The Spirit Calls, Gathers, Enlightens and Sanctifies God’s People
Head-First, Heart-First and the Bell-Shaped Curve
Much of what has happened to Protestant churches in America can be illustrated by the well-known bell-shaped normal distribution curve.
The top of the curve represents the mid-point in the distribution of certain characteristics over a large population. People who have more of that characteristic are on the right side. People with less are on the left side. The bottom of each side flattens out, and people on the far right and left are called outliers.
Take athleticism for an example. Two-thirds of random sampling is roughly average, represented by the darker shade in the middle. The outliers on the right are high in athleticism (coordination, reflexes, speed). Although I lettered in high school, I discovered that I am really on the lower end of the average. Good athletes playing tennis, racquetball, or volleyball get frustrated with me because I don’t return volleys very well. Feeling unwelcome, I haven’t played sports for years.
Now consider people on a continuum from feeling to thinking about events around them. Some respond primarily according to their feelings. Others prefer to think through their response. Put the feelers on the left curve and call their response heart-first. Put the thinkers on the right curve and call their response head-first. “Average” people are a blend of heart and head.
When planning an event like worship, the thinkers are likely to dominate because they can offer persuasive reasons for their preferences. Most in the middle will go along. What will those further on the left do? They are likely o feel unwelcome and stop participating.
Head-First or Heart-First Churches
Traditional mainline denominations—like Presbyterian, Reformed, Congregational, Episcopal, and Lutheran—have been decidedly head oriented. Founder Martin Luther was a university professor, and Reformed founder John Calvin was a very intelligent lawyer. Both were outliers on the right extreme. Those church bodies have since their beginning expected a university education from their pastors. Sermons are “heady,” presenting theological reasoning based on the Bible.
The story of Christianity in America is full of break-off groups of believers who were attracted to churches that appealed more to hearts than heads. The Great Revivals in previous centuries were based on emotional appeals to repent or to be overcome by the Holy Spirit in passionate calls to be changed.
The mainline denominations remained dominant up to World War II but peaked shortly afterward and have been in decline since. Lots of analysis has gone into understanding why. One explanation is found in the bell-shaped distribution curve. The historic churches were shaped to appeal especially to the right side of the curve for head-first people. Those on the left curve of heart-first simply drifted away, feeling unwelcome.
Another continuum would be emotional intensity, with low on one curve and highly emotional on the other. Traditional Protestant churches have their intellectual homes in Northern Europe among people who by instinct and culture are reserved about emotional expressions. In America, many from highly emotional cultures found other church expressions where they felt more welcome to feed their heart-first relationship with God.
What Would Jesus Do?
How would Jesus respond to the bell-shaped curve of people reacting feeling first or thinking first?
First of all, I think he would scold the mainline churches for being so narrow in their appeal. He would ask, What are you doing about the left side, those who are more emotionally heart-first?
Jesus himself was personally attracted to the left side of the curve. Repeatedly, he focused on the poor and the disabled. Repeatedly, he tangled with the scribes and Pharisees, who were the head-oriented scholars of that day.
What was Jesus’ appeal to the masses out there who followed him in great numbers? First of all, he did not disdain those on the left curve. That he reserved for the scribes and Pharisees on the right curve. Jesus used simple language and lots of illustrations and story parables. He was highly respected for his personal spiritual passion. He made himself easily accessible to all and worked hard to make understandable the otherworldly kingdom of God he came to proclaim.
What Should Traditional Churches Do Today?
To me, it seems obvious that the once-dominant mainline churches need to shift their focus more toward the center of the curve, to be more accommodating to those who react with feelings more than with reason. This would mean overcoming reservations about appealing to emotional experiences while still respecting the sensibilities of their traditional participants.
How can churches on the right curve do that? My advice is to look to the many community churches that are growing. The key for them is to show respect for all those who come to try them out. The ones I have observed are unapologetically committed to biblical truth as a much-appreciated source of authority for how to live. They emphasize good communication and emotion-touching, easily accessible singing. They are informal and personable.
The alternative to moving more toward the center is to settle into a niche appealing only to a narrow segment of the whole distribution. Many of the mainline churches have become comfortable in the niche of being highly rational without recognizing the supernatural ways of the supernatural God. In my circles, many want the niche of highly formal liturgical ways of worshipping and doing ministry.
I don’t want to be part of a niche church. God calls us to go out to all people. The way to get beyond head-first is to rediscover the Holy Spirit which was so basic to Paul’s ministry. He specializes in touching hearts. We can see Christ’s Spirit as a gentleman who will not coerce unwelcome behavior. He will, though, change motivations and lead us to become more joyfully like Christ. Having such abundant life is appealing to both the right and the left side of the curve
Do you know people who approach life heart-first? Head-first? Were Jesus’ sympathies more toward those reacting with feelings or with reasoning? How can traditional churches arrive at a better balance?
Daniel M Schmalz says
This is an important insight. Successful contemporary churches not only offer what people want but often what people need. I intend to share this paper with my colleagues. Will they take it to heart?
David Luecke says
Thanks for your comment. Glad I said something worth sharing.