Sandra,* a member of a sister church in town, told me she had a problem. Most of the time, people don’t tell a pastor ahead of time what they want to talk about, so we often go into these sorts of meetings blind. I could only imagine what Sandra wanted to talk about. Her problem was that she was an evolutionary creationist (EC), but her church, and more specifically her pastor, were not. She turned to me for help.
My many conversations with her over the last 6 months have inspired me to write this list of tips for thriving in a church with a different view of creation than you. Most of what follows has come directly out of my conversations with Sandra and others.
1. Distinguish between primary and secondary issues
What a person believes about creation does not “make or break” them as a Christian. When we read the creeds of the early Church we note that God is described as Creator, but the specifics of how he created are not mentioned. It can be argued that from the earliest times, what the Church saw as central to the Christian faith (as expressed through the creeds) was to believe that God was Creator, not the specific way he created.
We can hold to different views on how God created while all agreeing that God is the Creator. In other words, what you believe about how (or how long) God created is not central to the Christian faith in general or to your faith in particular. The important thing in all this is to avoid causing division. As Christians we must promote unity and fellowship. We must never hold so tightly to our views on secondary matters that they become primary issues in our mind. We must never insist on our view at the risk of causing others to stumble or become weak in their faith.
2. Be respectful
Of all the tips, this one is probably the hardest to actually do. Because our view of creation is often so clear to us and makes so much sense in our minds, it’s sometimes hard not to insist that others see things our way. It’s hard to think the best about others who hold a different view from ours because our view is so “obviously” better (so we think).
However, it is important for us to be respectful of other views. One thing that really frustrated me when I was a young-earth creationist (YEC) apologist was how dismissive, sarcastic, or condescending my opponents could be toward my view. There are good, intelligent, credentialed scholars who disagree about the doctrine of creation so by all means, engage in conversation! Explain clearly and succinctly, when the opportunity arises, why you think your view is the best one. But be open to the possibility that you might be wrong and that you can learn from listening to others. One thing that went a long way in changing my mind (from YEC to EC) was not the wit of my opponents, but the gentle presentation of facts. A little respect in conversation can go a long way.
Moreover, there is a lot we still don't understand about the world and about the Bible. Biblical interpretations are changing; evolutionary theory itself is evolving; our understanding of ancient Near East culture and its relationship to hermeneutics is progressing. It's OK to admit that evolutionary creation (EC) is the view you believe to make the most sense of the Bible and science while still affirming the legitimacy of other perspectives. We don’t have to prove we are right or that we have the only credible view on creation. All we need to do is communicate well why our view makes the most sense in light of current data.
3. Encourage open dialogue
I have found that many conservative evangelicals are concerned about or even opposed to the EC position, but don’t really understand it. They’ve heard someone speak against it—maybe pastor or others in their church or an influential Christian leader. They may even have been given a book presenting an opposing viewpoint. But they can’t really articulate the EC position with clarity, or even what specifically they oppose about it. This lack of understanding is what is mostly at the root of people’s fear or opposition to the EC viewpoint.
One thing you can do to help bridge the knowledge gap is to co-teach a Sunday school class with another teacher who holds an opposing creation view. Such a class could be designed as an “Introduction to Creation” where a couple of different viewpoints are introduced, overviewed, and discussed. One idea I have seen work really well is giving assignments to several of the class participants. Each participant is assigned a topic or aspect of the doctrine of creation to research, and then they present their findings to the rest of the class. Their presentation is then followed by an open discussion. Such activities help people to work through the material themselves. It also corrects some misperceptions about EC position specifically and the Doctrine of Creation in general.
4. Be patient
If having kids has taught me anything, it is this: patience is everything. Sometimes I get impatient and think my kids should learn quicker, realize something sooner, or understand better. But I have to remind myself: they’re just kids! They are the most curious things in the world, but learning takes time.
For a lot of adults, learning also takes time and patience. If you are talking to someone who is actually interested in discussing issues of creation, you have much to be thankful for that alone. Many adults in conservative churches in the US grew up believing that YEC was either the only view, or the only right view for Christians to hold. As you engage in discussions with them about opposing views, be patient in listening to them and explaining the EC view. For some, they have never heard of your position before. For others, they’ve been told your view is unbiblical. Learning about and understanding other viewpoints takes time.
5. Know when to stay and when to leave
Please don’t misunderstand me: I'm not saying you have to leave your church just because they don't hold to an EC position. But there are circumstances where leaving is the best option.
Once, when I was on the pastoral team at a church, the senior pastor said to me, “Honestly, I don't know how anyone can be a Christian and believe in evolution.” I knew at that point my days were numbered at that church. Why? That pastor was making a certain perspective on origins a central issue of Christian faith. Essentially, he was saying that a person could not truly be a Christian without embracing a YEC view of creation (it is worth noting that many YECs affirm the Christian faith of those who hold other positions). Such a divisive view inhibited me from being able to worship God freely. In essence, the senior pastor was seeking to bind my conscience on an issue that it simply didn’t need to be bound to.
If your church does not promote free discussion of secondary issues for mutual edification, discipleship, and growth, or if you consistently feel pressure to be silent about your views because your viewpoint is seen as taboo or even dangerous, it may be time to look for another church. If other creation views are publicly criticized, or the people who hold those positions are shamed or belittled, it is definitely time to look for another church.
In my own life, I have experienced pastors making creationism a primary issue of salvation. I have had people be disrespectful and impatient toward me. I have had open dialogue discouraged and even shut down by people who claimed to be “educators.” Consequently, I struggled to thrive. But these problems are not inevitable, even in churches where the leadership and congregation are mostly opposed to the idea of evolutionary creation. Many supporters of BioLogos are faithful members of churches like this. It is entirely possible to thrive in these church environments; in fact, you can do a great service to your fellow Christians by modeling how differences of opinion can be handled graciously and lovingly. The Church needs more of this.