In the sixteenth century, admitting disbelief in God was virtually impossible – not even an option. If you lived in a western culture, admitting such would probably get you a date with the Inquisition.
Fast-forward 500 years: modern westerners prefer logical, demonstrable, and evidence-based explanations of phenomena over supernatural explanations. Philosopher Charles Taylor frames it this way: the modern West has sloughed off transcendence (belief in supernatural explanations) in favor of immanence (evidence-based explanations).
This is huge.
For the first time in millennia, belief in science and unbelief in God are very real options for everyone.
Teenagers and adults who came of age in the twenty-first century are the ones most acutely aware of this option. The American church is bleeding millennials and mosaics while the nones, the dechurched, and the churchless are growing with no sign of stopping.
Evolution in the youth group
Dr. Andrew Root is a youth ministry scholar and a seminary professor. His recently published white paper is an exhaustive examination of science and faith in the youth ministries of American churches. Few stones were left unturned – he extensively interviewed (both surveys and focus groups) youth ministers in conservative, moderate, and liberal churches across all denominational lines. He interviewed the students in the youth groups. He explored science and faith resources (if any) used by youth ministers.
Kids want to know: one kid (or more) in the youth group brings it up in one way or another – at least once a month. The most common science question asked of youth ministers is about evolution.
But evolution is taboo – one-third of youth ministers never officially discuss science with their kids. The vast majority might lightly touch on the topic a couple of times a year. And, by “touching on”, I mean something like this: “isn’t nature awesome, guys?? God made it!”
Teenagers and young adults have grown up in a concrete, physical, evidence-based world: not one of the students interviewed challenged the evidence-based nature of science. Not one.
What the teenagers are asking is this: how can I, in an evidence-based world, have belief in God?
And the question youth ministers are asking is this: how can I avoid a science and faith discussion?
The kids in the interviews agreed: what the church encourages them to believe and what is believable in a secular age are very different – and the church is not helping them negotiate this tension.
Welcome to Switzerland
Youth workers responded to the challenge of a science and faith discussion in one of three ways.
- At one end are the fighters. If science is going to throw punches at faith, well then, we’re gonna punch back. These are the youth ministers who arm teenagers with apologetics so they will have a ready answer for all the misinformation and lies fed to them by “science”. To the fighters, danger lurks in every science classroom, and especially on college campuses.
Still, doubts are welcome and even conservative youth ministers want their students to feel safe discussing science. But here’s the caveat – if science does not corroborate a literal reading of the Bible, science is always jettisoned in favor of the Bible. Science is used as an apologetics tool to buttress the “biblical” view of origins.
- At the opposite end are the white flag wavers. These youth ministers believe the war has ended and science has won. Here’s one youth minister:
I wish there was some type of conflict, but science has won the day. There are no questions coming from my group.
The best these ministers hope for is to somehow ignite a small flicker of faith – at best, an interest in a world-view that includes a bit of faith.
- Occupying the vast middle ground and definitely in the majority were the youth ministers who just want to be Switzerland. They look for safe places to establish a neutral zone for science and faith. They just want to keep their heads down and avoid any confrontation. Why would a youth minster purposefully shoot an “arrow” of evidence at adolescent faith, possibly puncturing and deflating the belief when protecting young faith is his/her job?
Youth ministers aren’t particularly averse to teaching about science and faith – after all, their kids want to talk. They just really don’t know how, and they feel no urgency to change that. Although half of the youth ministers completed graduate degrees, the majority had taken only minimum science requirements.
Youth ministers with little to no background in science, and certainly not particularly well-versed in the biology of evolution are left to forage, mostly on their own, for published resources on science and religion.
In addition, youth ministers are not always sure how they personally feel about evolution and other origins issues. And if they are, there is hesitancy to contradict what parents might believe. So, they stay safe. They stay in Switzerland.
Who is helping?
If youth ministers creep across the neutral border, to whom do they turn for support in the conversation?
Things get scary at this point: the single most commonly resourced material was Ken Ham and his Answers in Genesis site. Ken Ham – six-thousand-year-old earth Ken Ham. Baby-dinosaurs-on-the-ark Ken Ham. AiG’s numerous resources for youth ministries are exclusively apologetic. A literal Genesis creation story trumps any science evidence every time, all the time.
Similar to AiG is Sword and Spirit, an apologetics website for teens and young adults. Students are not encouraged to engage science, but rather to use science as a “tool” to convince others of a presupposed biblical creationism. Likewise, the objective of Simply Youth Ministry LIVE Curriculum is to “examine the claims of evolution and consider some of the ways it falls short of scientific fact.”
But these three sources pale in comparison to Focus on the Family’s offering. The TrueU videos are filled with testimonies by young adults who have encountered “atheistic” science teachers trying to shatter the foundations that have been carefully laid by home and church. Scariest of all is the portrayal of higher education. One young man makes the air quotes sign when referencing the “experts” at his college. Hostility and suspicion toward universities, even Christian universities, is strong in this resource. Here’s a promo for “The Toughest Test in College”.
Perhaps the strongest resource available that presents evolution as God’s means of creation is the BioLogos site. However, BioLogos is not specifically targeted to students and can be fairly technical.
Young adults are immersed in a culture and a world view that values evidence-based thinking over transcendent thinking. And it is not going away. Despite the efforts of Ken Ham and his Big Ark Theme Park, young adults feel the tension between what they think the church is telling them and what the evidence says.
But – wait for it – here is the primary conclusion of this extensive research study. You might want to read this twice:
What we’re suggesting may seem an oxymoron at first, but our research bears it out: injecting the subject of science into youth ministry actually catalyzes students to think about transcendence and God.
Deny the evidence-based, cast doubt on the transcendent.
Accept the evidence-based and open up the conversation for faith. Ironic, isn’t it?
What might that look like in a conversation with teenagers or young adults? Maybe this: “The universe is very large and very old (evidence-based). Does this mean that the universe must be impersonal and that we are totally alone?” We’ve now made room for discussion of the transcendent (supernatural) in the context of scientific evidence.
Dr. Root calls it “begging for skylights”. Young adults live in houses framed with boards and beams of the concrete, physical, material, and scientific world. This study found that they are also begging for skylights within their houses – they want a conversation about the transcendent.
Here’s a link to the entire white paper: Youth Ministry & Science (Root, Wood, & Jones, 2015)
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge