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When Science Comes to Church

Most of us have heard the numbers by now. Thirty percent of the generation born in the '80s and '90s check the box labeled "none" when asked about their religious affiliation. A top reason they disengage from faith is their perception that faith and science inevitably conflict.

Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith has conducted the most substantial study of emerging adults and published the results for 18–23 year olds in his book Souls in Transition. His findings offer a stark challenge to the church:

  • Is it true that "the teachings of science and religion often ultimately conflict"? More than two thirds of Smith's respondents agreed.
  • Would they say, "My views on religion have been strengthened by discoveries of science"? Well more than half (57 percent) disagreed.

I'm in the minority on both counts. Because I believe Jesus is Lord of all, I'm committed to grasping and celebrating the beautiful intricacy of the created order (which, according to Psalm 19, declares God's glory). So, if science can truly uncover truth about the world, we should embrace those discoveries. Our faith might be challenged, but more often, I've discovered, it is enhanced. Indeed, one reason I came to love studying science, after being a lifelong student of literature and theology, is the amazing way scientific discoveries strengthen my faith.

But while I used to suspect that my fascination with science was something best kept out of the pulpit, I've realized that I actually have a great deal of company—especially among those young adults who have found the church door marked "Exit."

In You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving the Church, David Kinnaman details, in six chapters, the major reasons that emerging adults (18–29 years old) are losing interest in our congregations. One chapter is simply titled, "Antiscience." The next generation sees the church as standing against the findings of science. Consider one of the most startling juxtapositions in Kinnaman's book: 52 percent of youth-group teens aspire to science-related careers like biology, chemistry, engineering, and technology, along with the medical and health-related professions. And yet how many pastors or youth workers had addressed issues of faith and science in the past year? One percent.

In the Game

The good news, I've found, is that we don't have to have all the answers to our kids' (or our own) questions about the complex intersection of science and faith. We just have to be in the game. If we're willing to address the topic, people will listen eagerly and engage with us. If we're not even attempting to address it, we leave emerging adults to assume that science and faith are not only part of separate domains, but can't ever get along.

Since 2011, 35 congregations in the United States, one in Canada, and one in France have taken up this challenge as part of a program called Scientists in Congregations. My colleague David Wood and I awarded grants to churches willing to take the dialogue between science and faith further, drawing on their own pastors and the scientists already in their congregations. So far the project has produced some amazing results, transforming stories, and a list of key topics every congregation should—and can—address:

1) How to begin the discussion of science and theology by being clearer about what science (and theology) does and doesn't claim for itself.

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When Science Comes to Church