The Meaning and Wonder of Youth

Science is important, perhaps more important than ever. We face all kinds of crises that require some diligent scientific discernment and intentional action. But are we, as youth workers, prepared to talk about science with the young people in our churches? Are we interested in answering the questions that young people are actually asking and wondering about?

I think we’ve been assuming way too much about what the real relevant questions are right now, and you know what happens to you and me when we assume….

Meaning & Wonder of Youth

What Questions Are We Answering?

If someone decided to peruse all the available resources that are designed for youth workers trying to facilitate a conversation about science in their youth ministry, it’d be easy for them to conclude that the only question science really addresses is, “How did we get here?” One could easily conclude that science is just a big investigation into the earth’s origins because almost all of the ministry resources out there only seem interested in this one issue when it comes to science.

Our preoccupation with origins—the “how” and “where” questions—has a long history I won’t fully get into here, but they are what several generations have considered to be the real front-line, the “Normandy beach,” in the war between faith and science. The question, in this preoccupation, is about evolution.

Can you believe in evolution, the theory that’s currently accepted in one form or another by 97% of the scientific community, and still be a Christian? That is the question that most youth workers, according to what’s out there, need to be answering. And with this presupposition, the various resources available either say “yes” or “no” to that question—they are there either to divide science from faith or to synchronize them.

What Questions Are Young People Asking?

But in all youth ministry’s preoccupation over the apparent tension between faith and science, it appears, according to Andrew Root’s research at Science for Youth Ministry, that young people aren’t even feeling this tension. There’s no battle. While youth workers are busy answering the “how” and “where” questions, young people are asking, “So what?” and, “Why?”

In the face of real immanent crises in the world, the young people in our churches don’t need answers about how old the earth is or whether or not Darwin was right about anything. Our young people’s questions are much more existential—“What is the meaning of all of this?” “Where in the world is God?”

You would think that youth ministers would be pros at addressing these questions. After all, we’re much more concerned with the actual theological questions about science…. aren’t we? Huh?

But that’s the problem. In our preoccupation with evolution and the origins of the earth, we’ve missed our opportunity to address those questions. In the face of naturalistic descriptions of life and its origins, we’ve just been trying to offer a different and “biblical” description… we’re in a tug-of-war of description. But we don’t need more description. What we need is meaning.

Re-Encountering Wonder

In his post, Blair Bertrand writes about the need for wonder. The question of meaning is all about wonder. It takes a real sense of wonder—seeing beyond description and beyond ourselves—to investigate the question of meaning. As Bertrand writes, “…at the foundation of science and at the root of Christian faith is wonder, and youth ministry should pay attention to this for the betterment of science, Christianity, and young people.”

But we don’t need more description. What we need is meaning.

The German theologian, Wolfhart Pannenberg, argued for the importance of meaning and wonder in his 1976 theological masterpiece, Theology and the Philosophy of Science. According to Pannenberg, “…description by means of natural laws cannot deal with a particular but essential aspect of the human world, that of the perception of meaning.” Pannenberg recognized that, when it comes to what we’re willing to consider relevant to science, we’ve got a real meaning problem on our hands.

We’re trained to think of the more measurable things in life as more real—and our preoccupation with evolution only aggravates this tendency—but reality includes the immeasurable question of meaning. Reality includes not only the question of “how “and “where,” but the “why” question too. 

For Pannenberg, this “why” question always leads to God. In ignoring the “why” question, in worrying so much about evolution, we’ve actually left God out of the conversation. But just as Augustine said, addressing God, “Our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.” In the same way, our minds are restless until our questions open us to encounter God.

In ignoring the “why” question, in worrying so much about evolution, we’ve actually left God out of the conversation.

Meaning Matters

“But hey there!” you might be saying, “If we’re in such a crisis—an environmental crisis or what-have-you—shouldn’t we be helping young people address it directly? Doesn’t description and scientific process matter?” The answer is yes. We do have crises on our hands and we need our young people’s generation to address them (that’s why the education crisis is a crisis too). But if we cannot offer meaning to these descriptions—if we can’t encounter God in all of this—we won’t be properly motivated to address these issues in the first place. We need to know why any of it matters.

So what kinds of conversations have you had about science in your youth ministry? How is science implicitly or explicitly addressed? Do you offer space for young people to address the “why” question? Have you opened a space for young people not only to know about God but to wonder in the face of immeasurable meaning? Or have you foreclosed on the question of meaning by answering the wrong question?

Make space in your youth group for the “why” question this year. Don’t just investigate facts, like the “what,” the “how”, or the “where”—inject meaning into them by offering the “so what” and the “why.” Set an example for your young people, and show them the need for meaning and wonder, since through wonder, they will encounter the living God.


The WonderFull God

To read more on this topic, check out Blair Bertrand’s recent post: The Wonder-Full God: Science, Faith, and Wonder in Youth Ministry.

 

Science for Youth MinistryAlso, want faith and science in conversation? Join the conversations—between scientists, authors, pastors, theologians, and philosophers with Science for Youth Ministry.  Visit scienceym.org for some great resources.

 


About the Author: Wes Ellis

Wes Ellis is the Associate Pastor of First United Methodist Church of Toms River in New Jersey. He earned an M.Div. and an M.A. in Christian Education from Princeton Theological Seminary. He’s a husband, a father, and a youth worker.

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