Harvard Research on Life Change

Modern research studies often demonstrate principles that Christians know to be true—truths about life and humanity already disclosed by God in Scripture. This should not be surprising to us because whether the researcher is a believer or not, research studies typically examine an aspect of God’s general revelation, in this case, humanity.

For example, one of the seminal leadership books in the last fifty years was Servant Leadership by Robert Greenleaf. Long before Greenleaf’s paradigm-altering book, Jesus demonstrated and encouraged leadership through service. In the same way, many studies show the adverse effects divorce has on children. Long before those studies made their way into academic journals, the Lord declared His hatred of divorce.

So here is an interesting research study on how people change.

Todd Heatherton and Patricia Nichols led a Harvard study to examine factors that contributed to people radically changing their lives. They wondered, “What causes someone to become completely different in his approach to life, his habits, his relationships, and his priorities?” First, they discovered that tragedy often leads to change. The tragedy may be personal or it may be observed in someone else. Scripture, of course, teaches that the Lord will use personal trials and struggles to mature us and shape us into the image of His Son.

Second, the researchers discovered that, in some cases, no tragedy is involved in change. Rather, community is. Community indeed serves as the catalyst for change. One of the researchers, Todd Heatherton, commented, “Change occurs among other people.” This is no surprise for followers of Jesus and students of Scripture. The Lord has supernaturally ordained Christian community to mature His people.

Why are groups so critical in the life of your church?

Other people sharpening us, challenging us, and encouraging us has a sanctifying effect on our lives. The writer of the Book of Hebrews challenged us to “encourage each other daily, while it is still called today, so that none of you is hardened by sin’s deception” (Hebrews 3:13). Encouragement from a community of Christ-followers keeps us soft and moldable before the Lord. Without community we are likely to grow cold in our walk with the Lord.

Far more important than changing habits, priorities, or behavior is the transformation of the heart. Only Jesus has the power to transform us, and He uses others to nudge us along in our relationship with Him. Community that is Christian—community that is grounded in the grace of God—is essential for the ongoing transformation of our hearts.


To help you launch new groups in your church, LifeWay is launching the new Bible Studies for Life. The studies apply the timeless truth of God’s Word to life. They are designed to make leading/facilitating a group as simple as possible for your leaders. If you desire to align your church in the same direction, studies also exist for students and kids. For more information, join us May 8 for a FREE webcast as we share how small groups play a role in the life change of your people.

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