Science and the Evangelical Mission in America, Part 1
This is the first entry of a three-part series which was adapted from an article of the same name. The full article is available at Qideas.org.
Where are the Science Students?
My evangelical heart was first exposed to this issue when I sat down for coffee with the only biology graduate student attending our church at the time. I asked Theresa an innocent question: “We have grad students in English, social work, and engineering—why aren’t there more science and biology students in our church?”
Theresa’s laughter alerted me to a lurking brutal fact, which she then blurted out: “Ken, what did you think? It’s evolution!”
I resisted her point with a counterpoint: “But I’ve never taught against evolution! I’m a C. S. Lewis Christian. I have no problem with the Creator working through an evolutionary process.”1
“Yes,” she replied in earnest, “but have you ever taught that from the pulpit? Ken, you co-authored a book called Empowered Evangelicals. Vineyard is an evangelical church, even though it’s not 'in-your–face' on these hot button issues. Scientists, especially biologists, expect American evangelicals to attack evolutionary science, not support it. Scientists don’t view evolution as some marginal scientific issue. It’s the primary narrative of modern science. That’s why they don’t bother to darken the door of an evangelical church. Would you, if you were in their shoes?”
“Oh,” I replied uncomfortably, facing what I had always known for the first time. There it sat, the brutal fact—unyielding, immovable, but quite obviously ignorable.
The evangelical posture toward modern science has missional consequences. We have inherited a defensive posture toward science that serves as a roadblock to faith for many people. The question is: what are we going to do about it?
If the essence of evangelicalism is a singular passion to see the gospel of Jesus embraced by as many people as possible, we must learn to think again like missionaries sent to a mission field. Consider this simple table, comparing two distinct cultural sensibilities in the United States, widely recognized as a cultural divide. Let’s borrow the latest lingo and label the two distinct cultural sensibilities “red” and “blue.”
One could add several more items to the above table: legalized abortion, gay marriage, even talk-radio station preference (a.m. talk vs. NPR talk). But there is one item that would especially concern us if we were thinking missionally about our own culture: church attendance.
If you were an evangelical missionary sent from a different country to spread the gospel in the United States, where would you focus your energy? Among those whose perspectives lean blue.
It would be fair to ask how important a person’s posture toward modern science really is. After all, there aren’t that many scientists in the population, especially if you don’t include physicians and engineers, who apply scientific knowledge but aren’t strictly speaking, scientists. How much energy should we expend trying to reach a small group of science geeks, one might reasonably ask?
As scientist E.O. Wilson has said, science and religion are the two most powerful forces in the world today. This means that one’s posture toward science is a cultural marker. Science touches all of our lives and we all have a predisposition toward scientific knowledge even if we don’t have much personal interest in science. When surveyed about evolution, very few of us respond, “no opinion.”2
Picture the blue sensibility regarding science as a set of concentric circles. The smallest circle in the middle is composed of people with advanced degrees in a scientific discipline (biology, physics, chemistry, geology, astronomy, etc.) The next circle includes those who read periodicals like Scientific American, Discover, Nature, and National Geographic without thinking, “I wish they wouldn’t put so much stock in evolution and climate change.” The next circle, the widest circle, encompassing roughly half the population of the United States, includes those who identify culturally with those in the inner two circles. We’re not just talking about a small group of science fanatics; in other words, we’re talking about a massive mission field.
But are we thinking missionally about this mission field? Are we confronting the brutal facts, asking the difficult questions, and examining cultural assumptions that affect our effectiveness in the mission field? Are we thinking clearly and passionately (as missionaries must) regarding the men and women who inhabit this mission field, so that we may help them uncover the treasure hidden in this field?
In Good to Great, business guru Jim Collins describes a set of traits common to companies that made the transition from good to great, including the willingness to confront the brutal facts affecting their business. American Evangelicals are in the early stages of this painful process.
I was motivated to consider this once we decided to plant a church ten years ago in Ann Arbor, home to the University of Michigan, a major scientific research center and a community with decidedly “blue” leanings. (My daughter’s middle school voted 596-6 for Kerry in the mock student body presidential election held in 2004.)
The mission of our church was clear: “to humbly bear the transforming presence of Jesus into the heart of Ann Arbor.” We didn’t see many evangelical churches in our hometown effectively reaching secular, progressive, environmentally conscious Ann Arborites, and we wanted to try.
The brutal facts represented in the table above were waiting for us the day we arrived. I knew I would have to address science and Scripture from the pulpit, especially after conversations like the one I had with Theresa. I would not be able to dodge this issue for the sake of congregational peace. If the pastor doesn’t lean toward the lost, the church will not.
I had to choose between pleasing my evangelical friends and being evangelical.
So I addressed the question of human origins in a sermon series titled Science and Faith at the Crossroads of Creation. I described the four Christian views on this topic—views a faithful Christian might adopt: young earth creation, old earth creation, intelligent design, and theistic evolution. I acknowledged theistic evolution as my personal view—affirming the conclusions of scientists while also affirming belief in a transcendent Creator and divine agency. I framed the issue carefully as a matter of personal opinion—what the apostle Paul referred to as a “disputable matter” (Rom. 14:1), leaving others free to hold their own views. Finally, I asserted that our shared treasure is Jesus, not our view of how science and faith interact.
The series had an impact. We lost some contributing members of the church to other evangelical churches in town. But we also made room for scientists and others who accepted the idea that the earth was very old and who agree that species are not immutable but over long periods of time adapt to a changing environment as nature selects for traits that enhance survival.
Along with a few bristling emails, I had people approach me in the lobby—men, mainly3—one with tears in his eyes to say “Thank you! This is one of the issues that has caused me to keep my distance from Christianity.”
In his next post, Wilson will explain how “access to the gospel” is at stake when congregations take too strong of an anti-science position.
1. This was also the view of B.B. Warfield, sometimes referred to as “the father of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy.” A 2006 Gallup Poll indicates that 36 percent of Americans also agree with this view (“Almost Half of Americans Believe Humans Did Not Evolve” by Frank Newport, Gallup News Service, June 06, 2006).
2. Those who answered “other/no opinion” in the Gallup Poll surveys on evolution of 1999, 2001, 2004, and 2006 ranged from 4-5 percent; presumably those with “no opinion” on this issue are less than 4-5 percent.
3. Gallup polling data indicates that significantly more men than women accept the scientific view that humans developed from other life forms (“Almost Half of Americans Believe Humans Did Not Evolve” by Frank Newport, Gallup News Service, June 05 2006).
Ken Wilson is senior pastor of Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor and serves on the national board of Vineyard, A Community of Churches. Before entering the pastorate, he worked in community mental health. Ken is the author of Jesus Brand Spirituality: He Wants His Religion Back (Thomas Nelson, 2008) and Mystically Wired: Exploring New Realms in Prayer (Thomas Nelson, May 2010).