Can you imagine judging a science fair at your church? Or hosting a hands-on science demonstration in your fellowship hall?
How about staying up late on a church retreat to study the stars with an astronomer? Or doing a pilgrimage to learn about the local ecosystem and how best to care for it?
Imagine learning about hydrology or physiology or supernovas during Sunday worship? Or having a worship service in a science museum?
These are all activities churches have done. Science is not just a domain of knowledge that churches occasionally put into conversation with Scripture and theology. You can literally bring science to church.
That is to say Science for the Church is multifaceted. It is about the knowledge and ideas we discussed last week. It is also about the morals and values that Greg considered a week earlier. This week we will consider a third aspect of our work. Science can inform the praxis of ministry, especially when we invite scientists to become partners in ministry.
Science and Ministry Praxis
Most of the examples above were from churches and campus ministries that participated in the Scientist in Congregations and STEAM projects, both precursors to Science for the Church. We saw incredible creativity when scientists worked with church leaders to create programming that engaged both congregants and individuals in their local communities. And it was good ministry. I’m sure those kids who participated in a science fair in their church’s fellowship hall will not be easily convinced that science and faith are at odds.
In fact, when it comes to the practice of science-engaged ministry, I would suggest that there are at least two angles of approach: (1) the educational and pastoral ministry that we do within our communities of faith and (2) the mission work we do for the wider world. Both of these areas are wide-ranging, so let me give you just a taste of what this might look like.
For educational and pastoral ministry, science can:
- Help us understand the stages of development and learning processes to ensure our children’s, youth, college, young adult, adult, and older adult ministries are effective.
- Inform us about empirically-tested methods of cuiltivating spiritual practices like prayer and forgiveness as well as virtues like gratitude and hope.
- Support us, especially pastors and pastoral care-givers, as the church is regularly on the front lines caring for the depressed, addicted, anxious, and overwhelmed. Science professionals are particularly valuable when we minister to those with the most severe conditions.
- Assist us in thinking about how to counsel folks in the use of various technologies, such as genetic screening or engineered foods.
- Equip us to understand the demographics we are serving and trends in our culture, like the rise of the “nones” or the impact of smart phones on us.
For mission work, science and technology can:
- Improve our efforts to provide clean water, healthier food, medical care, education, clothing, and shelter.
- Help us to understand natural disasters, the impact trauma has on individuals, and the interaction between physical, emotional, and mental well-being.
- Deeper our understanding of those we serve. This might include anthropologists helping us to learn about different cultures, sociologists providing data and trends, or psychologists studing specific, underserved populations.
In each of these examples, science can improve the very practice of ministry. This is another reason we believe engaging science can actually strengthen the church.
- There were some truly creative projects by these ELCA congregations.
- Evangelicals are more science-friendly than is commonly assumed and they care deeply about God’s ability to act and the sacredness of humans.
- We think John van Sloten pioneered the idea of reading from the book of nature as a second text for preaching.
- Two psychologists have written a handbook for churches on responding to disasters.
- Psychologist Everett Worthington has written a free guide on teaching and preaching forgiveness.
- Here’s another free resource, this one from the ELCA on a range of issues arising from genetics.
Too often, I think church folks avoid science because it is perceived as complicated, contentious, or irrelevant. I regularly hear ministry leaders say they avoid certain topics because their community is divided. When your church board has a young-earth creationist, an ID advocate, and an evolutionary creationist, such caution is understandable.
However, we know from sociologists Elaine Howard Ecklund and Christopher Scheitle that most American Christians support science. It is true that not all of them would define science the same way, but they generally like it. When there is resistance, it tends to be when science challenges the sacredness of humans or the ability of God to act in nature, which, as Greg noted previously, hits our deepest values and ethical convictions. But nearly all of the science mentioned in the examples above is of the sort that would generally be supported by American Christians.
In other words, even if your church is not ready to take on the issues that can so easily divide us, that does not mean you can’t engage science in other ways. Consider looking at the stars on your next retreat, or invite an anthropologist or sociologist to help you understand the people you will serve on your next mission trip, or partner with medical professionals to better welcome autistic teens in your youth ministry. This is precisely how science can be for the church.
But don’t stop there. Make sure your congregation and your community see you engaging science. Make sure the scientists in your midst see it. Because all of these practices can build needed bridges and in doing so, give witness to a church that is pro-science and is welcoming to scientists, even as partners, in the ministry of the church.