Although science and technology are pervasive in our society, they are challenging topics to address well in a local church. Here are some places where a pastor or seminary student can get started, both online and in print.
A helpful starting point is to understand the views held by Americans and the impact these views have on church ministry. Widely publicized surveys by Gallup and Pew (which I summarized here in June 2014) paint a picture of a divided public on creation and evolution. However, more in-depth work by sociologist Jonathan Hill (see Christianity Today article or the full report) shows that the majority of Americans are uninformed, undecided, or hold moderate positions. Yet the picture of a divided public in which Christians reject science causes significant challenges for discipleship and evangelism. In the 2011 book You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church…and Rethinking Faith (Baker, or see this overview), sociologist David Kinnaman and the Barna Group found that science issues were a significant factor for young people who walked away from the faith. Nearly one-third of these students felt the church wasn’t relevant to modern science or were frustrated by the acrimony they saw in churches over the creation-evolution debate. In the public square, the perception that scientists can’t be religious and that Christianity rejects science is a significant barrier to evangelism. Pastors can help get the word out that many scientists actually are people of faith, and that many Christians see science and faith working together, as shown in an excellent recent study by sociologist Elaine Ecklund.
Within the church, Christians often disagree about creation and evolution. In 2013, the Barna group and BioLogos released a survey of clergy from a full range of denominations. It might not be surprising to hear that pastors of charismatic and Southern Baptist churches overwhelmingly believe that God created the earth about 10,000 years ago and that evolution did not occur (Young Earth Creationism). Yet pastors in other evangelical churches are more likely to believe that God created the earth and universe billions of years ago, though they still often reject evolution (Old Earth Creationism). Meanwhile, pastors of mainline Protestant churches are the most likely clergy to believe that God created the earth billions of years ago and used the process of evolution to create the species (Evolutionary Creationism). Of course within denominations, each church is different, and within local churches there is a range of views held by those in the congregation. Pastors need to be equipped to deal with colleagues and parishioners who advocate views quite different from their own.
An excellent starting point for a congregation is to discuss the range of views on origins with adults or youth. Simply understanding what the views are, and realizing that others in the congregation hold a different view, goes a long way to diffusing tensions and shedding light. To equip churches for such a discussion, my husband Loren Haarsma and I wrote Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design (Faith Alive Christian Resources, 2011), which includes short videos and study questions for small groups. Another helpful orientation is a recent set of essays from different evangelical perspectives from seven OT scholars in Reading Genesis 1-2: An Evangelical Conversation (ed. J. Daryl Charles; Hendrickson 2013). Once a conversation begins on these topics, a pastor will likely be peppered with questions about the historical Adam and original sin, one of the thorniest issues on origins today. This 2011 Christianity Today cover article gives a good orientation and the topic is addressed in-depth in the 2013 book Four Views on the Historical Adam, edited by Matthew Barrett and Ardel B. Caneday (Zondervan). My organization, BioLogos, provides extensive resources on this and other origins issues from the perspective of evolutionary creation, with articles by experts, sample sermons, and personal stories. A good blogger to follow is “RJS” on The Jesus Creed who discusses origins questions and reviews the latest books and resources.
Of course there is more to the science and religion conversation than creation and evolution. Addressing these other topics is an important way to show your congregation the many ways God’s revelation in the natural world can enhance our faith and how we live it out. A good place to browse the many topics is The Big Questions Online. Or check out a set of essays I edited with Scott Hoezee, Delight in Creation: Scientists Share Their Work with the Church, on a wide range of topics written by believing scientists for their pastors. For a historical perspective, see the book Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (ed. Ron Numbers; Harvard University Press, 2009), a set of short accessible essays from leading historians, including several Christians. If you want to dig deeper into questions in various areas of science and faith, you can browse journals such as Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith from the evangelical group the American Scientific Affiliation, or Science and Christian Belief from the British group Christians in Science. Other journals draw on a broad range of Christian theological traditions and world religions, including Theology and Science from the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences and Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science.
A few topics are particularly relevant to local church ministry. One is caring for the environment. God’s creation is all around us and he calls us to be good stewards of it. A great introduction to climate change for evangelicals who are skeptical is A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions (FaithWords, 2009), written by a climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe and her husband, pastor Andrew Farley. A nice introductory article is “Why Care for the Environment?” by leading climate scientist John Houghton. Reformed theologian Steven Bouma-Prediger provides an in-depth treatment of the biblical and theological basis for creation care in For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care (Baker Academic, 2010). Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith just released a theme issue (December 2014) with several excellent articles. As these pieces show, the need is great, and God’s call is clear. But what can a local pastor do? To help your congregation take practical steps to care for God’s creation, the Evangelical Environmental Network offers videos, curricula, and other resources for churches and families. The international organization A Rocha also offers an excellent set of resources and brings together Christians from all over the world on this critical issue. The Plaster Creek Stewards project in my home town of Grand Rapids, MI, is one example of churches taking action to clean up our own corner of God’s creation.
Another critical issue facing pastors and churches is medical ethics. We have been blessed with wonderful advances in medical technologies and treatments, but many of these also raise difficult choices for patients and families. Pastors will often be asked for their advice on issues surrounding the beginning of life, the end of life, or how aggressively to treat an illness. An essay by biologist Hessel Bouma gives an accessible overview to the issues a pastor might encounter. The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity at Trinity International University provides resources and an extensive bibliography on many bioethical topics from an evangelical perspective. Theologian Ronald Cole-Turner has written several books from a mainline perspective on various bioethical issues, including Pastoral Genetics: Theology and Care at the Beginning of Life (Pilgrim Press, 1996).
In evangelism and apologetics, larger questions loom over these particular issues. Philosopher James Stump addresses the question, “Why believe in God in a world explained by science?” Leading Presbyterian pastor John Ortberg preaches on “Does Science Disprove Faith?” Oxford philosopher Alister McGrath writes in response to aggressive atheists such as Richard Dawkins, and shares his own journey from atheism to Christianity, in “Has Science Killed God?” Fuller Seminary psychologist Justin Barrett’s book Why Would Anyone Believe in God? (AltaMira, 2004) discusses the science of the way human minds are built for religion.
So, how does all this enter the week-to-week life of the church? Sermons are an important way for a pastor to show how God’s creation can enhance faith. For examples, see Chris Dolson on Ps 19, Gordon Hugenberger on Genesis, and John Van Sloten on the Science and Gospel of Branches (John 15). Yet sermons are not the only, or even best, place to address science. A recent initiative called Scientists in Congregations supported churches from several denominations in the development of curricula, videos, and other resources, the best of which are now gathered at their website. One church, Grace Chapel in Lexington, MA, started the GC Science program, which has grown from a book discussion group to an extensive program, including a youth curriculum. Science can also bring exciting new dimensions to worship – for examples, see an article by astronomer Jennifer Wiseman or follow the blog by biologist Ruth Bancewicz. Want to make your church more friendly for scientists who walk in the door? Check out Andy Crouch’s essay for pastors “The Life of a Scientist” in Delight in Creation. Want to encourage a young person in your congregation to pursue a career in science? Give them a copy of True Scientists, True Faith (ed. R. J. Berry; Monarch, 2014), with essays from twenty world-class scientists who are orthodox Christian believers. Getting questions from healthcare professionals? Refer them to the Christian Medical and Dental Association. For more on ministry, see my 2013 article in the Fuller Seminary Theology News & Notes, “Engaging Science in the Life of Your Congregation.”