we learned with the youth group movement of the 70’s and 80’s, being “friendly and fun” wasn’t enough. PRIMING is not just about creative positive associations. It’s not about running a happy active youth group. It’s about priming them to think about the church as their home, rather than something to do. It’s about priming young people to want to be fed rather than just snacked.

Priming is about creating EXPECTATIONS.

If all we do is make them happy, then they will eventually find more-happy elsewhere. This is the lesson all those fellowship youth groups taught us. If it’s just about hanging out, fun & games, and doesn’t connect/prime them to a higher power, then we’ve only primed them to think of the church as “one more social choice.” …and as “just another social activity,” we can’t compete.

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The scriptures are not mute on this concept….

Deuteronomy 11:19-21 offers suggestions about how to prime and priming’s desired result :

“Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates,   —so that your days and the days of your children may be many in the land that the LORD swore to give your forefathers, as many as the days that the heavens are above the earth.”

Psalm 119: 9-16 could easily be the goal statement and measure for children and youth ministry:

9 How can a young person stay on the path of purity?
By living according to your word.
10 I seek you with all my heart;
do not let me stray from your commands.
11 I have hidden your word in my heart
that I might not sin against you.
12 Praise be to you, LORD;
teach me your decrees.
13 With my lips I recount
all the laws that come from your mouth.
14 I rejoice in following your statutes
as one rejoices in great riches.
15 I meditate on your precepts
and consider your ways.
16 I delight in your decrees;
I will not neglect your word.

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Final Thoughts….

Decades ago parents thought it would help their kids if they stopped making them dress up to go to church. So kids stopped dressing up, and their attendance continued to decline. And we let them sit in Sunday School while mom and dad worshipped. Guess what? They decided not to sit in worship as adults too.

We  need to stop the negative priming of our children and youth.

I speak from personal experience on that.  I have experienced being very connected in a congregation while other family members were DISCONNECTING. They were being negatively primed by certain church experiences which I didn’t take notice of until it was too late. If you read my “Neil on the Lam” category of posts, you’ll get an idea about those experiences. (http://sundayresources.net/neil/category/lam/)

Unfortunately, older children and young teens are very susceptible to allowing negative experiences with the church to become DETERMINING experiences. More on that someday in another post.

For more on what the brain research is saying to church leaders, go to

http://sundayresources.net/neil/2011/01/12/good-stories-really-do-get-inside-your-head/

http://sundayresources.net/neil/2009/08/17/its-not-hype-the-brain-research-behind-multimedia/

http://sundayresources.net/neil/2010/02/11/reinforcing-peoples-memories-in-preaching/

And The Statistical Benefits of Church Membership…  http://sundaysoftware.com/stats.htm

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Our software teaches Bible stories in an exciting way.
We’re “priming” both their love of scripture, and enjoyment of your church!

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3 Responses to “Priming” -the Science Behind the Reason for Sunday School

  1. Pingback: The Sad Effect Leaving Had on My Kids

  2. Trevor says:

    Hey,
    Good stuff on priming and its connection to Sunday School! I have been mulling over the idea of “church as a priming community” for a little while now, but I haven’t quite found a way to articulate it on my blog.

    I came across this idea of priming in Gladwell’s book too, but it has been strongly reinforced by reading of The Social Animal by David Brooks and (from a Christian perspective) Desiring the Kingdom by James K. A. Smith.

    Not sure if you’re familiar with either of those books, but I just figured I’d pass along the titles for you to check out if your still pondering the phenomenon that is priming!

  3. Neil says:

    Thanks Trevor. I want to point out to people here that you’ve written a blog that addresses how to make sermons “sticky”. It’s well worth reading. http://www.varsityfaith.com/2010/07/sticky-sermons-writing-delivering.html

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