“He develops the ideas and practices for transforming divisive issues into opportunities for discipleship.” That is the job description for Rob Barrett, the Chief Programming and Innovation Officer at The Colossian Forum. In this excerpt from a longer interview, he shares his thoughts on faith and science and how churches can lean into and benefit from engaging difficult, potentially polarizing issues.
Tell us about your background in faith and science.
[After a doctorate in Applied Physics] as I was getting into a career at IBM Research, I had a growing interest in humanities and theology. I’d been raised as a Christian but came to adult faith in college, which led to me doing a two-year Biblical studies program at my church. I focused on science by day and on Bible by night. These interests intersected as the social impact of internet technologies became ever clearer, and IBM began asking not what we could invent but what we should invent, a question I felt unready as a Christian to answer.
So that led to a second Ph.D. in Old Testament and some gigs teaching and researching after which you eventually landed in Grand Rapids, MI. Tell us about The Colossian Forum.
The Colossian Forum was born out of the experiences of Christian leaders seeing churches and even their own families being torn apart by polarizing conflicts. Our initial practice was focused on faith and science but has grown into lots of other areas (origins, politics, sexuality).
The starting point for our methodology is that we aren’t so much lacking solutions to our problems. It’s that we lack the necessary Christian formation to engage challenging problems in faithful ways. Our poor Christian formation leads to all sorts of problematic behaviors and outcomes—including division—as we face life’s challenges.
Our mission is to equip leaders to transform concerns, conflicts, and controversies into opportunities for spiritual growth in witness…. We see conflicts as places of insight and formation.
- Read the full interview with Rob Barrett here.
- The Fool and the Heretic, a book about the relationship between an evolutionary creationist and a young-earth creationist, was the outcome of early programs at The Colossian Forum.
- Read a deep dive of their work on politics and the church here (find the link in the pink bar mid-screen).
- Scientists also develop skills to resolve conflicts in their research groups.
- We can also apply relevant research to the work of conflict resolution.
- Check out samples of The Colossian Forum’s curricula on origins, sexuality, and politics.
- Interested in learning more? Consider their upcoming introductory webinar.
What is The Colossian Way?
This is the framework we use… We set three goals when engaging a deep conflict: (1) we gather in the name of Jesus; (2) we practice loving God and loving neighbor while engaging difficult problems; and (3) we witness the Body of Christ built up.
We gather because we know, deep in our bones, that we belong to each other as Christians. No matter how divided we are, we can’t quite write each other off. If Jesus can break down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile, then he can break down the wall between young-earth and evolutionary creationists!
The second element, practice, has three aspects. It’s a practice, like many other Christian disciplines, for learning to live as Christians and being formed more fully into the image of Christ. We practice because, while we’re never going to get it completely right, we’re going to pursue God’s glory—over and over. What we practice is this: holding together our love for God and neighbor—Jesus’s summary of the way of life for Christians—and the difficult conflicts we face. This sounds easy, but it’s hard to both love and engage at the same time. We’re tempted to love and ignore the problems. Or to dive into the problems and not love one another. Or we forget to keep God’s priorities front and center. It’s this practicing that shapes us.
Finally, if we’re following the ways of Jesus, we expect to witness the body of Christ built up. So, at the end of every small group and WayFinder session, we stop and ask, “What has happened here that testifies to the power of the Gospel and the truth of Christ?” We hope to witness spiritual fruit, even in the midst of conflict, which is very counter-intuitive.
What are some fruits of this work?
In one of our first faith/science forums… they didn’t resolve their disagreements over the age of the Earth to everyone’s satisfaction, not by a long way! But they did make progress…. For example, one participant had thought that the young-earth creationist couldn’t possibly be a competent scientist. After several days of working together as brothers in Christ, the skeptical scientist publicly testified that the young-earth creationist was no fool and actually knew the science very well.
The opposite also happened. The young-earth creationist had questioned whether the evolutionary creationist was really a Christian. But through participating in this intentional process, he became convinced that he is his brother in Christ. Again, Christ’s body built up.
This isn’t necessarily the progress you might have been looking for in resolving the truth about evolution, but it was important progress in living faithfully before God.
What are some challenges?
One surprising challenge comes from people in conflict starting to love each other. They begin to value their relationship so much that they withdraw from saying the hard things. It feels so risky to speak plainly about the harm they believe the other side is doing to the church. Those things can be hard to say and hard to hear, but it’s a huge step forward in pursuing truth in love together. It might feel like a violation of Christian charity, but that sort of transparency is crucial.
What is one practical bit of advice you would give church leaders trying to navigate divisive cultural issues?
There’s one practice that we find tremendously helpful when a conflict is heating up too fast and going too far. We call it “the love behind the fear.” Conflicts are often driven by unspoken fears. We’re afraid something we really care about, something valuable and vulnerable, is being damaged. That deep desire to protect that thing drives a lot of the heat of conflict.
First, when we express a fear, it naturally invites compassion from others, so it changes the tone from argument to one of listening to and caring about the other. It naturally promotes love, even for our enemies.
Second, it provides a lens into what the other’s argument is trying to protect, what the other loves. Often, to our surprise, we discover that both sides love the same things. In our faith/science discussions, it quickly becomes obvious that everybody values science as an important way of discerning reality. Nobody wants to throw science away. At the same time, all sides believe the Bible is the unique revelation of God. Nobody wants to disregard the Bible.
Once you get that out there, you’re like, “Gosh, that’s an awfully great starting point. We both respect the power of science, and we both want to preserve God’s Word, to listen to it and adhere to it and follow it.” That changes the conversation completely.
We thank Rob Barrett for sharing his experience and insight, and we hope it will transform the difficult conversations you have in your church.