Six Ways the Church Avoids Fantasyland

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One of the biggest downfalls in church leadership is the failure to listen. Specifically, as a pastor, I need to hear what people outside the church think of our Christian witness.

Besides serving a church, my primary gig is lecturing at Chico State. In the past two weeks, I’ve read over 100,000 words of college essays where students express their views on a variety of topics about religion.

These essays provide free and critical market research. I wish every pastor could read them because I continue to learn a great deal about how emerging adults (age 18-30) see the church. (Please note: I am either directly quoting those students who gave me permission to do so, or what you see is a faithful paraphrase even if it’s in quotation marks).

While we might be inclined to write off these young college students’ bold proclamations, when I hear my pastor friends using phrases like “the church is the hope of the world,” I’m honestly perplexed. It’s not the world these students inhabit. In fact, when I consider what my students are telling me, I must admit that too often I think the church prefers to enter fantasyland. That’s why it matters that we listen to these voices—even when it stings or we think their conclusions are overdrawn.

The bottom line: As church leaders, we need to listen to the world around us and to what those outside the church think about science and technology (which often seems more persuasive than our message). The percentage of people affiliating with the church is shrinking—in fact, by 12 percent points in the past decade or so—and this is especially true of emerging adults. Many are distanced from the church, and we need to listen in order to communicate more effectively.

From these student essays, I synthesized six takeaways. The first two are about the viability of Christianity today. The second set—after the links—relates more specifically to the church’s engagement with science.

Emerging adults often find that Christians aren’t very interesting and, if anything, annoying.
As one Christian high school alumnus wrote, “I’m sorry if I sound brash, but I have no positive experience with any religious groups. In fact, the Christians I’ve met are the most stuck-up judgmental human beings I know.”

This makes me wonder if those outside the church think we have much of anything that’s positive to bring to science and technology. Let’s at least be humble and not triumphalist.

Even church-going young adults think the church needs an update.
This comment took a “DIY” slant. “I do affiliate with a religion, but I’m fine choosing what works for me, which parts of this religious affiliation I accept or reject.”

Is the church’s unwillingness to engage science one reason even those inside need to pick and choose? As we’ve noted before, Barna offers some grounds for thinking this is true.

When talking about science and religion, words like “conflicting” or “controversial” come up a frequently in students’ essays, as if to say that the culture wars are always on their minds.
“I hear scientists all over arguing that ‘God is dead.’”

In this light, science seems to be one more part of the culture wars. Why would emerging adults want another conflict in their lives? Here’s why—because it’s important. And that means we must turn down the heat on this conversation and demonstrate instead why the dialogue of science and religion can be beneficial and even exciting.

For many emerging adults, evolution is a key scientific truth that the church repudiates.
“Explaining how humans evolved and science has validated that fact over and over again by research. That’s where the conflict between science and religion arises.”

At Science for the Church, we seek to take in mainstream science. I don’t think we can avoid addressing the widespread consensus about biological evolution. In Mere Science and Christian Faith, noted above, I offer how we can stay orthodox “mere Christians” and take in the contributions of mainstream science. Or why not just look at the resources on our website that do the same thing?

Sadly, people can be persuaded by weak, anti-church arguments if they want these ideas to be true.
I can affirm the same thing showed up in my recent batch of essays. When talking about a prominent atheist’s views, one student wrote (as I quoted in Mere Science): “He brought up many points that I question or have questioned myself, and for this I would say I look up to Dawkins.”

That demonstrates the limits of argument and why relationships and conversation are critical.

I’d like to leave on a highpoint—for those who seek to integrate science and Christian faith: Scientists like Francis Collins can still be quite persuasive.
One of my students commented that Collins “will reach more people” (than the atheist Richard Dawkins) because of his winsome attitude and “because he actually talks about science,” not simply castigating others’ views. Another, after watching a Veritas Forum lecture by Collins, talked about the subjects of science and Christianity: “Collins gave proof that it is possible to believe in both since he’s a scientist and a Christian.”

Sometimes it’s more about what we embody than how well we argue. Maybe that’s why scientists in our congregations can bring a winsome witness and be what leading sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund calls “boundary pioneers.”

James told us to be “quick to listen and slow to speak” (1:19). And I believe that when we listen, we engage more effectively. My prayer is that hearing these students’ voices, does just that.


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