“It’s really not about programs. Programs are important, and what you say is important, but [it’s about] the atmosphere and the culture that you build in your church.”
This emphasis on atmosphere and culture is part of what helped senior pastor emeritus Chris Dolson grow Blackhawk Church, an Evangelical Free Church of America congregation in Madison, Wisconsin, into a multi-site congregation that attracts upwards of 5,000 multiethnic attendees on a Sunday.
Dolson welcomes questions, doubt, and even pushback. Moreover, he loves science. He wants to hear about your job and “learn to like each other” over coffee and donuts. As Blackhawk’s executive pastor Craig Gartland states, “Chris embodies this commitment” both to science but also to welcoming people of all walks of life. The goal for Dolson, “We are going to love each other through differences.”
This is important to scientists. We have quoted Rick Lindroth, a University of Wisconsin–Madison ecologist, before. He has faced more hostility as a scientist in the context of a Christian church than he has as a Christian in the context of a scientific community. A church culture that is welcoming—and uniquely welcoming to scientists—is important to him. “We [scientists] don’t expect to be highlighted on the platform, but when you walk into a place, do you feel it is warm and embracing for who you are as a person… Do I feel like they get me?” That is what scientists like Lindroth seek in a church.
This has led to a deep friendship between Dolson and Lindroth—the inviting, curious pastor and the scientist seeking a church that appreciates an ecologist who loves Jesus and God’s amazing creation. They represent the ideal of our Standard Model, a relational approach to help churches engage science.
Their Main Event
Blackhawk Church was doing what Science for the Church wants to see other churches do more than a decade before Greg and I dreamed up this newsletter. Dolson and Lindroth’s relationship in the 90s led them to ask what programs might allow them to talk about science and faith for the church. It led to a day-long conference held every few years. The goal was to make this program available for every cohort of undergrads at nearby UW–Madison.
Each conference began with a small introduction—often Dolson telling his story—and was immediately followed by what they now call “the Bible talk.” This is where program leaders would lay the groundwork on how to think about the Bible and especially Genesis in relationship to science. Moreover, they would offer a range of views on science and creation “to let people know that Christ followers fall into different categories.” This talk was often presented by a scientist, and the goal was to accurately represent the spectrum of Christian views: young-earth creationism, old-earth creationism, Intelligent Design, theistic evolution, and atheistic evolution. Everyone—wherever they identified—was invited to stay in the conversation.
Scientists then delivered a variety of talks, most of which were from Blackhawk Church or Madison community members plus one from a national speaker. By listening to feedback, Gartland learned that while many folks came to learn what Scripture has to say about science, they found the real payoff was hearing scientists of deep Christian commitment—some working in areas of science often deemed as taboo for Christians—reflect on their work and their faith.
The conference invited believers and seekers of all ages. One of the most valuable activities in each iteration was the pizza lunch with the keynote speaker. Individuals like astronomer Jennifer Wiseman and astrophysicist and president of Biologos Deborah Haarsma would eat with the church’s middle and high school students, inviting their questions and addressing them one by one. Dolson noted, “We wanted [students] to know that their church is friendly toward science.”
“A guiding theme every time we’ve done the conference is to diminish the perspective that there is a conflict between science and faith,” Lindroth adds. “All truth is God’s truth… How can people of faith and a faith perspective influence the world of science, and what is it that science can do to build up and develop churches?”
Over the years, the event has strengthened Blackhawk. Dolson summarized: “We really saw this as one of the most effective things we’ve done as a church… [we were] helping people who kind of stayed away from Christianity to feel like, maybe now, I can now trust [Blackhawk].” Because the conference was honest about the science, maybe “what you say about the Bible, maybe now I can trust it.”
- View the full conversation between Dolson and Lindroth in our latest Standard Model video series where, among other things, they will tell you about Dolson’s internship in a Nobel laureate’s lab and Lindroth’s prowess at spotting bear poop.
- Creation care matters at Blackhawk Church. Watch Dolson explain why it should matter to all Christians and Lindroth describe how important it is for us to connect with creation.
- The Standard Model guide is finally here. Download it (English or Español) now and share it with your pastor (if you are a pastor, please share it with your peers).
- Watch Dolson’s recent sermon on Psalm 19. If you are in Madison, you can also check out a faith and science class Dolson is teaching this fall at Blackhawk.
- Here are videos from the 2011 and 2014 editions of their main event.
Love Through Differences
Like other evangelical churches, Blackhawk includes a diversity of views on hot-button culture war issues from politics to questions of origins. Through the conference, and in the pulpit, Blackhawk is careful not to present a dominant view everyone is expected to hold. Yet, the church still manages to include science across their various ministry activities. Scientists and scientific themes pop up in their student ministry, in extracurricular activities, and in the pulpit.
Led by Lindroth and Dolson, every summer a small group of men spend time fishing in the Canadian wilderness, what Dolson likes to call, “God’s office.” They learn about the forests and experience firsthand “the work of God’s fingers, the moon and the stars” (Ps. 8).
The nighttime sky is one of the places Dolson experiences the glory of God, so astronomy makes its way into his preaching. This engagement invites worship and wonder, not side-taking in the conflict around the age of the earth. More recently, themes like mental health have been addressed from the pulpit (and through their Care Team ministry).
Science also enters mentoring ministries, preaching, and Blackhawk’s programming on faith and work. Lindroth and his wife have led a young adults’ group, which often includes graduate students in the sciences “who are struggling with some of the same issues that [Lindroth] struggled with 30 years ago.”
Gartland notes that at least as long as Dolson has been there, the church has been cognizant not only of “where evangelical Christians are at but also where the rest of the Madison community is.” They’ve cultivated a church culture that cares about those in their midst and those in the town and the university they inhabit.
Blackhawk has plenty of programming—formal and informal—that engages science in their sanctuary and outside of it, but it is their culture that is special. They want to know you—as a scientist or any other professional. And, to repeat Dolson, they are “going to love each other through differences.”