Science can help church keep its young folk

1/4/2012

A web-only illustration courtesy of wordle.net.   An article, “Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church,” highlights results from a study by the Barna Group. The findings were reported in the recently published book, “You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving the Church ... and Rethinking Faith” by David Kinnaman.

This nationwide study found evidence that for too many young folk, “Churches come across as antagonistic to science.” The study found “three out of 10 young adults with a Christian background feel that churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in (29 percent)” and that many young people are “turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate.”

The research also “shows that many science-minded young Christians are struggling to find ways of staying faithful to their beliefs and to their professional calling in science-related industries.”

These findings are a clarion call for The United Methodist Church to be more accepting of science throughout all our ministries for the benefit of all God’s children. Embracing an attitude of reconciliation and partnership with science will be essential if we hope to attract young people and keep them engaged in pursuit of a rich spiritual life — rather than repelled from it — in a modern world where science continues to reveal objective truths about the natural world.

An Evangelical Lutheran Church in America brother in Christ, the Rev. Greg Cootsona, “found (him)self wondering whether members of (his) church really wanted to hear about how Big Bang cosmology relates to Genesis 1, or what the image of God means in light of contemporary brain science.” A trial balloon revealed the answer was unambiguously “yes” — his congregation was eager to explore how science interacts with theology.

Important to learn more

In this age of wide-ranging and significant scientific advancements, pastors certainly do not need to “teach” science. But, it is important for pastors to become more accepting of objective truths and pre-eminent scientific theories about the natural world upon which every single one of God’s children lives, most in desperate poverty.

To help other pastors bring the message to their congregations that science and theology can be complementary, Cootsona founded the Scientists in Congregations program to “identify resources for congregations and to catalyze conditions for a sustained, rich, generative engagement between science and faith.” Many denominations, including United Methodism, have recognized the advantages of the program. Because the program’s funding is limited, it is available now to only a few dozen churches

Fortunately, Sunday school classes and interest groups can use existing free or low-cost resources that promote and teach the compatibility of science with theology. For example, Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health and an evangelical Christian, has developed an excellent study and discussion series, “Religion and Science: Pathways to Truth.” This series offers extensive educational support materials including DVDs, participant guides, a leader’s guide and a course website that could be adapted for use in any number of church settings to help guide learning, reflection and discussion.

Not wanting to lose teens and young adults who have been made disciples for Christ, our United Methodist General Conference has, at each quadrennial meeting since 1992, moved in a variety of ways in a similar direction to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American regarding evolution.

The United Methodist Church's official positions as stated in the Book of Discipline (2008, ¶160.I.F) and Book of Resolutions (Resolutions 5052 and 1027) on science and evolution forthrightly and courageously address key issues at the interface of science and theology. General Conference is the denomination’s top lawmaking body. Through its official statements, the denomination has taken a stand against how some are using the debate in ways that threaten both constitutionally guaranteed religious freedoms and the constitutional rights of students in public school science classrooms.

Debate put to rest

The creation-versus-evolution debate was put to rest within science more than a century ago. Scientific evolutionary theory now is so extensively corroborated by overwhelming convergent evidence from many disparate traditional and emerging scientific disciplines that the proportion of scientist-adherents versus scientist-dissenters has become unprecedented. On June 29, 1987, Newsweek reported that of the 480,000 earth and life scientists in the United States, 99.85 percent accept evolution over creationist explanations of the natural history of our planet and its myriad life forms. Pope Pius XII put the debate to rest in Catholicism in his 1950 encyclical when he stated that evolution is not in conflict with theology. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), United Church of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, The United Methodist Church and others have followed suit with similar statements from their leaders.

The task now is to educate all ages of our membership that the debate is over. We can explore the mysteries of the natural world and universe — the realm of science — and at the same time seek moral, ethical and spiritual guidance within humanity’s many faith traditions — the realm of religion. We need to understand that the creation stories in Scripture — some would call them parables or metaphors — use scientific-appearing descriptions to teach subjective truths about interpersonal relationships and spiritual responsibilities, but they do not represent scientific thinking or theories, and they do not reveal objective truths about natural history of the world and universe.

The young folk are right. To deny evolution is simply anti-science. Denial of evolution also demands rejection of reason and experience — two of the four capacities John Wesley urged all Methodists to bring to bear upon the task of developing a more complete understanding of faith and God’s many gifts. In our society, where creationists speak loudly, silence about how religion and science are compatible also comes across as anti-science and anti-reason.

General Conference guidance

Knowing that many clergy are not science experts, General Conference has provided guidance and resources through its official “endorse[ment of] The Clergy Letter Project and its reconciliatory programs between religion and science and urges United Methodist clergy participation.” The Clergy Letter Project is available for all of our congregations to participate.

As of this writing, more than 13,000 clergy of many faiths, including many United Methodists, have signed The Clergy Letter. The United Methodist denomination and so many thousands of individual Christian clergy have enthusiastically lent their public endorsement to the clergy letter initiative because of the inspired message of the mere two-paragraph letter. That message shines a light upon a path that has been elusive for such a very long time and sensibly reconciles scientific and religious perspectives on creation through a better understanding of the “different orders of truth” each is committed to exploring.

Each February since 2006, the Clergy Letter Project has promoted the celebration of Evolution Weekend — originally Evolution Sunday — and your congregation is invited to participate during 2012. Last year, more than 650 churches from all 50 states participated. Sign up for Evolution Weekend 2012 by sending Dr. Michael Zimmerman (mz@TheClergyLetterProject.org) an email with your name and title and the name and address of your church.

What a great opportunity to show the scientists and science-friendly members in your congregation — especially the youthful ones — that your church’s Open Hearts, Open Minds and Open Doors are fully open to them as well!

*Sherman, a veterinarian and life scientist, taught and conducted research for 25 years and now serves as National Program Leader for Veterinary Science at the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. He is a member of Oakdale Emory United Methodist Church in Olney, Md.

News media contact, Maggie Hillery, Nashville, Tenn. (615)-742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.