Youth Ministry Part 4: Science-Informed Theologians

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(The last few weeks of your youth ministry series have highlighted the lack of engagement with science in youth ministry. This week we feature an innovative ministry that is doing amazing work with teens. The Gustavus Academy for Faith, Science, and Ethics is led by Siri Erickson, our guest author this week. Let us learn from the good work of the Gustavus Academy – Drew.)

I certainly one-hundred percent believe that there is an absolute intersection there, and that science is something that God would be proud of…I feel very confident that we can be believers, we can be Christians, we can be spiritual, while also loving and appreciating the sciences.

– Alex, 2019 Gustavus Academy participant –

All Christians, including high school students, are capable of being and becoming science-informed theologians through reflecting on their experiences with God in their own lives and engaging in conversation with scripture, reason, and the people and traditions within their faith communities. This is a fundamental belief and guiding principle at the Gustavus Academy for Faith, Science, and Ethics, a summer program in Minnesota for curious high school students from around the country who interested in exploring the intersections between Christian faith, vocation, science, and ethics. Encouraging high school students to become science-informed theologians is at the heart of what we do there through worship, lectures, small group discussions, labs, and lots of fun.

Thinking theologically at the intersection with science has been personally meaningful to me. In my own experience, doing theology in this way has expanded my imagination about who God is and how God acts in and through the world. It has strengthened and sharpened my ability to think clearly about my faith and has given me a worldview that helps me make sense of the world around me and brings together what I know about science, Christian faith, and a number of other fields of study. It is, in part, this personal experience that motivates me to help our students (and adults!) become science-informed theologians.

Andrew Root also makes the case for engaging high school students as theologians in their own right. Based on interviews with dozens of high school students, Root concluded that, at a very fundamental level, “young people wonder if there is a way to think about a God who moves and acts in the world, and yet still be a smart, normal person” (from Root’s, Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies).

In other words, high school students’ most basic theological questions arise in a social and developmental matrix of wanting to grow up, become more mature, and be socially accepted in their peer groups and communities. Often, they are generating theological questions and wondering about the nature of God’s action in the world; less often do they have anyone to talk with about their questions and beliefs. This creates a situation where their ability to develop and deepen their theological imaginations does not keep pace with their intellectual curiosity, growing knowledge about the world, and identity development. Becoming theologians who stay engaged in their faith communities as they mature requires exposure to a more sophisticated set of theological questions, texts, and conversation partners while they are in high school.

  • Andrew Root’s Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies is an excellent place to start thinking about youth ministry in an age of science.
  • Here is a video curriculum and other resources Root developed.
  • Princeton Theological Seminary’s Institute for Youth Ministry did a series of blogs on engaging science
  • Here is a video when Science for Youth Ministry was featured in the 2015 National Youth Workers Convention Big Room.

The Need and A Hopeful Example

I believe that with this lack of theology and science in my life, there is a part of me that is missing. It is a feeling that I can only talk about my faith when I am at church and science when I am at school. If I try to mix the two, I feel as though I will be judged for it.

– Callie, 2019 Gustavus Academy participant –

One thing is clear. High school students, at least the ones that self-select into a program like ours, are eager for environments where they are encouraged to wonder out loud about God, to engage their theological imaginations, and to discover a way to be both smart and faithful. For this to occur, students need clear and early signals that the space they are in and the people they are with are truly welcoming and open-minded. Many of the participants of the Gustavus Academy have noted that we create a welcoming, supporting, and open environment, and that this makes us unique in their life experience thus far.

One student described it this way: “I feel like I can actually talk without feeling judged or pressured to say, or keep what I really want to say inside, and I make up some fake answer to keep them happy. And it’s just been really nice knowing that I don’t have to make everybody happy with what I have to say.”

And another student said: “We discuss like lots of stuff about God, and I think that that’s when it’s really important that there isn’t someone telling you, or even if, they’re not directly telling you what to believe. In my own life, I’ve like ended up believing a lot of stuff because it’s about what’s been passed on to me, and that is how we learn and how we search through our beliefs. But at a certain point, you develop to an extent where you need to be able to know what your own beliefs are, and it gets a lot more complicated when it’s difficult to separate what you’re being told and what you actually believe.”

What our students realized through their experience at the Gustavus Academy is that becoming theologians requires time for them to wonder out loud, to sit with uncertainty, and to state their questions in their own words and on their own terms.

The kind of learning environment that we cultivate introduces students to big ideas and theological concepts, new interpretations, cutting-edge science, and ethical decision-making in such a way that sparks their imagination and enthusiasm to embrace their questions, to reflect on different ways to articulate core Christian beliefs, and to live out their faith with intention and purpose in their communities.

The process of becoming theologians for these students does not stop when the Academy summer intensive ends; it continues on as they return home to their families and faith communities. But they need faith communities willing to commit long term to nurturing science-informed theologians so that they might continue seeking harmonies of truth for the sake of acting justly and compassionately in the world.

What the Gustavus Academy provides them—opportunities to bring together their love of science and their faith in an intellectually engaging community with non-judgmental peers—could be replicated in churches without a lot of expense. What is lacking, at times, is not funds but rather a willingness to let go of control and invite the voices of our high school students even as we are nurturing them.

At Gustavus Academy, we trust high school students’ ability to be theologians, especially science-informed theologians. Our experience gives me the confidence to say you should too.




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