Andy Root
 on June 01, 2017

Facing the Rivalry Between Faith and Science in Youth Ministry

If we care about actually helping young people live out their faith and encounter a living God in the world, there is no way to avoid discussions about faith and science.


If the Internet is good for anything—besides streaming TV shows, movies, and music—it is lists. Top ten lists are everywhere, and about everything. Recently I clicked on one (when, of course, I should have been doing something else) entitled, “Greatest Movie Rivals.” The list included Happy Gilmore vs. Shooter McGavin from Happy Gilmore, Woody vs. Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story, Daniel LaRusso vs. Johnny Lawrence from The Karate Kid (remember, “Sweep the leg, Johnny!” “Put him in a body bag!!”), Harry Potter vs. Draco Malfoy from Harry Potter, Neo vs. Agent Smith from the Matrix, Maverick vs. Iceman from Top Gun, and controversially, number one…(drum roll)…Rocky Balboa vs. Apollo Creed from Rocky.

This is a lighthearted example, but rivalries seem an essential part of the human drama; a way we make sense of our world.

We’ve been living with another rivalry that’s had a major impact on our ministry: the rivalry between faith and science. Some people have the perception that science is out to “sweep the leg” of faith, putting our young people’s Christian commitment in a body bag. Many of us respond by seeking to avoid the rivalry all together, never directly creating space for our young people to discuss how scientific findings impact their faith. Others of us, with the tone of college football fanatics, have told our young people to pick a side. Both options keep faith and science apart, treating them like oil and water, unable to be mixed.

But, if we’re honest with ourselves, keeping faith and science apart is ultimately impossible, and both approaches are unhelpful to our young people. Whether we address science and its relation to faith or not, they’ll be confronted in a high school classroom, on the internet, or in a vocational calling with how—or whether—faith and science relate. And at some point, we’ll be asked by a parent or curious young person to help them make sense of evolution or the Big Bang next to the claims of Jesus and the creation accounts of Genesis.

We get the sense that these questions are much more than merely intellectual; they stretch to the deepest level of Christian faith. Essentially, young people wonder if there is a way to think about a God who moves and acts in the world, and yet still be a smart, well-informed person. Can you affirm evolution, the Big Bang, and quantum mechanics and still believe God heals bodies, directs events, and transforms life? If we care about faith-formation, about actually helping young people live out their faith and encounter a living God in the world, then there is no way to avoid discussions about faith next to big scientific ideas. If we can’t explore how faith and science interact, seeking instead to keep them apart, then are we inadvertently conceding that this God we worship is disconnected from the world science can explain?

But maybe we are overwhelmed by putting faith and science in dialogue because we’ve misread things from the beginning. On closer examination, faith and science are not actually rivals. The history of the birth of science reveals that the church, in fact, had much to do with science coming into the world. The first scientists and those who supported their work were committed people of faith who acknowledged that God acted in the world. Although we very much live as though the rivalry is real, there is actually no clear line of demarcation separating faith and science, as there is between Vikings and Packers fans. Science, or “natural philosophy” as it was first called, is a probing of the world. This emerged not in opposition to the act of God, but as a way to understand the act of God as deeply as possible. Probing the natural world, it was believed, would help us more deeply understand the creativity of God.

But all this only adds to our conundrum. Those of us doing youth ministry have often avoided the whole faith and science discussion, not only because we’ve been misinformed about the rivalry, but more so because we feel inadequate and confused about the topic to begin with. Our calling, after all, is to minister to young people, not to explain string theory.

The starting point of many of the religion and science discussions hasn’t helped us. These conversations often begin at a philosophical altitude that makes the air too thin to breathe, scrambling our minds in confusion. Ultimately, it just feels like the discussions are lodged somewhere far from the practice of ministry. We care about discussions of faith and science not for philosophical or intellectual reasons, but for ministerial ones. And that is what the posts that will follow in this series are all about.

This month BioLogos will look at the faith and science discussion through the practice of youth ministry. Several of the posts will come from a project called Science and Youth Ministry, in which participants came together for a writing workshop to share and work out their ideas. The posts will push deeply into scientific and theological discussions, but with a mind on how this impacts the practice of youth ministry. I believe that to enter the faith and science discussion at the level of the practice of ministry (as opposed to academic theology or philosophy) shifts things.

Our actual lives and experiences are the place where faith and science interact in real ways every day. Cancer and cures, hurricanes and space exploration, viruses and virtual reality—we make meaning and choices guided by science and by faith all the time. These are not hypothetical or distant philosophical arguing points. As we share life with our young people, these are the places their questions and struggles will arise. These are the places we seek to meet them in ministry. So these posts will be just that—youth workers, youth ministry thinkers, and others articulating how, why, and what shape these discussions should take in our youth rooms. I hope you enjoy the journey!

About the author

Andy Root Headshot

Andy Root

Andrew Root is a Professor and Carrie Olson Baalson Chair of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary (St. Paul). He was most recently the author of The Grace of Dogs (Convergent, 2017) and Faith Formation in a Secular Age (Baker, 2017). He was also the Project Leader of John Templeton Foundation grant Science for Youth Ministry.