Engaging Science in the Life of Your Congregation

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May 14, 2013 Tags: Education, Worship & Arts

Today's entry was written by Deborah Haarsma. You can read more about what we believe here.

Engaging Science in the Life of Your Congregation

Note: This essay by Deborah Haarsma was written for the Fuller Theological Seminary newsletter prior to her presidency at BioLogos, based on the Ministry Theorem project she co-directed with Scott Hoezee. The essay is reprinted with permission.

We have all heard stories of Christian young people who have struggled with their faith because of science. What can ministry leaders do to better prepare young people as they consider science careers? How can all God’s people develop a better appreciation of God’s revelation in nature? From 2009 to 2012, Rev. Scott Hoezee and I codirected The Ministry Theorem —a project at Calvin Theological Seminary to provide pastors and congregations with resources on science. Here are some successful practices I found in my encounters with many congregations.

More Than One Christian View

Many parents and pastors are wondering what to tell their children about creation and evolution. While Sunday school classes often cover Genesis 1 around kindergarten (with kids coloring pictures of what God created on each day), most curricula do not address science again before kids leave for college. Yet issues of creation and evolution can be addressed in age-appropriate ways throughout Sunday school. Elementary school children already learn about idol worship from other Old Testament stories, so teachers have an opportunity to contrast Genesis 1 with the idol-rich creation stories of other cultures. Middle school students can be given basic tools for considering creation and evolution such as the contrast between the “how” questions answered by their science lessons in school and the “who” and “why” questions answered in Scripture. Middle and high school students can find role models by reading the testimonies of scientist Christians.

Youth need to be encouraged to discuss their questions and doubts, while affirming core beliefs. When asked why they left the faith, scientists often mention that the church was not open to their questions and told them to “just believe.” Churches can demonstrate openness to questions by teaching youth about multiple Christian views on an issue. Students need to hear that some Christians accept the science of evolution and others do not, and have a conversation about the reasons why. Too many young people have struggled when they felt they had to choose between clear scientific evidence and the beliefs they grew up with. Even when parents and leaders are unsure about evolution, they can help students by saying, “While I have concerns about evolution, I’ve heard that some Christians accept the science of evolution while still believing in the God of the Bible.”

Difficult issues like origins cannot be addressed in a single event. People need time to ponder the issues, and spaces to talk it through. One church did a six-week sermon series, with parallel curricula for all ages in Sunday school, so that families could work through it together. Another church did a sermon series and discussion group for adults for four weeks, to prepare parents before a four-week series for the youth group. Other churches encourage small groups to read a book on science and faith and discuss a chapter a week. (Since all authors have their favorite view, I recommend discussing at least two books from different authors to learn about multiple Christian positions.)

More Than Evolution

In our science-saturated culture, evolution is not the only science topic the church should be considering, and not even the most important. With church members encountering the latest medical advances as patients and family members, a discussion on bioethics would be very relevant. Since young people are usually the first to use hot new gadgets, they should be considering the appropriate Christian use of technology . As the issue of climate change becomes more pressing every year, churches need to talk about it, and not avoid it because it is so political. The Evangelical Environmental Network offers many resources for churches, emphasizing ways that creation care benefits the poor and the unborn. One group of churches, with the help of Calvin College, joined together to clean up the local creek that drains the watershed in which the parishioners live, work, and worship. Many of the congregants were not even aware of the size of the watershed or the pollution level in their own creek. This was a hands-on opportunity for all ages, directly caring for their own corner of God’s green Earth.

More Than Controversy

With so many issues to discuss, Christians can easily get the feeling that science is always attacking the faith. It is essential to balance such conversations with positive responses to God’s creation. After all, the primary response to the natural world in the Bible is to praise the God who made it. The first time I led an adult Sunday school class on creation and evolution, I was amazed how much the participants appreciated simply ending each session with a Psalm reading or creation hymn. Thoughtful frowns turned into relaxed smiles as the group remembered our unity in Christ and the centrality of God as the Creator.

Creation themes can be incorporated throughout worship. One church asked the congregation to submit their favorite creation photos at the end of the summer (from backyard flowers to National Parks), then wove the images into a worship service with creation songs and readings from the Psalms. In addition to flowers and mountains, modern science has revealed incredible glories that can inspire our praise and reflection. Several contemporary Christian musicians have begun to artfully incorporate the wonders of the natural world into their music; Chris Rice sings of “cratered moon and Saturn’s rings,” and Third Day praises the “God of wonders beyond our galaxy.” In one church, an elder brought in modern science when leading the congregation in prayer with these words: “Creator God, out of nothing you created all that is. You hurled the galaxies through time and space. . . . The universe is your hourglass, the continental drift your minute hand, the Grand Canyon your second hand. You are infinite.”

Preachers can incorporate science in the same way they make references to movies, current events, or best-selling books in sermons. To notice these connections, take some time to encounter science: read the science section of the New York Times, visit a local science museum, or ask scientists in the congregation about their work. A visit to a planetarium might give a new appreciation for the vastness of the universe, which could illuminate a sermon on the vastness of God’s forgiveness in Psalm 103:11–12. Pastor John Van Sloten learned about the neural networks in the brain and incorporated it into a sermon on the vine and the branches of John 15.

Preachers are understandably concerned about avoiding scientific errors when preaching, but this should not prevent engagement with science. Some pastors do their own research to get the details right because they enjoy digging into a science topic. Other pastors bring in a scientist (live or by video) so that they do not have to explain the technical material themselves. Others play to their strengths by choosing topics with fewer technical details, such as the Christian motivation for doing science or exposition of Bible passages relevant for scientific questions. Many of the questions Christians have are really about biblical interpretation and Christian theology, areas where the pastor is an expert. Minor technical errors made in good faith are forgivable, but a sermon that argues that mainstream science is wrong on some point can be devastating for the faith life of teenagers who are learning the correct science in school.

Beyond Sunday morning worship and preaching, science can show up in many areas of church life. During a youth camping trip or church picnic, include a nature walk concluded with praise. After a winter evening worship service, invite a local amateur astronomer to set up a telescope in the parking lot to show people the moon and planets. Convert a vacant lot near church into a community garden, so kids can experience firsthand how God provides food from the Earth.

More Than Programs

In all these activities, remember that views on science are “caught” more than “taught.” Congregants will naturally pick up on the attitude of the pastor or ministry leader, whether skeptical of science or celebrating science as the study of God’s creation. Visitors will pick up on this too, so these attitudes are part of being a church that welcomes and ministers to scientist Christians . Recently I was invited to speak at a church on the expansion of the universe and the possibility of a multiverse. Several enthusiastic young people in attendance had clearly caught the love of science from the church leaders who planned the event. One girl came up afterward with her dad, both of them marveling at God’s creation. They were amazed not just with the particular things I had discussed, but with the way in which God has embedded wonders at every level of understanding. Everyone can marvel at the starry skies, school kids can learn about the planets and asteroids, and scientists with PhDs can study dark matter and string theory. No matter how deep we look, we keep discovering more and more ways that creation declares the glory of God.

For Further Reading

For more resources on a full range of science topics, visit the The Ministry Theorem collection at http://ministrytheorem.calvinseminary.edu/. You will find sample sermons, curricula for children and adults, worship resources, essays by a dozen scientist Christians, and much more.

 


Deborah Haarsma serves as President of The BioLogos Foundation, a position she has held since January 2013. Previously, she served as professor and chair in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Gifted in interpreting complex scientific topics for lay audiences, Dr. Haarsma often speaks to churches, colleges, and schools about the relationships between science and Christian faith. She is author (along with her husband Loren Haarsma) of Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design (2011, 2007), a book presenting the agreements and disagreements of Christians regarding the history of life and the universe. Haarsma is an experienced research scientist, with several publications in the Astrophysical Journal and the Astronomical Journal on extragalactic astronomy and cosmology.


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glsi - #80094

May 14th 2013

Dr. Haarsma,

A couple of years ago my daughter was a high school student in the Academic Decathlon program where she was a high achiever.  The science theme that year was Darwinism which meant the students studied mainstream evolutionary science and its history in much greater depth than probably any other high school program.  

As a skeptic of Darwinism, I closely read all of her materials over the course of several months.  I pointed out to her what I believed to be some of the scientific weaknesses and outright holes in the theory.  Her program did not encourage any independent study of evolution and the students were expected to concentrate fully and exclusively on the materials they provided and referred to.  They explicitly taught that the only objections and criticisms to Darwinism were based on religion and had no scientific merit.  I strongly disagree with that and hold that there are numerous problems with the theory which are based on science.  Neither I nor my daughter has ever heard a word about evolution in church.

Social and academic peer pressure in the decathlon group was intense and you could say the students were led in lockstep with absolutely no opportunity for debate or dissent.  You were expected to be a team player for the sake of all rather than be a creative thinker.  My daughter learned the materials very thoroughly and became the highest scorer in the state of Nebraska.  She went on to college where she took standard, mainstream biology.  Now she has moved on to other pursuits, and I believe she has doubts about Darwinism, but she’s really not  concerned about it either way.  

My observation is that you (and Dorothy Boorse in a recent, similar article) are hypocritically blind to the thoughtless, lockstep fashion in which Darwinism is taught and promoted by organizations such as BioLogos and the NCSE.  I actually agree with part of what you are saying in your essay, and sympathize with some of the personal experiences Dorothy Boorse related from her youth in the church.  Yet you claim, “Youth need to be encouraged to discuss their questions and doubts, while affirming core beliefs.”  

Read your own BioLogos materials sometime.  I don’t believe you encourage any such thing.  Rather, you teach belief in Darwinism as a seamless garment.  You are the leader of a think tank whose purpose is to promote your own beliefs and encourage questions and doubts of all others.



sy - #80133

May 15th 2013

glsi

 

I think I read the same article as you did, but I came away with a totally different view. “Churches can demonstrate openness to questions by teaching youth about multiple Christian views on an issue. Students need to hear that some Christians accept the science of evolution and others do not, and have a conversation about the reasons why”. I think the key phrase in that quote from the article is “multiple Christian views”. Dr. Haarsma, and indeed most of the material on Biologos is  all about encouraging multiple Christian views on the subject of evoluton and other matters.

There is certainly nothing wrong with this, We already know there are hundreds of examples of diversity of views among Christias,which is one reason there are so many denominations. Since at Biologos, founded by a scientist, and led by scientists since, there is a strong tendency to accept mainstream scientific thought, Darwinian evolution is featured as part of the majesty of God’s creation. But I dont agree that the purpose of Biologos is “ to promote your own beliefs and encourage questions and doubts of all others.” All beliefs regarding the intersection of faith and science need to be questioned, because nobody has the final answers. God has set this task to us, and we should all work together to find the truth, which of course, is God’s truth.


beaglelady - #80162

May 16th 2013

I doubt the theme was called “Darwinism.” It was probably “Evolution.”  Your daughter sounds like a good student.


glsi - #80231

May 17th 2013

Sy,

I’m baffled why you say most of the BioLogos material is about encouraging multiple Christian views on the subject of evolution.  Have you read the Questions section on this website, for example?  It is strictly Darwinian and/or NeoDarwinian views.  The same goes for all the staff blogs that I’ve read.  There’s nothing “wrong” with that, but you can’t pretend it represents multiple Christian views on evolution except through a very tight Darwinian filter.

Beaglelady,

You’re right, the theme was titled, “Evolutionary Biology”.  But the year was 2009 (the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birthday), and there was a great deal of focus on Darwin and “Darwinism”.


PNG - #80236

May 18th 2013

It’s true that Biologos operates from a pro-evolution perspective, but of course the post was about dealing with science in church. In most conservative churches the YEC perspective is the most prominent. In some there are people who accept an old universe, but not evolution. Christians accepting evolution is the unvoiced perspective in many churches, unless they are quite liberal theologically. Those few of us who think evolution happened generally don’t talk about it much.  It’s not too hard to search the internet and find the stories of evangelicals who are scientists and have been made to feel unaccepted by multiple churches because they accept evolution. I think evangelicals ought to be able to accept multiple positions on evolution, but the reality is that at the present they don’t. Check the comment section anytime Christianity Today publishes an article on the controversy if you disagree.


Eddie - #82515

August 24th 2013

PNG:

I have to agree with glsi here.  I cannot remember ever hearing, in a church of any denomination, a sermon which specifically addressed the question of evolution.  And I’ve attended churches ranging from Catholic and Episcopalian through to Presbyterian, UCC, Methodist, Lutheran, Baptist, Gospel, etc.  

Of course there is pressure in some churches which call themselves “conservative” for members not to believe in evolution.  But there are plenty of churches, evangelical as well as mainstream, which are not hung up about “evolution.”  I find some of the stories coming from BioLogos and ASA folks simply incredible in this regard.

I could drive through any metropolitan area in the USA of about 150,000 or more, except maybe in the deepest parts of the deep south, and find a church that was evangelical but made no issue over evolution.  It isn’t nearly as great a problem as ASA and BioLogos folks make out.  No one forces anyone to go to a Southern Baptist church at gunpoint.  There are something like 2,000 denominations in the USA.  Someone who can’t find an evolution-tolerant church isn’t looking hard enough.  

Most ASA and BioLogos leaders, as far as I can see, live in Blue States, or large urban areas or college towns in Red States, i.e., the places in the Red States where it is easiest to find religious and cultural diversity.  If they all lived in small hick towns of 500 in Iowa or Georgia, I could see the problem, but that’s not the case.  Michigan (where BioLogos is headquartered now) and California (where it used to be based) have lots of religious options.  I don’t see what all the whining is about.  An American Protestant, in the overwhelming majority of cases, in any urban area of medium or greater size, is going to be able to find a Protestant church where it’s OK to believe in evolution.  I do weary of all this hand-wringing and angst about nothing.

Sure, if your complaint is:  “I can’t find a Christian and Missionary Alliance Church in my university town that accepts evolution”—you may be out of luck.  But then you’re being just plain too picky.  You can’t always have your wine chilled to exactly so many degrees.  You have to find a balance between various criteria when selecting a church.  Most Americans are willing to settle for a church they can live with.  If ASA and BioLogos folks insist on churches that are just perfect for theistic evolutionists, well, they may have a long wait before they find one. 

The Episcopal Church in the USA is headed by a woman with three degrees in paleontology.  It’s fine with evolution.  I would suggest that BioLogos and ASA folks who are lost in the darkest parts of Mississippi or Georgia, surrounded and repressed by inerrantist Baptists and Presbyterians, head out to the nearest Episcopal Church.  Or the nearest UCC.  The added bonus is that the liberal views on the Bible of these churches match the liberal views on the Bible expressed by many ASA scientists and BioLogos columnists.


glsi - #80284

May 18th 2013

PNG,

Perhaps you’re right, however, off the top of my head I have visited a wide range of denominations including Quaker, UCC, Methodist, Catholic, Lutheran, American and Southern Baptist, Presbyterian, Seventh Day Adventist, Episcopal, Brethren, Mennonite and probably quite a few others.  In all the years I’ve spent visiting them I honestly can’t remember a single time Evolution was spoken about, either for, against or in-between. 

 So I’ve experienced a lot of silence about it in church.  I’m guessing the reason for that is either because they don’t want to create a controversy and/or they don’t feel equipped to deal with such a complex matter of science.

And I think BioLogos is misguided in its efforts to attempt to equip churches to deal with it through such efforts as the Evolution and Christian Faith programs.   I think it’s misguided because it’s an organization that is narrow-minded and unquestioning in its whole-hearted acceptance of Darwinian answers to grand mysteries such as the Cambrian explosion which remain unproven by any science we currently possess.  If I were to encounter such an effort by BioLogos in my church I would certainly protest it.


Merv - #80301

May 19th 2013

Glsi wrote above:

“I think it [Biologos] is misguided because it’s an organization that is narrow-minded and unquestioning in its whole-hearted acceptance of Darwinian answers to grand mysteries…”

What if your objection above was reworded to state:  ... and unquestioning in its whole-hearted acceptance of *objective truth to be learned by observing and investigating creation.*?

That is a significantly different statement as you will no doubt point out, since you argue that Darwinism is not a legitimate result of unbiased scientific investigation.  But if there are significant elements of evolution that do turn out to be true (regardless of our general inability to escape biases on this or anything else), shouldn’t it be the business of the church to (at the very least!) not be planting its theological stakes in opposition to that?  If a church clung to a doctrine of an unmoving earth, but other churches objected, we wouldn’t (now) accuse those other churches of adhering to “moving earthism”.  They would rightly respond that “we are simply committed to pursuing truth generally, and not mixing in falsehoods with our message of Christ.”  And of course if something was still considered disputable (and for many U.S. churches the disputability of evolution is itself the dispute) then those churches (either wisely or unwisely) avoid planting their stakes anywhere in what they see as a scientific matter.  Hence your not hearing many sermons on the subject.   Of course, to refrain from commitment on this issue is to already have a de facto commitment to the wrong side in the eyes of many here.  But time will vindicate the wise [and true] course.


glsi - #80343

May 19th 2013

I like science in church when it’s descriptive of the way things are.  We had a wonderful video in church about the enormity of the universe which tried to give some small understanding of the distances between stars and galaxies.  I love that stuff.  It’s based on measurements that I’m reasonably sure are fairly accurate and verifiable.  It glorifies God and inspires humanity.

 


Eddie - #82516

August 24th 2013

Deb Haarsma wrote:

“They were amazed not just with the particular things I had discussed, but with the way in which God has embedded wonders at every level of understanding.”

Yes, indeed—“embedded” is a good word.  And those “embedded wonders” are in my view, and in the view of most Christians throughout history, wonders of divine design.  They are there because God wanted them to be there.  He planned for them to be there.  And he gave us the intellect to explore nature and come to see these wonders.  How any Christian could advocate the notion that God hides or conceals the design of nature is utterly beyond me.  He makes the design of nature plain to all who diligently study it.



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