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I’ve Seen a Thing or Two,
Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies

“We know a thing or two, because we’ve seen a thing or two.” This is the tag line of what I believe is one of the most effective marketing campaigns over the last year. A veteran State Farm representative always delivers the line after highlighting an interesting, almost unbelievable story of a mishap that State Farm has faithfully covered in the past.

“We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two,” is a tag line I can identify with after 42 years in youth ministry. Over four decades, there were times when I was convinced that I had seen it all only to be surprised, once again, by cultural shifts or movements which seemed newly birthed by the Holy Spirit. At these times, I knew I could resist or in humility be open to change. I’m still trying to learn that if you are not willing to change, you love yourself more than the truth. One thing I’m certain about is that there is never an arriving.

Life with Christ is always a journey requiring continual and relational discernment and openness to God’s future breaking in on us. Few would disagree that our current cultural realities are not fraught with confusing dissonance and stressful civil conflict. Yet, it is in the midst of this very cultural milieu that we must work out our faith, seek understanding, engage in serious theological reflection and passionately proclaim a hope-filled Gospel.

As a youth minister, I am extremely grateful for theological conversation partners and resources that help me navigate through what it means to practice youth ministry in our cultural context in a way that leads to Christian formation of young people. Andy Root’s book Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies: Youth Ministry in the Age of Science couldn’t be more timely or relevant.

In the genre of youth ministry books two of the following three things are normative. 1) A quirky, clever title that is culturally relevant. 2) Important content providing help in dealing with the emerging generation of young people. 3) A theologically robust, conversation-moving discourse that is really for the whole church, not just youth ministry.

While many youth workers are ok with two out of three ain’t bad, more and more of us are not. Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies is a theologically robust, conversation-moving book important for the whole church, not just youth ministry. And yet, I wonder, will Andy’s book be accessible to youth workers? After all, that is the targeted reader. I don’t wonder because I think youth workers aren’t intellectually curious or committed to the discipline of study. I wonder because too often the youth ministry environments in which we minister are pragmatically focused, program driven and action oriented, leaving little time for theological reflection and face to face encounter with the young people we minister with.

I’m concerned about the state of youth ministry and youth workers when we don’t give serious attention to books like Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies. While I’m proud that a book of this caliber is written for my vocation of youth ministry, I actually wish this book were titled, Ministry to Emerging Generations in a Scientific Age, or something like that so more people in ministry would read this important work, instead of just youth workers. And I’m concerned that a youth worker drawn to read it because of it’s catchy title might stop reading when the challenging content unfolds in the book.

This book is really critical for all youth workers to read, contemplate and learn. The issue of the relationship between science and faith is really important. We have been confronted by many studies revealing the perceived conflict between science and faith as a leading reason why many young people feel that the church has become increasingly irrelevant for them and the broader culture. When a church community articulates a narrative that either science or the bible is true but they can’t both be true, it leads to an unfortunate exit ramp for many. Too many young people have either been escorted out of the church community for their unwillingness to embrace a blind faith that contradicts with the way they view reality.

For many others the apparent conflict between science and faith, or the way they interpret the bible, results in a plan to avoid the subject and pretend a tension between science and faith doesn’t exist. This course leads to a faith that looks foolish to the broader culture for all the wrong reasons.

Too many young people have either been escorted out of the church community for their unwillingness to embrace a blind faith that contradicts with the way they view reality.

I am grateful that, Andy Root, whom I believe to be a world-class practical theologian and Christian thinker, has continued to write books and engage in theological reflection for youth ministry. Along with new theological work concerning faith formation in a scientific age, Root also strives to make it accessible and practical to youth workers by weaving a storyline of youth ministry life in between chapters on science and theology.

The narrative woven throughout the book focuses on Jared, a 12-year youth ministry veteran who is trying to determine if he is going to continue in youth ministry or move into a new role in the church.

Aly is a 24 year old, who Jared watched grow up in his church but who is now in a full blown crises of faith feeling that science is more reliable and logical than the idea of a God that we can’t see.

Martin is a current high school youth group kid who has a vivid imagination and believes that mass extinction is on the horizon because ecological science, evolution and The Walking Dead point to a coming apocalypse. He wonders if God will intervene.

Sasha is a middle school student who is super smart and wrestling with how to integrate faith and physics. Sasha doesn’t want to embrace a belief system so feeble that science has to be viewed as an enemy of faith.

Sarah is a youth worker from another church who is dealing with the issue of Science and Faith in a different manner than Jared, so we get to consider other youth ministry contexts.

Jared also has to deal with a host of parents who often have a quite different way of seeing the world than their child. Those of us who have been in youth ministry for any length of time know what it’s like to encounter an anxious parent. Anxious parents of the kids in our churches can range from the parent who hopes that you can help their kid through this stage of life without falling off the deep end to the parent whose anxiety leads them to blame the youth worker for all that is wrong in their world. Often this doesn’t go well and the horror stories youth workers tell are legendary.

Few issues, except maybe sexuality, can stir up a parent like science, especially if you find yourself in a church where creationism is a view held by many. Root’s book is more geared toward a post-liberal mainline and a progressive evangelical context. Should evangelical youth workers read Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies? YES! If you are in a typical evangelical church you might be trying to convince yourself, “The youth I work with aren’t asking these kinds of questions.” If you believe this, I think the reason why is that your youth for some reason have chosen not to raise these kinds of critical questions in the place where they should – your church. They may hold their questions because they know how politically incorrect it is in your church. And yet, few issues are more important for the Christian formation of young people than the relationship between science and faith, and science and the Bible.

Why Young Christians are Leaving Church

David Kinnaman, President of the Barna Group wrote a book entitled, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church and Rethinking Church. The book was based on research pulled from eight national studies. According to the Barna Group, the national studies, included “…interviews with teenagers, young adults, parents, youth pastors, and senior pastors. The study of young adults focused on those who were regular churchgoers Christian church during their teen years and explored their reasons for disconnection from church life after age 15.”[1]

Kinnaman’s book focuses on six themes that he thinks most impacts the disengagement of late adolescents with their churches. I think four of the six themes are directly related to the content Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies deals with. They are:

Churches seem overprotective.

Kinnaman argues that the reality is that today’s adolescents and young adults have unparalleled exposure to worldviews. When a narrow-minded, overly contextualized and limited view of faith restricts their understanding of a broader world context this is deemed irrelevant and parochial by the emerging generation. While they feel disappointed with their churches, they often believe that God has a more gracious view of the world than their church. According to the research cited, “one-quarter of 18- to 29-year-olds said, Christians demonize everything outside of the church.”

Teens’ and twenty-somethings’ experience of Christianity is shallow.

Young people want to engage in a faith that deals with real life issues. They are not afraid of issues that are not clearly black and white. They are drawn to a faith that encounters the other with love and inclusion. Many don’t feel that the Bible is hanging by a literal thread and therefore requires us to defensively ignore new information that is constantly emerging.

Churches come across as antagonistic to science.

From a summary of the findings of the Barna Study and the content of Kinnaman’s book  “a big reason young adults feel disconnected from church or from faith is the tension they feel between Christianity and science. The most common of the perceptions in this arena is ‘Christians are too confident they know all the answers’ (35%). Three out of ten young adults with a Christian background feel that ‘churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in’ (29%). Another one-quarter embrace the perception that ’Christianity is anti-science’ (25%). And nearly the same proportion (23%) said they have ‘been turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate.’ Furthermore, the research 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.”[2]

The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.

For youth workers who have focused deeply on classic Christian formation of young people, we know that there is no strong faith without good doubt. Good doubt that is properly wrestled with is vital to the Christian life. There is so much fear in so a majority of our churches today that the idea of creating an environment that is a safe place for young people to express their doubts is very threatening to many church leaders, parents and grandparents. This unfortunately leads to an inability to walk with young people through their intellectual doubts and the struggles they are having trying to make meaning out of their lives and the reality they are experiencing.

Of course, the above statistics stated by Barna research could and should be challenged. And for every study that states that the conflict between science and faith leads to young people feeling disillusioned about the church or concluding that faith is irrelevant, there are opinions or studies stating the solution to fix the problem is to double down on discipleship in order to turn these trends around.

Our youth are asking lots of questions, important questions. They are not just looking for the answers but for those who will engage them in serious dialogue with a curiosity and wonder for this thing called life.

Root works hard in this book to present real youth ministry complexities in a scientific age. He engages in deep scholarship to present philosophical and theological dialogue with science.  He spends a lot of time carefully helping the reader understand that while many in our culture define science as “objective” and faith as “subjective” the reality is that both science and faith are socially constructed. Root knows that one of the most powerful statements in our culture is “Science says, …” The Social Practice of Scientism declares a position of “non-biased objectivity.” The Social Practice of conservative Evangelicalism declares a position of “Objective Truth.” A rigid social practice of Christianity smirks at the “objectivity of science” position and believes that the absolute truth of the bible always forces a checkmate on science. Root goes after both of these arrogant positions and invites us out of the battle between scientism and a faith built upon certitude.

The most wonderful part of Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies, however is the truly extraordinary section of the book where Root explores reasons the Scientific Revolution occurred in the Christian West and not in another part of world civilization. Root fleshes out the story of Athanasius dealing with the challenge of Arianism and the consequent development of the Nicene Creed describing Jesus Christ as “God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten and not made; of the very same nature of the Father, by Whom all things came into being, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible.” The Nicene Creed is the most widely accepted orthodox Christian statement of faith, embraced by Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican and most forms of Protestantism.

Root takes considerable care to describe how the work of Athanasius, a Doctor of the Church, is picked up by the Cappadocian Fathers, Basil of Caesarea, his younger brother, Gregory of Nyssa, and their friend Gregory Nazianzus were able to profoundly and creatively work out the theological basis for the Nicene Creed, particularly how Jesus Christ could be fully human and fully divine. Root, building on the work of Scottish Theologian Thomas Torrance, fleshes out the brilliance of the Cappadocian fathers working out the hypostatic union, Trinity as the three in one and one in three, while showing how Jesus Christ could be fully human and fully divine of one substance (ousia) and being with the Father but differentiated by a being that is constituted relationally. This formula developed by the Cappadocian’s is beautiful, paradoxical and mysterious all at the same time. But Root shows how this kind of thinking, which shaped the imagination and mental constructs of the western mind, ultimately led to an epistemological framework that gave birth to the scientific revolution.

Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies is ultimately about faith, seeking understanding. A flourishing faith is one that passionately seeks deeper understanding. I don’t believe this book is just about helping young people find answers to their big questions and seek understanding for the formation of their faith. I want youth workers to read this book because I believe it will also expand their faith in the midst of this scientific world in which we live.

Our youth are asking lots of questions, important questions. They are not just looking for the answers but for those who will engage them in serious dialogue with a curiosity and wonder for this thing called life. Of course, not every conversation with young people will focus on the finely tuned universe or the big bang but when these conversations happen they are often seminal, epic, shaping the imagination and faith journey for a lifetime. Are you prepared for these moments?

[1] https://www.barna.com/research/six-reasons-young-christians-leave-church/ accessed November 26, 2017

[2] Ibid.

This article was made possible by Science for Youth Ministry in association with Luther Seminary and the John Templeton Foundation. Learn more at www.scienceym.org or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/scienceforYM.

Encouraging Curiosity in our Youth

“Rachael, can I ask you a question?” I looked up to see Michael standing there wearing a look somewhere between concerned and curious. All the other high school kids had left youth group for the evening and Michael was not usually one to stay behind.

“Of course, Michael. Of course, you can ask me a question,” I replied.

“Okay,” he said, taking a deep breath, “I need to ask you….okay…it’s just that..I’m wondering…” I held my breath, doing everything I could to keep a smile on my face; Michael’s nerves were contagious and were putting me on edge.

“It’s just that I need to know something. If Noah’s boat landed in like Afghanistan or something…how the heck did the penguins get to Antarctica?” I paused. It was one of those moments in youth ministry where you know you have to tread lightly. The answers to such questions, weirdly, mean a lot to a young person’s understanding of who they are, who God is, and our origins. These questions actually get to the core of our existence. On the surface, it seems like a silly question, but it’s not – Michael’s question is, actually, a rather serious one.

What Michael was really asking me was – does the Bible make sense? Is it really true? Is it fact? Because it’s hard to fit it into a modern understanding of the world.

Michael has been part of the church a long time. He has gone to Christian schools his entire schooling. He knows the Genesis story front to back. Michael was also raised in the Episcopal Church, a denomination that leans a little more progressive and is constantly living atop a three-tiered stool of reason, faith and tradition. His adolescent brain and earnest Christian heart were doing their best to bring it all together.

With college less than a year away, Michael told me that he knows he’s going to leave his comfortable bubble and enter into an unknown world. He will likely go to a large public university and he’s afraid that once he gets there, people will be all around him with different understandings of how the world works. In light of new information and new experiences, he worries he’ll leave his faith behind.

“So, I feel like now is my time to ask all these questions I thought were too stupid or silly to ask before. Because maybe they actually matter, ya know?” he asked.

If only all seventeen-year-olds were so articulate.

What not to do

It could be tempting to shrug Michael’s question off as silly. It could be tempting to try to give him all the answers. It could be tempting to insist Michael be careful when asking questions because it could lead down a slippery slope of doubt and loss of faith. It would have been simpler for me to say to Michael, “Michael, you don’t need to worry about these questions. God will take care of you! You just need to trust that God’s Word is true and hand it over in prayer.”

What we don’t want to do is create a Jenga Tower of Faith.

The problem with that response, is that Michael would have missed out on some much better lessons, and I would have missed out on an opportunity to pastor Michael through his questions. And, ultimately, this response is about as unhelpful as they come. This kind of response provides nothing for Michael’s spiritual development, and nothing for Michael’s struggle to reconcile faith with reason.

What we don’t want to do is create a Jenga Tower of Faith. If we encourage our youth to build their faith on a black and white understanding of scripture – one that fully depends on a literal Biblical worldview – then we are creating a lot of opportunity for instability in our youths’ faith foundation. Imagine one block of your youth’s faith tower is “don’t be curious,” and another is “evolution is false” and “the Big Bang theory is antithetical to a Biblical understanding of the world,” and so on and so on. Then imagine they learn compelling evidence which supports evolution – that block gets pulled out of the tower. Then imagine they hear compelling evidence for the Big Bang Theory – now that block has been pulled out. As more blocks get pulled out it’s easy to imagine the whole tower crumbling.

Asking the Big Questions

Michael has a point. Eventually, the youth we are walking with grow up, and go out into the world. If we’ve done our jobs, they know Jesus loves them; they know we love them; and they know a thing or two about following Christ. But did they have an opportunity to ask the big questions? Was your youth group a safe space for them to truly wonder aloud?

Andy Root in his new book about youth ministry and science, “Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs and Zombies,” articulates well the idea that science and faith, in many ways, are asking the same questions. We use science to understand the world around us, just as we do faith. Andy writes, “The overlap between faith and the scientific happens at this epistemic level. It was indeed the epistemic drive, born from their faith, that led Galileo…to passionately seek the shape of reality (p. 123).”

We use science to understand the world around us, just as we do faith.

Science asks big questions, and seeks out answers using a system of methods. Our middle and high schoolers sit in science class – whether it’s biology, chemistry or anatomy – and learn a lot about our universe and world. They are being given a lot of opportunities at school to ask big questions about our world, and are then given tools to answer those questions. I believe our faith communities should be doing the same thing – but how? Below are four suggestions on how to get the ball rolling.

1. Be curious

In his book Brainstorm, Dan Siegel writes that one of the marks of adolescence is curiosity. As adults, we tend to lose our sense of curiosity and settle into what we know (or what we think we know). In fact, healthy adults maintain their curiosity. While as youth ministers we should not be childish, I would insist that it is equally important to be child-like. Wonder at the world; wonder at scripture; wonder at God. Wonderment is a wonderful way to venture into curiosity. Wow those stars are amazing! What are they? How far away are they? Do you remember learning about stars in school? Do you remember learning they are millions of lightyears away? Do you remember learning that when we see the stars we are literally looking at the past? How amazing is that?

We know all these things because someone was curious enough to ask the question and scientifically found the answers. Your adolescents are curious about the world, the universe, God, existence – all of it. And so I would encourage you to be curious too. Meet them where they are at in their curiosity. Let yourself wonder and then create opportunities for you and your community of youth to wonder out loud together.

2. Talk don’t tell

It can be tempting as youth ministers to tell, not talk. What I mean is, we can fall into a pattern of trying to teach and directly influence kids, instead of walking alongside them in their adolescent journey. There’s of course nothing wrong with teaching our youth. Especially teaching them Biblical literacy, or about the traditions of our denomination, but we miss out on a different kind of learning when we spend all our time giving lesson after lesson.

For the youth community I lead, some of our most meaningful times together have been open discussions about the big questions. Recently, our high school group discussed creation. Instead of going straight to scripture, I asked them what they are taught about creation through science, and what they think scripture teaches us about creation. I had a senior in high school say she doesn’t think you can be a Christian and believe the Big Bang in the same conversation with a freshman who said she thinks you can believe the Big Bang Theory and still believe God is our creator. We started our discussion there, then I gave them time to read through Genesis 1:1-2:4a and Genesis 2:4b-25.

I prodded the conversation with more questions, but they also came up with more questions on their own, and I mostly got out of the way. We ended with a discussion on what to do with the two creation stories in Genesis. “Even if you don’t believe the stories about creation in Genesis are fact, what do these stories teach us about God? And what do they teach us about ourselves?” I asked them. I believe one of the greatest favors we can do for our youth, is to teach them how to ask questions. If you want to be a youth community that asks big questions, provide opportunities for discussion amongst your youth. Not only will everyone learn a lot, it’s a lot of fun.

3. Set some guidelines for discussion

If you’re going to encourage open discussion in your youth group, it’s helpful to have some guidelines. I did interfaith work at the University of North Florida for four years, and we used the same guidelines at each of our dialogue events. I find the following especially helpful in a youth ministry setting, but encourage your youth to come up with their own!

One mic, one diva: Maybe it’s just my youth (though I seriously doubt it), but listening to others is still something they’re learning and aren’t always good at. It’s helpful to remind them that whoever is speaking “has the mic” and they are the diva for that time. Everyone’s eyes should be on them. Using a talking stick or “mic” can actually be helpful if your group is into it. Some people also call this the “two ears, one mouth” guideline. Everyone has two ears and one mouth, so we can listen more and talk less.

Vegas Rule: Sometimes in these open discussions people are afraid of sounding dumb, or asking a dumb question, or sharing an unpopular opinion. Assure them that everything that is said in the room, stays in the room!

Disagree, don’t debate: Don’t be afraid of a little disagreement. We learn so much when there is disagreement. Just remind everyone that a little disagreement is great, but when it turns into a debate, it has stopped being productive. We’re here to share our ideas and questions as a community, not convince each other of our point of view.

I-statements: Using I-statements helps many people in the room from being defensive and it also helps encourage healthy disagreement. For example, say, “I disagree,” not, “you’re wrong.” Statements like “I believe,” “I think,” or “I wonder” can be more helpful than stating opinions or positions as facts.

These are just a few – ask your youth what they think would be helpful guidelines for discussion in your group!

4. Don’t be afraid of doubt

Sometimes I think we can be so afraid of the doubt in our kids that we shy away from any questions at all. We teach so much because we’re afraid of their conclusions. We might insist the Bible has a singular thing to say about creation, or about our origins, in order to avoid confusion. Here’s the truth – your youth can handle nuance! They can handle multiple truths! They can handle complicated ideas! Here’s the other truth – they still might doubt a little!

When we read about Peter walking on water, we tend to focus on his doubt rather than his curiosity. He was the only one in the boat who wanted to know if it was Jesus out there on the water bad enough to risk stepping out. Ultimately, his curiosity gave him the opportunity to walk on water (something that is scientifically impossible by the way!).  Then the waves got big and he thinks to himself “Oh no, I am walking on water in a storm!” and he begins to doubt, only then does he start to sink. But you know what is amazing about that? Jesus catches him! Peter’s doubt is not too big for Jesus. Allow your youth to know that even if all their questions spark a bit of doubt in them – Jesus is there the whole way (and so are you!).

Ultimately, help your kids embrace mystery. They’re not going to understand everything at once, and neither are you, and isn’t there beauty and joy in that? Part of our role as youth ministers is to create a community of youth who grow in Christ together, and to empower them so that when they leave youth group they have all the tools they need to follow Christ in the world. What better way to do that than to explore questions of science and faith together? To give them a safe space to doubt and question? Allow their curiosity to grow, to flourish – allow them to see that a wonderful way to be in relationship with God is to wonder at the expansive universe God created.

This article was made possible by Science for Youth Ministry in association with Luther Seminary and the John Templeton Foundation. Learn more at www.scienceym.org or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/scienceforYM.


About the Author: Rachael McNeal

rachael mcneal

Rachael McNeal currently lives in St. Augustine, while working as the Director of Youth Ministries at Christ Episcopal Church in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL. She also has experience in Higher Education and Interfaith Activism. Rachael graduated from Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL where she studied Religion and Youth Ministry. She attended Princeton Theological Seminary where she received her Master of Divinity. She was featured on Interfaith Youth Core’s podcast Common Knowledge and has written for OnFaith, Interfaith Youth Core, Faith Line Protestants, Sojourners, and Huffington Post Religion.