“This brings me joy.”
Those were the words of a pastor who had connected me with one of his parishioners, a physicist who spends much of the year in Geneva working at CERN. The scientist, you see, had brought the pastor into the conversation between science and faith, and both of them found it to be deeply enriching.
Relationships between pastors and scientists are what motivates Science for the Church. The formation of these pairs, or small groups, is the single best practice we can recommend for engaging with science in our faith communities.
If you pay close attention to our newsletters over the past several weeks, you will see that we have outlined three domains where faith and science interact in our churches. They operate at the level of morals and values; Greg detailed how this is often the domain where conflict is found. They also operate at the level of ideas and knowledge. We can’t navigate this space without some basic information and a willingness to learn more about both science and our faith. Last week, I suggested the value of science applied to the praxis of ministry—the ways it can help us do the work of the church better.
Today, I want to consider a fourth and final domain. Science for the Church operates in all four domains, but to co-opt a familiar Biblical phrase, the greatest of these is relationships.
We know that God chooses relationships as a central way to know and be known by creation. And we know that we are created in God’s image. In fact, the capacity to be in relationship with both God and one another is one of the most common ways to understand our image bearing. As you might suspect, there is much scientific evidence for the centrality of relationships—the way humans cooperate, the way our minds are wired to imitate, empathize, and to theorize other minds, and the ways we flourish best when in healthy community and can suffer when alone.
It is not a surprise, then, that most ministry is relational. Relationship is how many of us experience God. After all, God’s very essence is love, and love is relational. When church is doing its very best, we worship together, learn in community, and love one another and the world around us. The biblical word is koinonia—a theme central to every church I have known.
It figures, then, that relationships between ministry leaders and science professionals are a powerful way to engage faith and science. That fellowship often already exists—it is just a matter of acknowledging it and intentionally leveraging it. And then what happens?
Over the past decade, through programs like Scientists in Congregations and the STEAM project, we have supported over 60 pastor and scientist teams, who have led creative programming and ministry for their faith communities.
Some benefits we’ve seen for pastors:
- A deeper appreciation of science and the life of scientists.
- New ways of framing biblical and theological truths that leverage aspects of science and in doing so engage different members of their flock.
- Less fear about getting it wrong when they do address science.
- Surprise in the enthusiasm they and their congregations have in addressing science.
- New tools for engaging big questions and for encouraging spiritual growth by asking them.
Some benefits we’ve seen among scientists:
- An increased sense of vocation.
- More acceptance of them as scientists within their community of faith.
- Boldness in engaging the topic of faith with their fellow scientists.
- Increases in leadership and activity within the church, several even started to preach.
More effective ministry happens when pastor and scientist collaborate than when they work alone. The scientists feel validated and empowered as ministers of the Gospel and the pastors have new colleagues, ones that help them take on topics and issues and even persons they might otherwise avoid.
- This Nobel-winning physicist passes out hymnals and tidies up her church’s washrooms.
- Andy Crouch tells us what he wishes his pastor know about the life of a scientist.
- A number of scientists share their work with the church.
- A resource to help us think about Christian faith among specific scientific disciplines.
- A pastor who helped lead Scientists in Congregations welcomed the scientists in his church.
- Another pastor reflects on his partnership with a chemical engineer and other scientists.
- Amazing scientists like these women are in our churches.
- Some Oxford, England churches hired “science missioner,” a pastor to focus on reaching scientists.
Faith and Scientists
Let me get concrete here. That pastor I mentioned in my opening paragraph had the chance to visit CERN last summer. While talking with the scientist leading his tour, he shared that he was a minister. The guide asked with a thick German accent, “What do you think, faith or science?”
For many clergy, that is not an easy question for it suggests conflict. An inability to respond and to respond well is a lost opportunity to influence one member of a group – professional scientists – that happen be among the least religious. But because this pastor had spent time in relationship with scientists and knew that the conflict thesis was problematic, he adeptly shot back, “Well, if you want to talk about faith AND science, then we can have an interesting conversation.” And so began a conversation.
If you can’t tell, hearing stories like these—from pastors and scientists—brings me great joy. It confirms the benefits of this work for both participants and in doing so strengthens the church. It is why we believe so strongly in doing faith and science relationally.
Whether you are a church leader or a scientist, reach out to one another. Take the other out for coffee or lunch. Build koinonia. Experience for yourself the benefits we have seen and discover new ones. This is the best way we have found that in engaging science—through relationships with those that practice it—we actually strengthen the church.