“Youth pastors are given a lot of freedom, as long as the kids are coming.”
I heard a variant of this from a couple youth ministry leaders nearly a decade ago as I was considering a new funding initiative on youth ministry and science for the John Templeton Foundation, where I was employed at the time. That freedom led me to believe that programs engaging science within youth ministry could be quite effective. We could impact young people at a formative age before they faced that mythical college science class which cratered their Christian faith. It might even address two other challenges for the church: first, the number of young people disaffiliating from the church—the so-called “nones” or “dones”—and, second, the disproportionately low number of Christians in the sciences.
With funding for a planning grant approved, project leader Andy Root assembled a team at Luther Seminary and started his research. In his initial work, Root found that in addition to that freedom there was also some resistance, as evidenced by the following snippet from an interview with a youth-worker:
“I just wonder if other youth workers that I have interactions with even wonder if it’s safe to have conversations on evolution in their churches because there is a plethora of views on that. And, you know, you can literally get fired if you say something wrong in some contexts. So I think there is fear about having those conversations.”
A Heart for Youth
I found myself pulled to this conversation. You see, I know that youth are the future of the church I so dearly love. I also have this passion for faith and science, and I understand a quarter or more of the youth in our churches will likely study science and/or enter a science or technology-related profession.
Moreover, the evidence I saw showed that most of our churches were not doing a very good job of helping their teens see science as a way to know God more deeply and even as a source of worship. Nor were our congregations helping them to understand STEM professions as legitimate Christian callings. This did not bode well for the future of the church.
For all of these reasons, Science for the Church is particularly concerned with how the church engages science in our ministry to youth as well as college students and young adults.
The trends I was tracing a decade ago have not really changed—emerging adults continue to check the “none of the above” box at high rates on surveys about their religious affiliation. And as a whole, our churches are not doing a very good job engaging science in ministries for teens.
Given the scope of the need and our passion, this week kicks off a series on youth ministry and science. For the next four weeks, you will hear from experts we have invited to lead the discussion: leaders in youth ministry, a sociologist who studies youth and religion, and a wise and faithful emerging adult who demonstrates one of many reasons for us to have hope for the future. By no means will this series be comprehensive, but I pray it will give you the motivation and some initial resources to begin to engage science with the teens in your church.
- Here is that Youth Ministry and Science white paper I reference below.
- From Pew, science is indicated as one explanation as to why so many Americans are leaving church behind.
- Andy Root and colleagues produced a video curriculum, several books, and other resources you can use.
- If you don’t know about the concept Sticky Faith, here is a good place to start.
Science and Sticky Faith
Before closing, I want to tie this series to two of the core commitments of Science for the Church.
First, I hope we sound like a broken record telling you again and again to leverage scientists and STEM professionals that are already in your church as essential partners. Youth ministry is no exception. Youth need to know that Christ-followers pursue science at all levels. They need to personally know faithful exemplars that dispel the cultural narratives suggesting you must choose faith or science. Fortunately, nearly every church has scientists like this and they simply need to be recognized as partners.
I have teamed up with a science educator for several programs with the youth in our church. She develops amazing hands-on activities that complement my efforts to help our students think through their doubts and questions about God, faith, and science. Oh, and I also tell them about the likes of Francis Collins, and Donna Strickland, as well as the dozen or so scientists and STEM professionals in our congregation, many of whom they know personally.
Those of you in youth ministry will know this as one of the best practices from Sticky Faith: intergenerational connections in the church foster resilient Christian faith in our youth. So why wouldn’t we partner with the scientists among us?
The second link to our core commitments is spiritual growth. We believe you can grow closer to God by engaging science. Too many fear that such an engagement starts one down a slippery slope to unbelief. But in our work, including those programs I helped develop on youth ministry and science, what we saw again and again was evidence of spiritual growth. We saw youth prepared to engage whatever they faced in their college science courses, although as you will see later in this series, the seeds of doubts likely predate college. Nonetheless, when they engaged science early, youth demonstrated a deeper, more resilient faith—a faith they could lean on as they matured and moved on from our congregations. Isn’t that exactly what we want for them?
Let me close with an eye-opener from the white paper Root and his colleagues produced with their planning grant:
“Teenagers don’t feel threatened by science; instead they desire to learn about the relationship of science and faith, and they want to do that at church. The fact that their youth ministers spend so little time on this topic in their ministries cries out for action.”
Read that again. We pray this series on youth ministry and science will open eyes and prompt action.