Greg Cootsona: Keeping the Change - Science for the Church

Can a leopard change its spots? (Jeremiah 13:23). Can people really shift their views, or do they ultimately snap back to where they started? As the French proverb responds—at least a bit cynically, “The more things change, the more things remain the same” (Or, Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose—I didn’t want years of education in French to go to waste entirely).

This is the problem of persistence and change: We tend to go back to old patterns unless we keep working at change. Last week Drew Rick-Miller skillfully addressed how to engage in productive dialogue about difficult issues. Here’s the next step: After we address divisive issues, how do we move into change that endures? I’ve found that the way we start defines how we’ll continue. And this leads me to one final proverb: “A good beginning makes a good ending.”

This week I’d like to look at further lessons that Drew and I have learned from the Scientists in Congregations initiative, and more recently, the STEAM project. These two projects have given us six years of direct experience with change (most of the time) in over 70 churches and Christian ministries.

But there’s one other project I’d particularly like to focus on: Science for Students and Emerging Young Adults (SEYA), which sought to understand the place of science and faith in the lives of 18-30 year olds, particularly how their attitudes form and how they change. The SEYA team taught and also had informal discussions on the integration of science and religion with 638 emerging adults. We then surveyed 122 participants in New York City, Menlo Park, and Chico, CA. Subsequently, I conducted hour-long qualitative interviews with forty-three college students and post-college emerging adults about how they relate science and religion.

Here’s a key takeaway from this research: When churches create places where challenging questions of science can be discussed, participants are more likely to have an enduring positive relationship with science and their faith. Put another way, once the hard conversation begins, enduring change is sustained by Christian communities that encourage open conversation and inquiry.



...You can find the critical data for the SEYA research here.
...My emphasis on churches that encourage open conversation and inquiry is similar to the concept of a “learning community.”
...Here’s Kyle Robert’s brilliant analysis of Jonathan Haidt, “Riding the Moral Elephant.”
...This is one of the first (and still best) books I’ve read on change—and it was assigned in a pastoral care class—Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution.


...In October, I preached on “depolarizing” and ended with the example of Francis Collins.
...I’ve also written on how to “keep the change” personally in light of my conversion to Christ.
...You can read about Elaine Howard Ecklund’s idea of “boundary pioneers” from her book, Why Science and Faith Need Each Other.
...Andy Root and Erik Leafblad outline some additional strategies for engaging faith and science in this Youth Worker article, “Teaching at the Intersection of Faith and Science.”


Boundary Pioneers

Let us recall the dictum, “We engage arguments because of people we know, not arguments in abstraction.” (It’s my dictum, by the way, and so it might be hard to recall.)

Relationships are key to our vision at Science for the Church. Research shows that human beings tend to believe things because those around us make them believable, and as church leaders, we need to highlight skilled communicators in our congregations who bring “science to church.”

Our thinking is indeed bound up with our group. I’ve found deep insight in Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. Haidt, a self-described Yale-educated, East Coast secular liberal, couldn’t understand why people in the United States disagreed with such vehemence and wanted to figure out why. Through his social psychological research, a metaphor emerged: we are riders on an elephant. The “rider,” in this case, represents our reason, and our emotions and intuitions are the “elephant.” Moreover, Haidt argues, our particular pachyderm is defined by the five to ten people that represent our “posse” or inner circle. (This is directly related to what Drew wrote on the Dunbar Number.)

In my view, Haidt is probably pushing his conclusions too far, but his analysis convinced me that our thinking—and our willingness to engage diverse ideas—is bound together with our community. For many of us, that is our church fellowship. Kyle Roberts writes that Haidt’s work “shows us why it can be so difficult to have peaceful, ‘rational’ dialogues about contentious issues.” Roberts is right, and I’m also convinced from experience that, if we understand this and we create the right kind of community in our churches, we can move forward from potential division into deeper unity.

This brings me to another source of insight, Elaine Howard Ecklund, who has called for “boundary pioneers.” She writes, “I think we need to show how science can bolster faith (which is not the same thing as certainty). The boundary pioneers—scientists who are committed Christians and who break down the boundary between science and religion, those who live in both worlds—are our models. They show us that scientific evidence has actually opened up their faith to mystery and awe. They show us that faith doesn’t have to equal certainty; faith can include or coexist with doubt, with critical questions, and with shifts in perspective as more information comes to light.”

I’ll have more to say about this next week. For now, let me affirm that these boundary pioneers need to be invited not only to start challenging conversations about Christian faith and science, but also to sustain the dialogue.

And by the way, I’m reasonably sure those people are in our churches—in fact, you might be one. Let us know. Tell us the stories of about your congregation… and what you do to keep the change.


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Strengthening the church through engaging with science​
We believe that churches are strengthened by engaging with science. Science for the Church looks to a day when science accompanies Scripture as a tool for discipleship, catalyzes expressions of worship, illustrates sermons, elucidates biblical teachings, and supplements theological wisdom for the life of the world. We even wonder if wrestling with science might draw some of the “nones” (those who affiliate with no religion) and the “dones” (those who have left the church) to Christian communities once again.