As a long-time non-denominational Christian pastor, I’ve seen my fair share of church controversy. But few things have threatened the stability of my church more than the thorny matter of the creation–evolution debate. And while much of the ensuing kerfuffle was unavoidable, a lot of it was also my fault.
It all started when I decided to speak more publicly about my evolutionary creationist view: that evolution best describes God’s process of creating life as we know it. I had grown up a young-earth creationist, even defending the position in college and my early days as a church planter. Slowly, though, I grew dissatisfied with the scientific credibility of young-earth explanations. Also, it gradually became less and less obvious to me that Genesis was intended to be read as a scientific description of events in natural history. And the scientific evidence for evolution and an old earth grew steadily more compelling.
None of this really challenged my faith, which is not rooted in a certain interpretation of Genesis, but (among other things) in the historical resurrection of Jesus and my personal encounter with divine grace. In fact, opening myself up to the scientific consensus gave me a new pair of glasses through which to see the beauty and truth of Christian doctrine.
But then I decided to “go public.” I hadn’t kept my changing views a secret, but I also hadn’t broadcasted them any more than necessary. Eventually I decided to make a Facebook post in which I recommended the book How I Changed My Mind about Evolution , which is filled with stories of pastors (and other Christian scholars and leaders) wrestling with the evidence for evolution, and how to reconcile it with Christian faith. I shared a little bit of my own story, which I knew might be controversial or even offensive to some in my church—even to the point of leaving the church. But I also insisted in the post that disagreements Christians may have about origins (or other controversial topics) shouldn’t mean we can’t live and worship together. In fact, disagreeing about important topics is something we need to be able to do if we want to show the world the unifying love of Christ.
Many in my church did not agree. What followed was more of a controversy than I expected: a tempest, not a squall. In the end, somewhere between 20 to 30 people left our medium-sized congregation, leaving us with holes to fill and damage to contain.
For the most part, we got through it. Since then, I’ve had some time to process what happened and, more importantly, what should have happened. What follows are my thoughts of what I should have done, and what you might consider doing if you’re thinking of raising the creation/evolution issue in your church:
Know Your Audience Well
In a church-wide survey prior to the controversy, I asked people their thoughts on creation/evolution. There was an even divide between young-earth creationists, evolutionary creationists, and those who didn’t know what to think about origins. This diversity gave me false reassurance that since people in our church disagreed on the matter, they were mature enough to disagree with their pastor, too.
That was a mistake. What I didn’t consider was the intensity of peoples’ opinions on the topic—especially church members committed to a literal reading of the Bible. To them, evolution isn’t one issue among many that Christians should deal with. It is THE issue that Christians must NOT “compromise” on. For a pastor to “compromise” on a literal reading of Genesis is, in their minds, not a disagreement. It’s a heresy.
Of course, I disagree. I don’t think I’ve compromised my faith at all. But the intensity of these beliefs is a reality that, if I had thought more carefully about it, would have changed how I approached the topic. For starters, I wouldn’t have announced anything on social media, which (as we all know) is a terrible place to facilitate thoughtful debate. Instead, I would have shared my opinions in personal conversation with congregants, who might not have felt blindsided and would have at least had the benefit of the personal touch from their pastor.
Also, I would have been more emotionally prepared for the fallout. When leaders take positions that upset the status quo of an organization, they should “expect sabotage,” in the words of leadership expert Edwin Friedman.1 Members tend to resort to disruptive tactics to restore the body to homeostasis, and many in my own church did exactly that. People I considered friends gossiped about me, sent angry messages, called me “not a true Christian,” and tried to recruit others away from the church. This broke my heart. It still does.
But I should have seen it coming—and planned accordingly.
Test Your Motives
Paul writes to Titus, “Avoid foolish controversies…because these are unprofitable and meaningless” (Tit. 3:9). I have wrestled with this verse and have gone back and forth about whether or not the controversy I started was “meaningless.”
So far, I don’t think it was. In fact, I don’t think the science and faith debate is “foolish,” and I think it can be of great “profit.”
But I also know that my motives were not entirely pure. As a pastor I relish the role of provocateur: “Here’s something you need to think about.” But is it always true that every Christian in my church needs to think about (in this case) the proper interpretation of Genesis 1? Yes, good teachers raise important questions, but they do so helpfully and lovingly. I didn’t raise the issue out of a love for my congregation and a desire to see them whole before Christ. No, I mostly raised the issue because it made me feel important, smart, and counter-cultural in my own setting.
In fact—if I’m being completely honest—as much as I love my church members, sometimes I don’t love them enough. I get frustrated with some of their perspectives, and sometimes vent my frustration by trying to get under their skin with theological questions. It allows me to hide behind the guise of “But these are important topics Christians shouldn’t be afraid of” defense.
Maybe they are important topics, worthy of discussion. But I should never bring them up simply to prove a point about how right I am.
Enter the Fray Together
Perhaps my biggest mistake, really, was not involving my elder team before I pushed the snowball down the hill. The fallout and controversy itself caught them by surprise. It took us several weeks to get on the same page, during which time the issue festered. Eventually we sent out a letter to bring members up to speed and provide folks with some opportunities to deal with their disagreements in a biblical way.
I consider myself truly blessed to have a team of supportive elders. Not all of them agree with my opinions, but we are committed to the idea that different interpretations of Genesis, while consequential, need not compromise our mutual commitment to the risen Christ and the authoritative Word of God. Knowing this, I should have relied on my elders’ wisdom and counsel before opening this box—not after. They could have asked me difficult questions about why I wanted to raise the topic and how we could do so in a God-glorifying way. I could have pre-emptively avoided some of the potential contention through the feedback of godly leaders. Instead, I hoisted myself by my own petard.
Of course, pastors who do not have the blessing of a mature, unified leadership team are in a vastly different situation. They have to decide if it’s worth it, and if it is, how to move forward.
Create Balanced Learning Opportunities
Alongside my mistakes, one of the best things I did was to create follow-up learning opportunities for people to go deeper. I offered a discussion group based around the book Four Views on Creation, Evolution and Intelligent Design. People could read the book and attend a three-hour meeting to understand the positions and debate their respective merits.
Interest in the group exceeded my expectations. I had to offer an additional meeting time and extend the hours so people could keep talking—which they wanted to do. At the beginning, I explained why we were meeting and even apologized for my mistaken social media post. I then shared my hope that, moving forward, we might focus on what Christians should be good at: learning from one another in humility and grace. I de-emphasized my own opinions and tried to help people come to their own conclusions. I challenged people where I thought I should and stayed silent when I needed to.
The discussion groups provided a ballast for us in the middle of a rocky sea. They helped us get back on course. Instead of little, gossipy conversations, folks had a chance to come speak openly about the REAL questions: How did God create the world? What does the Bible say? What does the Bible not say? How do Christians reconcile Scripture and science?
More than anything, in these discussion groups we had the chance to show the world, and each other, what Christians can really be: kind, thoughtful, curious, and loving—even in the midst of strong disagreement over important issues. In this way, we successfully turned our row into an opportunity to grow and become a healthier church. Was it painful? Yes. Did we lose some dear friends? Yes.
But do I regret it? Yes and No. I regret the broken relationships and unfortunate drama that I helped to cause. But I don’t regret using it as an opportunity to help my church think and talk through an important matter. In the end, we are better for it.