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How do we bring science to our faith?
And what difference does it make in our church ministries? I’m certainly fascinated by the first question, but it’s the second one I’d like to focus on here. Why? Because it’s true about actions—they do in fact speak louder than words.
I’ve been pondering what the leading sociologist of science and religion—and SftC advisor—Elaine Howard Ecklund has summarized from her extensive social scientific research: “Contrary to perceptions of inherent conflict between religion and science, the majority of every religious group I studied view science and religion as either independent of each other or actually in collaboration with one another.”
And so, if Elaine is right—and she almost always is—why is there evidence that church congregations aren’t demonstrating this collaboration effectively? The Barna Group wrote a major report on Gen Z (also called “iGen”—which Barna dates as those born between 1999-2015). More than half of churchgoing GenZ teens are convinced: “The church seems to reject much of what science tells us about the world.”
Let me add evidence from the college classes I teach on religion. Each year I read my students’ essays, which comprise around a million words in total (i.e., it’s a fairly large sample size). There’s a common thread: it’s impossible to believe in a Creator God and modern science. “We know the Big Bang is how this universe exists. It’s not God.” Or, “It’s either the Bible or evolution.” I read this kind of statements repeatedly, and it suggests that congregations as a whole—from evaluations both inside and outside the church—have not integrated science into their ministries nor in the public witness.
What are we doing with that conviction that faith and science belong together? And how could we do better?
...The Elaine Howard Ecklund quotation above comes from her 2019 address as President of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.
...Two of my favorite books by Elaine that present her immense research in an accessible way are Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think and Religion vs. Science: What Religious People Really Think (the latter co-authored with Christopher Scheitle).
...I interviewed Elaine on her research in a two-part podcast (one and two) as part of my series, Science and Religion (for the Open-Minded).
...If you read this brief overview of Barna’s research on GenZ, you’ll find that science plays a major role.
...Check out our SftC library of resources on preaching that integrates science.
...Equipping Christian Leaders in an Age of Science (ECLAS) has an excellent small group study guide, “Where Science Meets Faith.”
Like Staining Wood
As C. S. Lewis (aka “St. Clive”) put it so well, “It is the difference between paint, which is merely laid on the surface, and a dye or stain which soaks right through.” The key issue is whether we have let science truly soak into the life of congregations.
With that in mind, I’d like to ask: What might this mean?
…It means an habitual integration of science in sermons. If you regularly prepare preaching, consider Trinity Sunday. (Stay with me here.) Is the Sunday after Pentecost the only time we present the nature of our God as Triune? Shouldn’t that represent all our work in ministry? And by analogy, in our churches, we don’t want just one “science Sunday” a year. That’s a start, but science should penetrate the “wood” of our congregations’ ministries if we believe faith and science do in fact collaborate. If you’d like an example, listen to how SftC board member Brent Roam seamlessly uses an image from nature—and particularly the Alaskan Tree Frog—in his 2020 Easter sermon on how to adapt into order to thrive in adverse circumstances. Or, if I can quote myself (!), in this sermon, I bring in studies of happiness to support my application of Jesus’ words in Mark 10:45, “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve.”
…It means talking with scientists in our congregation. Our SftC staff member and pastor, Dave Navarra, regularly consults a church member who is a psychologist before he preaches. I asked Dave what that means. “It’s nothing too complicated—basically I give him a worksheet that breaks down a few categories of the sermon prep process. Then I encourage him to drop in thoughts, articles stories, modalities, etc. that he thinks of from his Ph.D. and practical experience. It’s often opened a whole new area of thought as it engaged Scripture and essentially elevated my sermons to the quality of where M.Div. meets Ph.D.”
…It means staying current with science. We all know congregations are losing emerging adults (those 18-30). One of the top six reasons 18–30-year-olds leave the doors of the church and never come back in is that they see it as “antagonistic to science.” It seems then that integrating science is a priority. Since I’ve already mentioned that half of youth group kids think their congregations teach defective science, it’s particularly important for college and youth pastors and workers. As youth workers and theologians Andrew Root and Erik Leafblad advocate, “While it is unreasonable to become scientists, as youth workers we need to become knowledgeable about the ways in which science helps frame reality for our students.” Let’s encourage one another, especially if we are ministry leaders, to regularly consult the New York Times Science section, to attend public lectures at nearby colleges, or to read books like The Best American Science And Nature Writing.
…It means that we are ready to have scientists engaged in our ministries. At SftC, we’re thinking about the sibling or child or spouse of someone in our church who is a STEM professional but who rarely comes to church. They might show up for a “Science Sunday,” but they’re so much more likely to get involved if science stains the congregational wood. I’m thinking of a neuroscientist at Bidwell Presbyterian (where I pastor), who—after hearing about science and faith in a sermon—said, “May I give you a hug?”
That’s what we want—scientists who know that their insights—and their life’s work—are valued in our churches. I don’t know about you, but I can use a few more hugs from the scientists in my congregation.