Beyond GOFRS

When you hear our new name, Science for the Church, what do you think we are about?

Science for the Church just held its first event, co-sponsored with Upper House in Madison, Wisconsin. Greg and I were joined by about 50 pastors, scientists, and lay leaders and a stellar team of presenters including Darrel Falk, Nydiaris Hernandez-Santos, Lea Schweitz, and Jim Kirk. We introduced those in attendance to our vision for strengthening the church through engagement with science. We stressed the importance of relationships, especially between scientists and church leaders.

We also tried to expand participants’ horizons for what constitutes faith and science. Science for the Church covers vast terrain both in the domain of science and in the work and ministry of the church.

GOFRS

Yes, we held the event in Badger country but I want to talk about GOFRS (like Wisconsin’s rival to the north, it is pronounced gophers). I learned this acronym from a former colleague at the John Templeton Foundation. We used it to describe the type of topics most people associate with religion and science. It stands for Good Old Fashioned Religion and Science.

By this, we mean those topics in history, philosophy, and theology that look at the existing relationship between religion and science, seeking points of commonality as well as differences. It includes some myth-busting on the historical side; the setting of boundaries philosophically on the scope and limits of each domain; and theological frameworks for relating the two.

GOFRS also includes some of the most common topics that people understand to have bearing on both science and faith—origins (of the universe, life, and humankind), human uniqueness, and divine action. It includes trying to understand larger patterns in the natural world that might help us break ground on some of the great either/or dilemmas: is nature free or determined? Which is dominant, chance or purpose? What about nature and nurture? And with all the suffering in the natural world, how can we think about a good Creator?

All of this content is good and fascinating. It is what got me interested in faith and science in the first place. These are issues the church needs to wrestle with. In fact, I believe one way we can strengthen the church is by helping our members work through topics like these and having the wider culture see us doing so thoughtfully. Which is to say, honest engagement with difficult questions can be good for us individually and is a valuable public witness.

But GOFRS is not all there is to do in faith and science.



First Church

At our inaugural event, we told the story of First Church. They received one of the original Scientists in Congregations grants and tackled the perception of conflict between religion and science. This was a new topic to First Church—they had few scientists in their midst—but they felt the pressure of external voices telling them there was a conflict and they wanted to address it themselves.

First Church partnered with a local seminary and over two years worked through GOFRS. Those theologians helped them work through most of those perceived areas of conflict resulting in a congregation with an adequate Biblical and theological framework to integrate their faith with science. It was a great success—a church strengthened by engaging science.

Five years later, we returned to First Church to evaluate the lasting results of the grant. We learned that when the grant ended, the church ceased formal engagement with science. Without the conflict, the felt need was gone and they moved on to other issues.

This was a lost opportunity. First Church had overcome many of the greatest hurdles to productive faith and science work, but had not taken the extra step of making room for continued science engagement. Continued engagement would have not only have benefited the congregation but would also have equipped them to become a beacon in their urban community.

You see, GOFRS is all too often framed around conflict and fear rather than the building up of Christian disciples. It is often just material for debate, a foil to faith that it is regularly referenced both by atheists and by the religious ‘nones’ who use science to justify leaving the church. To restrict the conversation to GOFRS misses the enormous potential for expanding our horizons.

What do expanded horizons look like? Here are just a few examples:

  • A youth ministry team consults with sociologists and psychologists who help them understand the developmental stages and contemporary behaviors of the youth they serve.
  • A mission committee leverages scientists and engineers to improve their efforts to provide fresh food, or clean water, or shelter to the communities they serve.
  • A pastor regularly uses science analogies and illustrations to illuminate Scripture in her sermons. Another uses it to help his congregation understand human nature. In both instances, Scripture and theology come alive in new ways, especially for those trained in the sciences.
  • A discipleship committee seeks to cultivate Christian traits like love, hope, gratitude and forgiveness. They leverage work in psychology that studies these virtues and is identifying best practices for cultivating them.
  • A congregational care ministry looks at research on spirituality and health, and medical science more generally, to determine how best to care for their aging congregation.

The ministries who most benefited from Scientists in Congregations when we evaluated them five years later were doing things like the examples above. They still did some GOFRS, but they also leveraged science to inform and improve the practice of ministry.

You may not have this in mind when you hear our name, Science for the Church, but it is part of who we are. We must engage GOFRS but science can also help us do ministry and do it more effectively. That is if we expand beyond GOFRS.

Cheers,

Drew