Three Steps Forward, Two Steps Back
Last year, my partner, Diane Sweeney and I received a BioLogos Evolution and Christian Faith grant to create a video-study curriculum for high school youth groups. While we both work at the same independent school in Honolulu, we are very different. She is a highly respected biology teacher and I am a chaplain who joked his way through high school biology. Diane is a tall Caucasian woman and I am a short Asian male. She comes from a family of scientists and I come from a family of ministers. She attends a church that belongs to the Four Square denomination and I belong to the United Church of Christ. But we are both devoted disciples of Christ and we believe God is using our differences to make us an effective team.
Our unlikely partnership gives me hope that the body of Christ can come together despite different views. Together, we are working with 9th Avenue Studios, a local production company, to help us create a video series to communicate our message—that evolutionary creation is a viable evangelical description of the process God used to create the diversity of life in the world—in a professional way that will be compelling and thought-provoking for teens.
Our video-study, funded by Biologos’ ECF program, is “translational” which, according to BioLogos, “focuses on projects that encourage Christians, especially those within more conservative traditions, to engage in meaningful and productive dialogue to reduce tensions between mainstream science and the Christian faith.”
We needed a place to test the first two videos of our eight-part series, so we decided to head to the potentially coolest event in American Christendom, The National Youth Workers Convention (NYWC). This event is put on by Youth Specialties and held yearly in San Diego, California. Over 2,000 attendees come from around the country to sunny southern California. The convention draws a diverse mix of individuals—Christian ”hipsters,” ”jocks,” surfers, pop celebrities, and the occasional middle-aged youth worker are just some of the many cultural categories represented. The main stage, with its lights, smoke, and screens is similar to the stage used in a television awards show.
We, however, were not presenting with rock-star smoke and lights. But our presentation did have the potential to be explosive. Because I have had more experience with the strong opinions of those who hold creationist views, I was expecting to see controversy, but Diane had high hopes that the participants might be persuaded to agree with our evolutionary creationist perspective. We were both surprised by the response.
1. It’s All About Authenticity
Youth workers, like teens, have no tolerance for disingenuous people. Whether in our conversations about origins or when we talked about Jesus, we had to be honest. We had to be honest both in our presentation and in our overall objectives. In order for pastors to take a risk, we had to demonstrate that we cared for their students, respect their work, and love Jesus. The conflict around origins topics automatically raises suspicion and anxiety. Trust can be built by acknowledging the differences in positions around the topic yet also pointing out our commonalities. In order to do this, we began our second session by reading the Apostles’ Creed together.
2. There Are More Allies Out There Than We Thought.
We came to the NYWC convention prepared for potential rejection and conflict; we left with new friends and an experience of renewed faith in the body of Christ. We had the opportunity to speak with leaders of Youth Specialties, a youth ministry training and publishing organization, about our project. We also had the unexpected chance to share in an online forum with a much larger audience through “YS Idea Lab”. During the conference we met with Adventists, Presbyterians, Conservative Baptists, Pentecostals, and Wesleyans, and despite the range, there was no personal hostility or vitriol. We met pastors who agreed with us yet were afraid to use the films in their churches. We met pastors who were certain they would never share our work. Yet we also met pastors who shared our concerns and were ready to use our program.
3. Go Big or Go Home
There was one pastor in our first session who pointed out that while our videos were effective, we were trying too hard to be palatable to Creationists. For instance, Diane has a line in her film where she states, “because of an overwhelming amount of evidence from many areas of science that all point to the same conclusion, evolution appears to be the best explanation that scientists have to explain how all life came to be and how it changes.” He felt that our trepidation to make a clear statement of the facts did not allow for a clear and honest dialogue. “Either go big or go home,” he said to us. “Evolution doesn’t appear to be the best explanation, it is the only explanation.”
Honestly, I do not enjoy conflict and I take criticism to my work personally. Yet if I follow my instincts and shy away from difficult situations, it helps no one. The command “Do not be afraid” appears in the New Testament thirty-five times. In these words, Jesus reminds us that he is with us in the middle of conflict. His desire is unity in his church, but he also encourages us to be bold and fearless (Luke 5:10). It is a balance that is challenging to maintain.
In order to translate a complex message, one must clearly understand the message and the preconceptions of both the speaker and listener. Prior to the NYWC conference, we could say that we cognitively understood these two points, yet it was a completely different thing to share such ideas to a potentially hostile audience. We were (mostly) prepared for the academic arguments but not necessarily the thing many fear in this discussion: personal conflict. Yet it was very clear that God was with us in these discussions. We experienced peace. We had unexpected opportunities to share and encourage others, and most of all we saw that hearts can be changed.
Since the National Youth Workers’ Conference, we have shared our videos with several youth pastors in Honolulu. We’ve received positive feedback, but many are reluctant to implement the material. We are beginning to understand that these church leaders are concerned that this material may create an unwanted emotional reaction within their church community. We are essentially asking these leaders to take a huge risk. These leaders will only take a risk if they trust us. Trust is built on relationships, not just good convincing arguments. With this in mind, we’ve changed one of our video topics to a training video for youth pastors to empower and encourage them in these discussions. We hope to convince them that we are on their side and that we are here to help bring kids closer to Jesus.