May 5 is a big Sunday in the Rick-Miller household. My eldest, Ruth, will be confirmed with six other youth. They have spent the year learning about the Christian faith, Scripture, and our church, and through the wise leadership of many adults, they have formed statements of faith. On May 5, they will join the church, much the same as past generations.
Ruth, like several others in her confirmation class, can be skeptical about certain aspects of faith. She loves science and math, and struggles to believe in anything that does not take science seriously. I have led a few science-and-faith youth group sessions, and among her teachers there is a mathematician, an engineer, and a computer scientist.
We have given our youth space to ask their questions and even voice their doubts. If you follow the research on young persons and faith, that space is important. And that includes helping them engage science and faith. There are good reasons to believe the church’s failure to address such questions is one cause for the continued rising number of religious “nones.”
Preventing Future “Nones”
This is a rich area of research that has being going on for over a decade now. It gained widespread attention with the National Youth and Religion study and continues in various places. Barna, the Fuller Youth Institute, and many others are key contributors. What kind of picture are they painting?
We can’t cover everything, but here are a few takeaways:
Parents matter. If we don’t model Christian belief, it is much less likely our kids will be believers in adulthood.
Adults matter. It is important for youth to see the faith of adults exhibited in a genuine way.
Integrity matters. If adults live hypocritically, youth see right through it—and it can drive them away.
Church keys matter. We must trust our kids with the keys to the church: let them lead, let them learn, and let them see under the hood. We don’t want to set them up for failure or embarrassment, but we must let them learn to lead.
Doubt matters. We all have doubt and questions and we must create space for kids to express theirs. New research suggests silence in response to their questions is much worse than communicating our own doubt or uncertainty.
Science and faith matter. Research suggests a failure to give youth a credible account of science and faith correlates with a loss of faith as they grow into adulthood.
The links below go much deeper into these topics. For those wanting longer treatments of the relevant research, you might consider the publications that resulted from National Youth and Religion survey, David Kinnaman’s You Lost Me, Kenda Creasy Dean’s Almost Christian, Kara Powell’s Growing Young and/or Growing With, and Jonathan Hill’s Emerging Adulthood and Faith.
- Here is a summary of findings from the National Study of Youth and Religion.
- A brief summary of Barna’s research that led to You Lost Me.
- On the links between healthy churches and youth involvement.
- The latest work from Kara Powell on silence and doubt.
- Science is a reason many leave the faith, and especially the Catholic Church.
- Andy Root’s book on science and youth ministry includes video guides.
- Try this FREE curriculum from Science for Youth Ministry.
- Two Northwestern College professors have a new book coming out in May.
- Princeton’s Institute for Youth Ministry produced a blog series.
- Fuller Youth Institute’s blog offers guidance on how to engage science in youth ministry.
A Confirmation of What Works
If our church had not been intentional about engaging the questions and doubts of our youth—including on science and faith—there’s a very real chance we’d be confirming a few less students next month. The research suggests that even if they were confirmed now, they would leave the church in young adulthood. And despite our prayers and careful intent, they might still leave.
In addition to some of the ministry resources noted so far, let me add a few take-home points for engaging science in youth ministry:
Don’t dismiss any question. Take them all seriously even if you don’t know the answer. Reach out to us (the reply button works), or the Science for Youth Ministry group if you need help.
Unpack the conflict myth. At least some of the tension youth feel is as much perception as it is anything else.
Give them examples. They need to know about brilliant, accomplished, and faithful scientists, like Francis Collins and Jennifer Wiseman. Or introduce them to scientists in your church.
I have said it before and I will say it again: the future of the church and all these bright, talented youth and young adults remain my primary motivation for engaging science for the life of the church. I am convinced that this is crucial for the future of the Christian church in America. The situation is not getting any better, so please join me in this effort to encourage our youth and, in doing so, may we confirm both our faith and science.