Science and the Evangelical Mission in America, Part 3
Do a little thought experiment. Imagine a person with a blue sensibility coming to your small group, Bible study, or church to assess the cultural climate (something we humans do quite adeptly when we visit churches). The person imagines what it would be like to express his or her views on evolution and climate change in this setting. Does he or she expect to be warmly received? You know how it feels to be in the minority around people with strong convictions. How do you imagine such a person feels in your evangelical congregation?
Notice the word feel. Feelings are contagious and difficult to hide. People will feel welcome among us when we are inclined to feel that their perspectives on a given subject are reasonable. If we feel that they are being duped by the Darwinist agenda of secular scientists—whether or not we say so—they will feel uneasy. Feeling this, they may not easily trust us, or even wish to be around us.
So let me ask a pointed missional question: How do you feel about scientific hot button issues like evolution and climate change? Does something inside you bristle when evolution is treated as a fact? Does something inside you cringe when climate change is treated as a fact?
I am not asking what you think about these matters of science. Because in this case what you think is less relevant to your ability to be effective in the mission field than how you feel.
In order to deal with our feelings about matters of science like evolution or climate change—issues of science surrounded by controversy in our culture—we will have to do some soul searching. Where do these feelings come from? Are these feelings fueled by the pure Spirit of Jesus? Or could they be fueled at least partly by cultural assumptions that may have nothing to do with Jesus?
I am not being facetious; I am dead earnest when I say: for the sake of the gospel, bring these feelings to God in prayer for examination under the penetrating light of the Spirit.
A year after listening to my sermon series on science and faith, Susan approached me in the church lobby with tears in her eyes and the following story. After wrestling through the material, Susan gathered her adult children together. None of her children were active churchgoers, though they were raised in a strict fundamentalist Baptist setting. In prayer, Susan had discerned that her approach to evolution had unnecessarily alienated her children from the gospel. Susan apologized to her children for insisting that they had to accept her young earth creation views. Susan told them that she didn’t accept evolution herself, but she deeply regretted insisting that they accept her views as the only view a faithful Christian could accept.
Susan was never more evangelical than when she engaged in this soul-searching work.
In order to be truly evangelical in American culture today, we may have to risk our reputation with some fellow evangelicals. That is the sad but painful truth. Which is more important though, reaching the lost or maintaining our reputation with the found?
Practically speaking, we must begin to plant churches that are unencumbered with the present defensive posture toward modern science. These churches should be planted where the most blue sensibility people reside: in university towns, in cultural centers like Boston, New York, Chicago, Washington D.C., and San Francisco, and in the low church attendance regions of the country like the Pacific Northwest and the Northeast.
Unfortunately, it is not likely that we will be able to plant new churches fast enough to reach this vast harvest field. Church growth in these new churches will be slower as it won’t be supported by the usual evangelical transfer growth. Financial support for planting such churches may not be easy to come by. This means that some of our existing churches will have to become more missionally-minded and this too will be costly.
In order to reach people who are currently outside the reach of the typical evangelical church, read outside the box. Eighteenth and nineteenth century evangelical pastors were readers. John Wesley, in particular, insisted that his circuit readers read voraciously, and not just the Bible and theology. He also urged them to read science. The pioneers in what became “biology” included many evangelical leaders who were well read in what was then called “Natural Philosophy.”1 So try reading some science outside the “critical-of-science” box.
A Reading List
Here’s a short reading list:
Almost Everyone's Guide to Science: The Universe, Life and Everything by John Gribbin (Yale University Press, 2000). It tells the story of science as a continuous narrative. Like the gospel, science isn’t just a collection of facts; it is a collection of facts that tells a story about the way things are.
Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism by George M. Marsden (Eerdmans, 1991). Marsden reveals how prominently science and religion in America figured into the formation of the current culture wars. It’s important to understand the family history.
The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief by Francis Collins (Free Press, 2006) won the Christianity Today 2007 Book of the Year Award in Evangelism for good reason. It’s a groundbreaking work written by an evangelical Christian who is now the head of the National Institute of Health. Collins offers a faith and science based defense of theistic evolution, but with a respectful approach toward other views.
The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate by John H. Walton (IVP Academic, 2009). This is the book on Genesis that I wish I’d read before I taught on this subject. Walton, Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, offers an interpretation of the first chapter of Genesis that paves the way for a reassessment of the modern American evangelical posture toward science.
These books may or may not influence your views on science, but reading them will help you to become more effective in the mission field.
1. Consider John Wesley’s exhortation to read, especially science, in “An Address to Clergy”: “And as to acquired endowments, can he take one step aright, without first a competent share of knowledge? . . . Some knowledge of the sciences also, is, to say the least, equally expedient . . . Should not a Minister be acquainted too with at least the general grounds of natural philosophy?”
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).