Stop the Vacation on Vocation: Do Science Literacy at Your Church
By Heidi Ferris, Growing Green Hearts, LLC
How can we lift up church youth leadership and empower youth in using their stories, relationships, vocational call, science knowledge, and problem-solving processes together at church? Let’s start with one of the most defining gatherings of this century: The 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. In addition to the thousands of scientists, world leaders, religious leaders, citizens, organizations, and governments that gathered; hundreds of thousands more are now spending energy and resources on both technical and behavioral solutions. Climate change is a science issue and a moral issue. In meteorological terms, climate is defined as the pattern of weather over a long period of time while weather is the present state of the atmosphere determined by moisture, temperature, and pressure. The length of time used to define climate used to be 30 or more years and in the past decade has been slimmed down to 10 years (NOAA). Climate change is global and local.
As the story of global gathering COP21 in Paris is still unfolding, Christian youth in your community are developing their own narratives. News headlines, school curriculum, pop culture, experiences and relationships all play a part. Thankfully religion, science, relationships, experiences, and reflection help our brains make sense of it all. It is up to the church to include itself in these stories with science literacy as another way to reach, teach, and preach.
Science and technology. Behavior and human impact. Religion and ethics. Life could be described as a complicated tangle of interactions and relationships. These things are happening right now….let’s talk about it. Having faith and science conversations at church boosts science literacy and for many youth addresses their vocational call. Embracing today’s science and technology to create an openness for leadership by and for Christian youth to ethically address caring for God’s creation through advancements in: clean energy, cures for disease, natural resource management, environmental racism, water rights, interfaith communications, transportation, local food, food distribution, and more.
Ten years before the COP21 meeting in Paris, our church’s confirmation time was just coming to a close. One middle school boys from a suburb of Minneapolis were just getting started. When in 6th and 7th grade, they used to say they’d rather be playing basketball or video games, but by now they’d really gotten to know each other. Bible study and talking about high’s and lo’s had become deeper and more personal: talk of a challenging test, name-calling at school, tapping into feelings of insecurity, a fight on the bus, brushes with alcohol and – uncovered feelings of fear. One Wednesday night hit me particularly hard. One of the young men, 8th grade now, picked up the Bible and wanted to know where to find the cure for cancer. The image I replay in my mind is an easy-going, athletic 8th grader (we’ll call him Jeremy) standing above me and the rest of his circle of Wednesday-night friends raising his voice and shaking a Bible with simultaneous anger and love. You see, Jeremy’s grandmother had been diagnosed with cancer and he wanted, needed, more than a scripture verse and a hug. (Did I mention he was really mad?) Jeremy wanted to know what cancer was, the causes, and how to stop it. How can radiation both cause and cure the disease? Why didn’t God put science in the Bible? The group together asked questions about places where more faith was needed than science and vice versa. How can radiation both cause and cure the disease? Science literacy sat in the circle with us. As a group we decided that God gave us curious minds, skills, talents, questions, motivation, and spiritual foods like the Bible and prayer for the journey. More peacefully, we talked about vocation and how it moves people from talk to action- how we are called by God to make this world a more trust-worthy place.
Just as Jesus’ disciples pestered him to know more, explain more- we too are skeptical and curious. As a science teacher, my coursework and classroom experience all taught me that science literacy goes well beyond the ability to read scientific writing. It is the knowledge and understanding of the world around us, knowing how science works as a process leads to good decision-making. Science literacy is like a pair of glasses we look through when we shop for products and food, choose the most accurate source from a Google search, skeptically ask questions about new study, and listen carefully to a health care professional’s diagnosis. From human health and nutrition to technology, politics, and news reports- science literacy is a lens through which we can sort the quality information from the plain old jargon…and this sorting serves communities well. However, according to the National Science Foundation report1 , “The majority of the general public knows a little but not a lot about science. For example most Americans know that the earth travels around the sun and that light travels faster than sound. However, few know the definition of a molecule.” Both the Bible and science help us learn about the relationships around us.
That Wednesday night it occurred to me that perhaps our churches have been taking a vacation in talking about science. Through our discussions over the years I know that Jeremy’s father was in the medical field. Jeremy had a lot of background knowledge of science, problem-solving skills and newfound motivation for seeking a cure for cancer. What I learned that evening at church was that discussions about faith and science together for Jeremy have been few and far between. In the book You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving the Church and Rethinking Faith, author David Kinnaman uses Barna research to explain that only 1 of 100 youth directors is talking about science at church. By not talking science at church are we unintentionally sending the message that people should choose between the two? What dealings at church would help Jeremy and others like him to hear a vocational call that utilizes his talents and experiences with faith and science together?
Churches can and should create space for people to see and understand that science is not a product but a process of asking questions and gaining understanding about the world around us. What we learn from the process can be used to make educated choices within the community. The scientific method starts with a problem question, followed by an educated guess then a controlled experiment. Thinking like a scientist means to, next, look for patterns in the data then draw some conclusions. Here’s the big idea: a hypothesis isn’t right or wrong- it either holds true based on the data, does not hold true based on your data, or is inconclusive because there wasn’t enough good data. The process of science continues as you repeat, inspect, and share the experiment’s results in search of consistency, validity, and reliability.
Just as faith exists in community, so does science. The peer review process is a way that scientists work together in search of truths. What might science as a process look like at church? Here are some examples: 1) the parish nurse educating congregants about diabetes, nutrition, and healthy stewardship of our bodies based on statistics from the community and scripture on self-care. 2) When the church needs a new parking lot, ask then act upon “Which size, surface, and payment plan best serves the community for building use and water quality?” 3) Invite scientists and engineers from your congregation or community to share research and projects about pollinators, clean energy, geology, technology, agriculture, or public transit. 4) Plan creation care educational forums involving the local watershed district or county waste management recycling experts.
“For many of the natural philosophers of the seventeenth century, science and religion- or better, natural philosophy and theology- were inseparable, part and parcel of the endeavor to understand our world.” In the book Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, Margaret J. Osler addresses the myth that the Scientific Revolution liberated science from religion. She also writes, “Science and religion do not have the same meanings then that they do today. The difference is particularly blatant in regard to science. There was no such creature as a scientist—the word did not even exist until the nineteenth century. The pursuit of knowledge about the world was called natural philosophy.” She adds that, “The study of natural philosophy included the study of the first causes of nature, change and motion in general, the motions of the celestial bodies, the motions and transformations of the elements, generation and corruption, the phenomena of the upper atmosphere right below the lunar sphere, and the study of animals and plants. These subjects included consideration of God’s creation of the world, the evidence of divine design in the world, and the immortality of the human soul.”
As a child of God and science educator, what I continue to learn is the need to attack the false dichotomy with conversation and community as tools for the job. Yes, when we talk about cancer and genetics, expanding universe and food for the world, life on other planets and earth’s climate- the ideas can be scary and questions unanswerable. And that’s when we turn to scripture- not for answers- but for comfort and guidance along the way. If your church has created a false dichotomy between faith and science, that’s unfortunate. Thankfully, the questions and wonderment of the natural world are apparently in our DNA.
In Beyond Words, theologian and author Frederick Buechner writes, “You never know what may cause them. The sight of the Atlantic Ocean can do it, or a piece of music, or a face you’ve never seen before. A pair of somebody’s old shoes can do it…. You can never be sure. But of this you can be sure. Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention. They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go next.” Today, with technology and unlimited information at the fingertips of nearly every young person, as a church rooted in tradition and relationships; we have an opportunity right now to notice, attack and break the false dichotomy between faith and science at church. Let us pay attention to and support the talented and motivated youth in our midst by simply embracing science as a problem-solving process at church.
That Wednesday night as Jeremy was wrestling with fear, love, and determination, the cancerous cells were growing uncontrollably within his grandmother. He (and your church youth too) is asking, “Where do my God-given gifts and talents meet the needs of the world?” Jeremy was paying attention as Buechner described. Youth may not be able to speak to and define vocation as eloquently he or as Martin Luther’s writings (Happy 500th by the way), but can most certainly read them in discernment. No doubt there are practicing scientists, engineers and educators in your congregation. Let the living stones in our churches speak, even bringing questions and solutions, creating space and conversation around for faith and science common ground. Help us to empower youth in their craving for action on caring for God’s creation and addressing changing climate. For faith and science are in their everyday lives even more so now than they were present for their elders. If we choose to not talk about faith and science, are we then asking motivated talented youth to choose, between the two? What a loss that would be.
 Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church
Research Releases • Posted in Millennials & Generations • September 27, 2011
A five-year project headed by Barna Group president David Kinnaman explores the opportunities and challenges of faith development among teens and young adults within a rapidly shifting culture.
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