“Our church doesn’t really have any scientists. That is simply not relevant for us.” These are the statements I often hear from pastors after describing the work of Science for the Church.
It is not entirely surprising either. A few years ago at the initial Scientists in Congregations gathering, I was shocked to hear scientists refer to the experience of leading that project in their church as one of “coming out.” As in, “I came out to the church as a scientist.” This may be a false equivalence to other uses of that phrase, but it does show how uncomfortable they were in revealing their identity as scientists.
So, is it true that many churches don’t really have any scientists? Or is it that they choose to hide their professional identity from their Christian siblings?
They Are Among Us
If by scientists, we narrowly define the term as “physicists and chemists and biologists employed at the university, teaching and running research teams,” there probably are not a lot of scientists in the average congregation. But I think that is too narrow a definition.
Medicine, sociology, math, psychology, geology, perhaps even economics, are disciplines that we can properly call scientific. Then let’s add the applied fields—engineering, agriculture, computers and technology, and many areas around health. Of course, there are important differences between each these disciplines—sometimes even within them—but they do share common ground as sciences.
But even this is too narrow. Scientists or, more properly, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) professionals work in medical offices, K-12 classrooms, engineering and tech firms, and we even find them in factories, on construction sites, and in farming. Nearly every office or business these days has at least one STEM professional if for no other reason than to manage their IT infrastructure.
That is to say, I think we’d be hard pressed to find a congregation without at least a few members who apply their God-given talents in a STEM field. Their work either depends on the findings of science or is directly about the production or teaching of scientific knowledge. And that doesn’t even include folks trained in the sciences who now work in other fields.
Pew estimates in 2018 that nearly 17.5 million Americans work in one of 74 STEM professions. That is over 13% of the workforce and it is growing rapidly. Depending on how you classify different professions—such numbers vary. In their research, Elaine Howard Ecklund and Christopher Scheitle found about 12.4% of American evangelicals and 11.9% of mainline Protestants claim that their occupation is science related (Religion vs. Science: What Religious People Really Think). Perhaps the most striking data point is from Barna: 52% of youth group teens “aspire to science-related careers” (You Lost Me). That suggests the number of STEM professionals in the church could grow, significantly.
...Here is more from Pew on the STEM workforce.
...In 2011, Barna asked teens in our youth groups about their career aspirations.
...“One might say scientists are people who poke the unknown with a stick.”
...Ecklund and Scheitle’s Religion vs. Science is loaded with data and anecdotes about how faith and science play out in culture and our churches.
...Ecklund’s Why Science and Faith Need Each Other is another fantastic resource for thinking about scientists in the church.
...“What I Wish My Pastor Knew about the Life of a Scientist” by Andy Crouch is worth sharing again.
Scientists for the Church
I could be accused of trying to stretch the limits of the term scientist to point of bursting. There is a substantial difference between a marine ecologist and the technician fixing your church’s copier, or between the science a farmer uses and the imaginings of a theoretical cosmologist.
Yet, there are some commonalities. These are folks who value evidence. They are curious and ask questions about the way the world is. Many approach these questions mathematically or statistically. They want to know how things work. They take them apart and put them back together again. They appreciate the ways science reveals more and more about the natural world and how applying the findings of science can help us address real needs. They play major roles in the effort to heal the sick, provide food for the hungry, build shelter for the stranger, and fix broken things. They seek discovery and the flourishing of others.
Of course, many of those traits are not unique to STEM professionals. Yet, there is a way that scientists like to poke around at things that is different from non-scientists. It’s a great image—poking around—and I think I first heard it from Elaine Howard Ecklund. Science grounds their approach to the world and their pursuit of progress.
Rather than go on about what makes scientists tick, here’s my point: Not only are these STEM professionals in our churches, but their knowledge and skills—the way they poke at things—should matter to the church. They should not have to hide.
My father is an engineer who designed parking lots for shopping malls. When I was quite young, our church was preparing to renovate its parking lot. Dad offered to help. His offer was met with silence. Like Greg’s scientist friend described last week, it was an experience of rejection. No matter the intent, the silence communicated that his vocation did not matter to the church.
His experience is way too common in our churches. Rightly so, we do acknowledge the medical professionals and teachers in our congregations. But what about all the others who seek to read the book of nature and to use that knowledge to care for every aspect of God’s creation?
STEM professionals are among us. They bring a plethora of knowledge and skills and kingdom-oriented intent with them. They matter to God not only as bearers of God’s image, but, as Greg argued, as scientists. How can we also communicate to them that they matter to the church?
Our church did not show that it valued my dad’s engineering talents. And in my lifetime, he has never been very active in church. I can’t help but wonder how different it could have been if he had been asked to help with that parking lot.
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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.