Science and Public Witness: A Ministry Profile of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church

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Do you remember the story about the pastor visiting CERN? I told it awhile back, and it’s a good place to start when thinking about science and Christian witness:

While talking with the scientist leading his tour, he shared that he was a pastor. 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.”

There are two interesting points of connection here. First, the physics version of The Standard Model was confirmed at CERN in 2012 with the discovery of the Higgs boson. Second, that pastor, Rev. Will Rose of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Chapel Hill, NC, was a product of what we are calling The Standard Model.

Last week, we introduced Rev. Rose and one of the scientists, Dr. Whitney Robinson, who worships at Holy Trinity. They feature in the first of our Standard Model video conversations. But Dr. Robinson is not alone. Due to the church’s proximity to UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke, and the many tech industries in the Research Triangle, regular congregants at Holy Trinity include a physicist who summers at CERN, two research biologists, an astronomy grad student, and countless others.

Rev. Rose and the campus pastor at Holy Trinity have invested heavily in relationships with all of these amazing science professionals, active and in training, and those intentional interactions enabled Rev. Rose to correct the faulty conjunction used by his CERN tour guide.

And he was not the only one prepared for public witness by The Standard Model.

Departmental Politics

Science departments at major universities are commonly perceived as hostile to Christians. That was the experience of one Holy Trinity research scientist – let’s call her Emily – while she was in the midst of the tenure process. In a departmental communication, a senior colleague lamented resistance to science coming from some corners of the church and expressed bewilderment at how any reasonable person could be a Christian.

Often faculty, and especially pre-tenure faculty, remain silent about their religious beliefs in response to such an email. But that is not what Emily did; she replied telling all her colleagues: “I’m a Christian. I attend Holy Trinity Lutheran Church.”

Emily’s witness changed the tone of conversations about religion among her fellow faculty. And while this story could have ended differently, she was still granted tenure. Years engaging with Rev. Rose and others in The Standard Model emboldened her to give witness to Christ, the Logos, and in doing so to unravel any stereotypes her colleagues might have about the presence of thoughtful folk in the church.


  • Holy Trinity’s use of The Standard Model was kickstarted by a STEAM grant—Science and Theology for Emerging Adult Ministries—and focused primarily on its campus ministry.
  • We’ve released two more videos from Dr. Robinson’s conversation with Rev. Rose in which Rev. Rose talks about the value of tension and Dr. Robinson describes how Holy Trinity continues to support her.
  • We all have perceptions of how scientists view Christian faith (and vice versa). How true are they? Sociologists like Elaine Howard Ecklund have done the research and produced helpful resources, like Religion vs. Science (what religious Americans think about science) and Science vs. Religion (what elite university scientists think about religion).
  • Here is the website initiated with Holy Trinity’s STEAM project.
  • Rev. Rose is on the board of the ELCA’s LuthSciTech, which has produced a number of excellent resources on faith and science.

Some Ingredients for Science and Public Witness

What was it in Holy Trinity’s use of The Standard Model that prepared Emily and Rev. Rose to witness to the light of Christ in places known most for scientific achievement?

I see at least three things:

  1. They care for their scientists. You can hear about an emphasis on Sabbath and on the life of the mind in the conversation between Dr. Robinson and Rev. Rose. Scientists, like all of us, need sanctuary to rest as beloved children of God but many also want a safe space to ask questions about our faith and how it intersects with their science. This is the environment fostered at Holy Trinity and cultivated through The Standard Model. If Emily’s bold reply had backfired, she knew Holy Trinity would be there to support her.
  2. They are eager to learn. Asking questions is a central part of ministry at Holy Trinity. Both Rev. Rose and Emily were able not only to offer quick transformative replies that witness to Christ, but both were also equipped to defend their claims about the compatibility between faith and science because they had already done their homework, side-by-side.
  3. They cultivate a sense of science as vocation: When science is never foregrounded in church, it makes it hard for science professionals to see how they are called to do ministry as scientists. What is unique to The Standard Model is it allows scientists to delve deeper into unique points of tension that they experience between their work and their faith. They learn to clarify misperceptions that suggest conflict and give witness to how they reconcile the two. Over time, they can then equip a teen to see astronomy as a Christian vocation or help the tenured evolutionary biologist figure out how to speak about her faith with her students. Holy Trinity’s deliberate and sustained efforts to care for scientists and learn with them side-by-side has created a deep sense of Christian vocation.

Many in the church lament its decline and worry that faith no longer plays a major role in the public square. While The Standard Model—as we see in the good and faithful work of Holy Trinity—may not be sufficient to undo the church’s decreased influence in our culture, we believe it is a necessary part of the solution. We need more pastors and science professionals communicating the reasonableness of faith and its compatibility with science. Those are things we are confident The Standard Model can deliver.

Cheers,

Drew

 

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