Sometimes our jobs in youth ministry seem close to impossible.

Most of us assume we’re given these young people with fragile faith. Someone, somehow, has communicated to us in some indirect way that it is our job to project these delicate balloons. The good youth worker is the person who is able to get young people through high school (and then college) with their balloons of faith intact.

A few months ago, a group of us began interviewing youth pastors and young people from all over the country in mainline and evangelical congregations. We discovered three really interesting things that changed the way we thought about youth ministry, faith and science.

It seems the youth pastors we interviewed believed there was a kind of war going on between faith and scientific theories about existence, human purpose and origins.
They had this sense that arrows were flying, threatening to puncture their young people’s balloons of faith. Science itself happened to be one of these arrows, often thought to be the most precise arrow, most capable of popping a young person’s balloon of faith. It appeared that youth pastors were responding to the perceived threats of science one of three ways. Some felt as if was time to fight. If science was going to throw punches at faith, young people had to be taught to swing back. Youth pastors in this group discussed how they were training their young people with apologetics so students could be on the offensive against these threats. Rhetorically, these youth workers sometimes spoke of a scientific establishment, the agenda of which was atheistic and zealously persuasive in favor of their own ideology. Often figureheads such as Richard Dawkins were used to prove the point. These figures represented science departments in universities that intended to corrode and ultimately obliterate young people’s faith. With such a perception, fighting back and arming young people with apologetic tactics seemed to be the only way forward.
A second group, while agreeing science was a threat to faith, believed that though we might grieve it, the war had ended and science had won.

These youth pastors were seeking some way of re-inflating the popped balloons, seeking for any way to breathe enough air into them to maintain some buoyancy. They expressed a desire for their young people to have mere interest in faith as a helpful lens on reality against a more naturalist, materialist mindset. They grappled with how to do that, and thus could be considered as adopting a posture of surrender, even if hesitant to do so.

Those two groups described above were the smallest of those we interviewed. We discovered most youth pastors just wanted to be Switzerland; they were looking for some safe place to claim neutrality between faith and science. After all, many of them weren’t sure what they personally believed about the place of science in faith. They had no idea how they could walk the fine line, for example, between an old, massively large universe and a personal God. They believed—even experienced—a personal God, but how this could make sense against the backdrop of the hard sciences was beyond them. They simply hoped they could keep their heads down and move kids away from the arrows of science that threatened their faith.

At times, this group could be described as isolationist. If they could manage to keep faith and science isolated from one another, then perhaps the arrows might not be detected. When pressed, they admitted this was a near impossibility. Many described how science lessons in school are brought to church, but with the right maneuvering the youth pastors in our Switzerland category could avoid science. Some mentioned they had other curricular issues throughout the year that were more pressing than science. They needed a few weeks on the Bible, bullying, sexual boundaries, obeying parents and much more. Adding a week on particle physics was beyond their capacities; and similar to loading a compound bow to take a free open shot at their young people’s faith…they weren’t interested in doing that.

It appeared we had our answer. Youth pastors saw conflict between faith and science and were completely under-resourced to deal with the topic.

In the end, many thought it was better to avoid or ignore the issue than address it. If we had stopped here, we may have concluded that a larger project on faith and science might be helpful but wasn’t urgently needed. Youth workers were too busy, and it wasn’t one of their felt needs.

We might have left it there if not for our conversation with young people.

Faith in the Living Room

We talked with a number of young people from across the country, asking them questions about faith, church, science and school. The first thing we discovered was young people are in a very different position than their youth pastors. They had little sense of the war between faith and science. As a matter of fact, most of them saw little conflict between faith and science. For instance, one young person, when asked if faith and science are in conflict said, “I feel an intensity from other people; but for myself, I don’t feel there’s a conflict.” Another young person said, “I think people try and, like, pit them against each other, like one has to be right and the other has to be wrong; but I think they can go hand in hand.” The tensions were perceived as simply that. Tensions that could be engaged, wrestled with, and acknowledged, but not ultimately a zero sum game.
We discovered that for young people in the church who saw it as a time for apologetic battle didn’t necessarily see all of science in conflict with faith.

For example, one boy explained that if you stick with sciences such as chemistry, there really isn’t an issue. However, he did worry that studying biology too closely would be detrimental to faith. We couldn’t help but interpret this perspective as naïve but also insightful. Even this young person had found a way to live beyond the war analogy, communicating to us that only some of the sciences conflicted with faith; if he just stayed away from those areas, he could remain away from the so-called front lines.

The insights gleaned from our conversations with young people placed us in an interesting spot. Youth pastors seemed to see a war taking place between faith and science. This belief seemed to rest on a larger commitment to the belief that faith itself was a balloon that could be expanded or violently popped. Young people, however, didn’t really see warring sides when it came to faith and science and didn’t necessarily seem to think of their faith as balloons. They saw faith more as rooms in the houses of their lives. When they walked into a basement den, they simply chose to believe science, forgetting the Bible, Christian tradition or maybe their churches made other claims. When they went into their living rooms or found themselves at church or youth group, they were willing to forget about scientific explanations of reality and human existence. They were adopting the attitudes and perspectives and actions that went along with the room of faith. It appeared to us that faith was no balloon at all, but a separate room in the house of their lives where they visited from time to time. For some kids, this room was very central; the room of faith was where they spent most of their time. For other kids, it was a guest room—always available but not visited much. Science, too, shifted around their houses. Some kids loved science and made it the kitchen of their lives. For others, it was just a dusty storage room in the basement.

This all had very important ramifications for the ways we thought about faith formation, but we weren’t sure it had any relevance to staging a faith and science conversation in protestant youth ministry.

Then, we realized something truly enlightening.

Begging for Skylights

After reviewing the transcripts of the interviews further and thinking about what young people were saying, something surprised us. Young people didn’t see a war between faith and science and were happy to have faith and science mutually living under the same roof of their lives. Yet when the conversation turned toward discussing how the house was built or what material was used to frame the house, the conversation changed. Young people actually admitted the houses they were given to live in culturally (the houses they were allowed to decorate and design nevertheless) were made out of stuff that was, for the most part, completely natural and material. They explained they were allowed to have faith in one room of their houses (or maybe two or three), but the house itself was framed with boards and beams of immanence—the concrete, physical, material and scientific world.

Charles Taylor makes this very argument in his award-winning book A Secular Age, discussing how it has become much harder for people to believe in transcendence. What Taylor explains is very close to what we saw in our interviews.

Young people have no problem holding faith and science together as décor in their houses, but they struggle with how and if a scientific age allows him to believe in a transcendent/personal God. Young people have no problem having faith next to science. Yet, the way those beliefs are held becomes more and more tenuous.

The plausibility of a personal God who can be known and encountered, Jesus being raised from the dead or walking on water, have become harder to believe because the houses in which they live are framed by natural and material framework. Faith and science can and often do share equal importance in the house (and faith may hold more weight), but when it comes to framing their existence, they have a harder time trying to justify their belief in God inside the foundation of the immanent house. They told us honestly that they wondered if believing in a personal God would be possible in the future; they worried that to hold to faith as the very material of their existence would make them crazy, stupid or lame.

We realized as we talked with young people that there is no way to tear down the houses built from the immanent frame, and we should resist the desire to do so. The framework is too ingrained. Yet within this immanent framework is a deep longing for more, for transcendence. Just as young people intuited the closed nature of the immanent framework, they also intuited that science and technology, while seeming to answer all questions, ultimately are incapable of doing so. They were, in fact, begging for skylights within their houses to the transcendent.

Talking to Students about Science

This is where faith formation and our teaching becomes essential, and we believe staging the faith and science conversation in at least the following three ways can do just that.

• Become Students of the House: 

While it is unreasonable to become scientists, as youth workers we need to become more knowledgeable about the ways in which science helps frame reality for our students. We have done this in the past when we have turned to the science of cognitive development and neuroscience to better understand the way young people’s brains work. However, in so doing, we tended to want to utilize this knowledge to teach in more developmentally appropriate ways. We did not, thereby, intend to understand the perspective on reality that cognitive and developmental science offered. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this, but to become students of the house means we have to press more deeply into understanding why and how these scientific realities claim what they do. A suggested practice would be to add at least one article from magazines such as Popular Science to our normal reading routines in order to become more conversant in the scientific conversation. This will help us become more curious about reality. In this we tell our young people that we live in the same houses they do. Thus, when we point out skylights of divine encounter, we do so with more credibility.

Imagine describing the experience of love in wholly immanent terms. We might describe the way our bodies release chemicals, creating a kind of euphoric feeling, that is mirrored by another through neurons that fire in our brains. Our genes have a deep desire to survive; so, in some of these relationships there is a powerful urge to replicate our genes in offspring. This evolutionary mechanism is crucial for genetic survival. In short, the experiences of falling in love and childbearing can be described in terms of utter immanence, and science can help us do this. We should be able to acknowledge the reality to which these processes point. Yet, as most of us readily concede, there is also something incredibly reductionist to this narration of love. Love opens into something more. Being able to describe the science of love without calling it into question actually opens space for probing the depth of reality and potentially funds a space for transcendent encounter.

• Get to Know Those who Are Constructing the Houses:

Just as many of us know the wisdom of introducing ourselves to local counselors, this means we now should begin introducing ourselves to local scientists and begin relating to them. They are in our churches. Do we know them? These scientists become models for how it looks to be devout and faithful as scientists. Invite them to describe the houses in which they live. Where do they see the skylights? Through relationships with such people, perhaps our young people will be better positioned to see the skylights in their houses, as well.

• Don’t Be Content with the Skylights: 

Use them as invitations out into the world to which they point. Such a move has less to do with instilling ideas about faith into young people, and instead invites them to confess the mystery of our faith. Sometimes science makes our faith feel unbelievable; and rather than resist this reality, we are invited to confess our unbelief as a way of being open to the God who encounters us in the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Science therefore can be one piece of a broader and ongoing invitation to wonder and adventure, as well as doubt and uncertainty in life with God. This makes science no enemy to be feared in youth ministry, but rather an indispensible ally.


One Response

  1. Robbie

    Thank you for this article. I think churches need to be able to address science and faith. In any political movement, if one side is not able to sit and discuss their flaws then that movement is not fully in touch with reality. To me, the fact that churches do not discuss science and faith means 1. Like you said, they see no need to do so, or 2. Most likely, they are not equipped and just ignore the issue. Meanwhile faith becomes a room or takes a back-burner and we continue to not address the issues of our time (we are good at not addressing them). The more dialogue on this the better. Thanks.


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About The Author

Andrew Root, Ph.D., is the Carrie Olson Baalson Professor of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary. He is most recently the author of Christopraxis: A Practical Theology of the Cross (Fortress, 2014) and Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker (Baker, 2014). He is also the principal project leader for John Templeton Foundation Funded Science for Youth Ministry Project.

Erik Leafblad currently is completing his Ph.D. at Luther Seminary and is a professor of missional ministries at Bethel University. Prior to the academy, Erik worked as a youth pastor in the church and served in non-profit leadership with Youthfront in Kansas City.

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