[The Fuller Youth Institute has been on the leading of edge of youth ministry for at least a decade. Executive Director Kara Powell and Research Director Tyler Greenway are this week’s guest authors. Let’s lean in and learn from them. – Drew]
Whether or not they want to, most middle school and high school students take a science class every year. While that class period might be their deepest daily dive into classic fields such as biology, chemistry, and physics, there are few areas of a young person’s life that aren’t somehow touched by science.
The phones they can’t be without.
The food they enjoy.
The products they use—over and over again—for face and hair care.
And now during this pandemic, the nearest fifteen-year-old has not only familiarity but actual opinions about “flattening the curve,” the efficacy of face masks and germ prevention, and the best form of antibacterial hand sanitizer.
Don’t believe the myth that science is that 53-minute window of time between their English and History classes. Perhaps now more than ever, science is a part of young people’s lives.
Which leaves every adult—and church—who cares about young people with a choice: Are we going to be a safe place for young people to ask about and engage with science? Or must they look elsewhere?
When church becomes the one place that’s either silent or hostile about science, young people learn the implicit lesson that it’s not just the church that can’t handle their tough questions. God can’t either.
The way we interact with science provides young people with a template for how God views science. So we have an opportunity. In our engagement with science, will we lean in and lead or lose out and be led?
Identity, Belonging, and Purpose
We love to think about young people’s tough questions at the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI). Our research and resources at FYI focus on three of the biggest questions young people are asking: Who am I? (Identity), Where do I belong? (Belonging), and What difference do I make? (Purpose).
Every day young people are exploring their identity, belonging, and purpose—trying on different hats, testing out different groups, exploring an array of diverging future paths.
Thanks to social science, we have a deeper understanding of these three big questions and the variety of experiences and inputs that help all of us—including teenagers—answer them. We know identity exploration is important in adolescence, belonging requires trust and reciprocity, and purpose increases when goals are meaningful. As you journey with young people asking these three big questions, we encourage you to learn from scientists who study identity (Marcia), belonging (Baumeister), and purpose (Bronk). Consider how their work sheds light on young people’s faith development in general as well as the specific young people nearest you.
We also know from our research and experience with young people that faith, church, and religion are driving forces in our quest for identity, belonging, and purpose. Our faith shapes how we think about who we are, the love we receive from God and the church informs our sense of belonging, and the hope we have in Christ expands our purpose.
That same research and experience also tells us that science—and the church’s engagement with science—shape young people’s identity, belonging, and purpose. Young people’s tough questions about science and their tough questions about identity, belonging, and purpose are bound together. The church’s response to science might tell a young person that faith and science are compatible or incompatible, that scientists belong or don’t belong in the church, and that science is a worthwhile or worthless purpose and vocation.
Those responses raise questions: Will young people find the way we engage science roomy enough to journey with them as they search for identity, belonging, and purpose? Or will they reject our form of engagement, and perhaps our ministry as well?
- Kendall Cotton Bronk literally wrote the book on teens and purpose. She talks about it here.
- This scholarly article on empathy as a foundation for youth ministry details research we apply in our book, Growing With.
- Unsure how to begin addressing tough questions with young people? Try Can I Ask That? (Volume 1 and Volume 2).
- Check out this guide with 5 tips to integrate science into youth ministry.
- Brené Brown created a great video explaining empathy.
- Explore how empathy help parents better understand their kids and walk with them when they face disappointment.
- Christians in Science and BioLogos consider science as a vocation.
Implications for Ministry
As you think about engaging science with teenagers, here are some suggestions to get you started:
- Lead with empathy and listening. Ask them about their questions, doubts, and curiosities. Some leaders might hesitate to ask about doubts, but we believe that it’s not doubts about science that are toxic to young people’s faith; it’s silence.
- When young people ask tough questions about science, consider both the content of your answers and your approach to those answers. How are you modeling engagement with science?
- Teach young people how to conduct their own research and explore answers to tough questions. Keep a library that includes helpful resources.
- Involve parents. Ask them about how they approach these issues and any concerns they may have. Point them towards helpful resources as well.
- Highlight how science enables us to serve our neighbors and be stewards of creation.
- As Drew mentioned last week, engage scientists in your congregation. Many of them may wonder if their vocation is at odds with the beliefs of others in their church. Encourage them to present their work and discuss their sense of purpose with your young people.
- Lastly, be comfortable with not knowing all the answers. No one expects (or should expect) you to have every answer to every question. Recognize what you do and don’t know, and involve young people as you learn more.
Both from what we say and what we do, young people are learning from us as we engage with science. Let’s model what it means to lean in and learn together, rather than what it means to lose out and risk students leaving both us and their faith behind.
Kara and Tyler, Fuller Youth Institute