Science and the Evangelical Mission in America, Part 2
Feeling Out of Place
Few evangelical leaders in the United States, when pressed, would insist that rejecting evolutionary science or climate science is part of the cost of discipleship—especially when leading a person of blue sensibility to faith in Jesus. It’s just that they don’t get the chance to do this very often, because evangelical churches are populated with people who dispute the modern scientific consensus.1 This in turn, creates a cultural climate that is unfriendly to other views, and without intending to be, unfriendly to the people who hold these views.
Culture is everywhere, which makes it easy to ignore. We are most powerfully affected by culture when we are least aware of it, especially in our own faith community settings. When a person with blue sensibilities walks into a cultural setting dominated by a red sensibility, it doesn’t take long for that person to feel out of place. If Rush Limbaugh is quoted sympathetically, they feel out of place. If environmentalists are the butt-end of off-hand jokes, they feel out of place. If there’s a crackle in the atmosphere when the word “evolution” is mentioned, they feel out of place.
They may not be politically active, or scientifically literate, or feel like they have a dog in the global warming controversy. All they know is that they feel out of place, because they identify with a different crowd than this. Rare is the person who says, “I may be out of step with these people culturally, but I need their gospel.” The gospel often takes time to seep in, and they will be long gone before that ever happens.
The gospel is God’s homecoming message, but many people who don’t share a red sensibility feel out of place, marginalized, even condemned in that part of the American religious landscape named after the gospel—evangelicalism. What do people do when they feel out of place in a place? They leave the place. But even more to the point, they avoid coming to the place in the first place. People of blue sensibilities are not coming to our churches in droves. The people for whom the churches are built are not coming.
This reality places a burden on those of us who care about the gospel to examine our cultural assumptions, as any good missionary must do. Is it necessary to insist that men wear ties when they come to church? Is contemporary pop music an appropriate medium for honoring God? These questions involve cultural assumptions regarding reverence. They are easy assumptions to examine because, for the most part, cherished beliefs are not at stake; plus previous generations have done the heavy lifting on moving these sacred cows out of the gospel’s way.
Playing Defense Against Science
But the assumptions fueling our defensive posture toward modern science are more difficult to examine; perhaps this is the reason we’ve taken so long to get around to it. Especially when it comes to evolutionary science, a great deal seems to be at stake. American fundamentalism is the common ancestor of most American evangelicals. This movement was energized in reaction to the teachings of Charles Darwin in science along with the rise of higher criticism in Protestant theology. Fierce opposition to evolution lies at the heart of American fundamentalism; it is an aspect of fundamentalism that has never been directly examined or challenged by the modern evangelical movement in America.
We don’t examine our cultural assumptions in a cultural vacuum. We examine them as we find ourselves—embedded in a particular culture. Even though I am an evangelical pastor who never felt at home with young earth creationism, I hesitated to address this issue from the pulpit. I knew I was part of a quiet minority within my evangelical family and had little cultural incentive to rock the boat, even to provide a safe haven for those escaping a flood of judgment.
Invariably, when I speak to evangelicals about this, I field a flurry of objections regarding the scientific evidence for evolution and climate change. Typically, questioners ignore the missional case I am making, and instead focus on disputing the science. I enjoy a good recreational debate as much as any thoughtful evangelical, and more often than not, I get sucked into these discussions. And there are appropriate times and places to have these discussions. But when we do, more often than not, we are not thinking like evangelical missionaries. We are thinking like good American culture warriors who love nothing better than to replay the debates that can be found on any cable news channel.
As an evangelical missionary, all I really want to do is to advocate for a shift in the burden of proof that we bring to these scientific questions. Given the missional implications of a defensive posture toward science, we have a compelling reason to examine our views: are they fueled by pure faithfulness to Jesus and the Bible, unadulterated by cultural assumptions that may share nothing in common with Jesus and his book? Can we find a way to approach science less defensively and retain faithfulness to Christ?
As anyone who has served on a jury knows, the burden of proof is an important threshold. How many jury deliberations bog down in lengthy discussions on the meaning of “beyond a reasonable doubt”? Does beyond a reasonable doubt mean beyond a shadow of doubt? Does it mean beyond any doubt? Or is it something less than either? How much less? When you’re serving on a jury—let alone being judged by a jury—a great deal depends on where the burden of proof is set.2
When our perspectives on scientific matters are known to hinder the spread of the gospel among those who most need it, why is it so easy to advance these positions and link them so tightly with faithfulness to the Bible? Why don’t we experience more pause before doing so? Is it really necessary to insist that the early chapters of Genesis were written to convey a scientifically accurate perspective on the origin of species? Are we even considering the missional price that we are paying for this thoroughly modern perspective? Why are we so convinced that climate science is a big hoax, knowing that this perspective makes it more difficult for us to reach the people with the least opportunity to hear the gospel?
Something greater than the science is at stake here. Access to the gospel is at stake.
In his next post, Wilson will discuss steps that the Church needs to take in order to become more missionally effective.
1. Nearly two-thirds of Americans who attend church at least weekly dispute the evolutionary science; presumably the proportion would be even higher in evangelical churches (“Almost Half of Americans Believe Humans Did Not Evolve” by Frank Newport, Gallup News Service, June 05 2006)
2. Think of the threshold for the burden proof as the fulcrum of a lever (picture a see-saw in a schoolyard). If the fulcrum is in the middle, it takes equal weight on each side of the see-saw to balance. If the fulcrum is shifted to one side, that side can maintain balance with less weight. When the burden of proof shifts, so does the weight of the evidence needed to arrive at a given conclusion.
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).