Psychology for the Church: Q&A with Erin Smith

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I’m excited to introduce you to Erin Smith this week and then to her research on children’s ministry next week. Smith is the Fletcher Jones Foundation Endowed Professor of Research in psychology at California Baptist University. We met as advisors for the Science for Seminaries project—a program she calls “a really beautiful experience”—and I became aware of her work understanding faith and science and using psychology to strengthen the church.

Let’s start with a bit about your background. What led you to psychology and the research you are doing today?

I wanted to be a judge; I wanted to be the one making the rules. As an undergrad, that dream of pursuing law left me, and I had no idea what I wanted to do. When I took my first psych class, it was fascinating, and it offered some really interesting answers to my questions. Before I graduated, I had a faculty member pull me aside and ask if I’d thought about grad school in psychology. I respected him enough that I started thinking about it.

I decided early on I wanted to pursue developmental psychology. I started at UC Riverside studying media and how children learn from different forms of media, but I was really interested in fantasy and reality. I worked with a professor who had a research program probing religious cognition. They were asking fascinating questions around how we know and how we come to decide what is real. The implications in their research for both religion and science were really important and, in pursuing those questions, I found others that interested me. How do we as people of faith reconcile the scientific story? How do we think about these as complementary ways of understanding what is real and what is true in this world?

Tell us about your faith your journey.

I’m blessed that I grew up in a family where faith was not just a once or twice a year thing, but we were actively involved in our local church. We used to joke that my dad, who was a deacon and an elder, was Mr. Committee. He sacrificed to be active and present in my life and my sister’s life but also in the life of the church.

We didn’t attend a huge church, but when he passed away about 10 years ago, there were over 1000 people from the local community at his service. He lived faith, and that’s the kind of model that I grew up with.

When I started asking questions around science and Christian faith—my dad wasn’t a scientist—but he would say, “Well, what do you think? What kinds of evidence can you bring to start to answer that question? If you’re going to come to me with a question you can’t come with an empty head. You need to think about these things so that way we can have a productive conversation.” And he did this in a great spirit of humility and laughter. He modeled how to enter these harder conversations. It’s OK that we don’t have the answers yet. What we can do is chip away at the questions.

You’ve been at Cal Baptist a decade now. How well is the church preparing your students to study science?

My students study psychology because they have a deep heart for people, and they really want to alleviate suffering and promote human flourishing.

My courses are research heavy and so I ask them, if you want to help people, why should you understand human cognition or memory? It’s fun to broaden the scope of what psychology is. If we want to help people, we need a robust understanding of what a human person is and the way they function.

I’ve had students say, “I didn’t realize that psychology was so science-y.” But psychology, when done well, has its roots in empirical questions. How do we best take what we know and leverage it for the benefit of others?

  • Dr. Smith unpacks the R-word for her students and colleagues at Cal Baptist.
  • Look at some of the research themes and questions that motivate Dr. Smith.
  • Learn more about Science for Seminaries here.
  • Gratitude is one antidote to relieve anxiety according to Dr. Smith.
  • FiveThirtyEight details the exodus of young people from our churches.
  • Check out other psychology-related links for churches on our resource page.

Next week, we will get into your investigations of children’s ministry, but let me ask you about the impact of children’s ministry on our kids when they go off to college. How is what we are doing in children’s ministry contributing (or not) to the exodus of young people from our churches?

That’s such a good, important, and complicated question. I’ve been thinking: what does it look like to have a church that isn’t trying to create a parallel universe to the real world? And what would it look like if the church was less about entertainment?

Let me explain how children’s ministry can create a parallel culture. Consider a party: you can go to this one here or one at the church, right? If it’s just a parallel universe, what happens when they leave home and go off to college? They will find parties of the sort we have been trying to keep them from. But now, well, they’re fun. It’s a place to find great people and do crazy things. The college party now fills the exact thing that church had been doing because using the “parallel party system” to learn to love Jesus failed.

We need to make sure that children’s ministry does not stay at the level of entertainment, enticing them to return because, wow, it’s fun and flashy. They should come because there is something different about this space, something sacred, something rare with an authenticity that our culture needs. We all want this authenticity, starting in childhood, and children’s ministry should be about creating places where we are real with each other in a context of loving relationships.

As adults, we are not always at church because we want to be. We are there for others. We show up faithfully to ask the Spirit to do something in us for the benefit of the body of Christ.

Church is not just about entertainment or filling these surface level needs and desires. It’s about something that my heart is crying for—belonging to an authentic community. Children’s ministry should be one of the first places where we start to sketch a pathway of what a life like that would look like.


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