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Science and the Evangelical Mission in America, Part 1

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May 20, 2010 Tags: Pastoral Voices
Science and the Evangelical Mission in America, Part 1

Today's entry was written by Ken Wilson. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

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?

Thinking Missionally

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?

Being Evangelical

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).

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ken Wilson - #14675

May 22nd 2010

Justin Poe - #14634,
Thanks for clarification, blessings/

d.o. - #14679

May 22nd 2010

To Ken:
It really doesn’t sit with me very well that somehow leaning towards red is a trait of true salvation, hence there is a need for more mission work in the “blue sensible” community. It is such a gross generalization that it borders on being judgemental.

ken Wilson - #14681

May 22nd 2010

d.o. - #14679,

Sorry, D.O. just basing this on church attendance data, lower in blue states.  Of course it’s a generalization. There are many in Red States who have yet to hear the gospel, just a lower proportion.  Plenty of work to be done wherever we are till the kingdom comes.

Tom Eggebeen - #14736

May 23rd 2010

The Reformation was led by scholars (Luther and Calvin were both first-rate scholars) and nurtured in the universities. It was Victorian England and its fearful reaction to the possibility of social change (i.e. slavery and privileged wealth) inherent in Darwin’s observations that prompted the church to “spiritualize” the faith and then distance itself from learning.

As “modern science” gained a greater foothold in the universities, the church retreated, conjuring up for itself all sorts of alternatives to combat the “enemy”. This was a fateful move, entirely avoidable, had Christians realized their own inherent and positive relationship to scholarship - most of the early church’s theologians and bishops were first-rate trained scholars.

That some Christians have chosen “creation” as a battlefield is a blunder of colossal proportions.

Christianity has never had to fear the academy; what we need to fear is poorly framed and knee-jerk “christian” reactions to those who raise the necessary and critical questions regarding faith.

Rich - #14739

May 23rd 2010

Tom (14736):

I agree with your general conclusion about the compatibility of science and Christianity, but your remark about Victorian England is odd.  The science/faith cleavage that most Biologos people are concerned about is almost wholly an American phenomenon.  And slavery was abolished in England decades earlier than in the USA, I believe very early in Victoria’s reign, or even before she took the throne, so I don’t get the reference to slavery.  Nor was faith distanced from learning in the universities of Victorian England.  It was taken for granted by all but a few Oxbridge professors that Christianity could go along with both science and historical scholarship.  There were some objections to the religious implications of Darwin, but they were far more pronounced in the USA than in Victorian England; and in any case, religious objections to one particular theory (Darwin’s) are not objections to “science” generally.  Anti-science and anti-historical-learning on the part of Christians have their world focus in the USA.  Biologos is an American response to an American problem.

Gregory - #14834

May 24th 2010

Three figures that are often referenced on the BioLogos site are C.S. Lewis, John Polkinghorne and Alistair McGrath. All were/are Anglican Christians and not American ‘evangelical’ Christians or Episcopalian Christians. To suggest that there are not learned British figures in this conversation is misleading. (But where are the Slovaks?!)

Catholic Christians (who number more than any single religious denomination in the USA) are obviously more likely to accept biological evolution given papal statements via the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences. There is no such Academic body present in evangelical Christian circles. BioLogos may have a large role to play in focussing primarily on conservative evangelicals.

Once one takes a sociology of religion approach to evolutionism, IDism, creationism & other ideologies in the Church, it becomes quite clear Ken Wilson’s statements about red & blue states in the above article is a fair characterisation of the USA. But it is cool that BioLogos is hosting Dr. Beckwith’s views, inviting Jay Richards & others who seek to move the discussion forward in (perhaps) an ecumenical fashion.

Rich - #14882

May 24th 2010

Gregory, I didn’t suggest that there were no British figures involved in *contemporary* religion/science discussions.  I said that the religion/science cleavage didn’t seem to me to be primarily the offspring of *Victorian Britain*.  There is a bit of a time gap there which you didn’t notice.

I also said that the cultural problem today is primarily an American one, not a British one.  There are a few British TEs, and a few British Genesis literalists, but the combat is very much a sideshow there, whereas it’s center stage in the USA.

penman - #15001

May 25th 2010

Rich - #14882



It’s true there is no great culture war in Britain. But that’s because here, conservative Evangelicals are a tiny, negligible minority of a largely secular population. The scientific establishment is more likely to worry about Islamic creationism. It’s true that some opinion polls reveal a surprisingly large dose of public scepticism about evolution, but this is secular “common sense” scepticism of the same sort that is sceptical about global warming, genetically modified food, etc - nothing to do with religion.

The real “war” in Britain is being fought WITHIN the Evangelical community, where “Genesis literalists” are extremely numerous & active. TEs are in a small minority, but they & Old Earth Creationists are often held up as examples of deadly compromise & crypto-liberalism.

Jon - #15042

May 25th 2010

Ken, your “Red and Blue sensibility” figure is probably accurate, but still makes me cringe.  I tend to vote Republican, but I’m TE/EC or whatever, am positive towards environmentalism, but skeptical of AGW.  Also, I’m pro-life, and believe marriage to be a religious/personal commitment that the government shouldn’t even recognize.

Sigh, even the libertarians probably don’t want me cause I love Jesus.

Gregory - #15054

May 25th 2010

Hi Rich,

Re: my #14834 and your #14882, my commentary was actually directed at Tom´s view of the Church distancing itself frm learning, rather than at what you said. My fault for not clarifying who/what my message was addressing.


David M. - #17375

June 14th 2010

Wouldn’t Theistic Evolution (TE), by definition, require some form of Intelligent Design (ID)?  After all, Theistic implies some sort of God who did something to get life on this planet going, even if you believe in a Universal Common Ancestor (UCA).

ID is at a minimum = ID+Evolution, vs. Materialistic Evolution (alleging there is no God).  Granted, there are a range of beliefs of ID advocates, from atheist to YEC.

Without ID, TE becomes just plain Evolution.  I am surprised that no one has seen this before.

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