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Science, Youth Ministry, and Prayer

Recently Andy Root wrote Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies: Youth Ministry in the Age of Science, an interesting and timely addition to an ongoing conversation surrounding the relationship between faith and science.  Root’s charge to us in youth ministry is simple: we stay silent on this contested relationship to our own peril.  Kids have questions about the universe—micro- and macroscopically—and we in youth ministry have not only an obligation to attend to those questions, but with Andy Root’s help, also a unique and exciting opportunity to share the gospel in relevant ways.

But why talk about science?

No doubt a few of you reading this need some encouragement.  Let’s name and respond to some of the reasons that might keep you from picking up this book:

But none of my kids are asking science questions of their faith…

Yes they are.  Maybe not to you, but they are asking these questions.  Would you really rather they went elsewhere to get the answers?

But I’m not a scientist, I’m not equipped to handle the conversation…

You’re likely also not an economist, but I bet you’ve talked to kids about how to use their money.  You’re likely not a licensed sex therapist, but I bet you’ve talked to kids about sex.  There are an endless number of things outside your training that ministry requires you to weigh in on.  Science might be more intimidating or confusing than others, but it’s still something we’ve got to address.

But we’ve already got a policy at our church/institution that clearly states what we should say

The most successful folks in ministry are those that keep digging deeper.  This doesn’t mean your opinion ought to always change.  There are things we ought not budge an inch on.  This also doesn’t mean you should be insubordinate with those you work under.  Even so, continuing to come back to important topics by reading and interacting with thoughtful folks is always a good tactic in ministry.  This is an important topic.  And this is a thoughtful account of how to talk about it.

There are an endless number of things outside your training that ministry requires you to weigh in on.

Put another way, Root is not so much telling youth pastors what to say (as in, the “answer” to questions surrounding Noah’s arc and the theory of evolution) but how to have the conversation.  The latter is often a much, much more difficult thing to do.

So how do science and faith relate?

Convinced?

Let’s assume you are, that you’re past the threshold of wondering if you should read about science and faith.  Let’s move on, then, to what it is that Andy’s telling us (of course it’d be infinitely better for you to simply read this book on your own or as a staff, but here’s a rough sketch).

Move #1: Getting us on the same page regarding science and ‘science’

Andy Root gets his project off the ground with some much-needed brush clearing.  There’s a lot of unhelpful talk surrounding science and faith and he wants to make sure we’re all on the same page.  As is the case in all good arguments, Root reminds us that in this debate it’s often the case that folks are using the same terms but in different ways.  In other words, Andy tells us that often times when we talk about science, we don’t actually mean, science.  Let’s explain.

According to Root, there’s a world of difference between scientific findings and ‘science.’  Contrary to much popular belief, there is no essential rivalry between science (as a method for the pursuit of knowledge regarding some material reality) and faith (an encounter with God).  As a methodology, science isn’t a good or a bad thing, it isn’t necessarily for or against faith.  That there are scientists all along the spectrum of belief testifies, in some sense, to this reality.

‘Science,’ however, is a different story.  According to Root, what most of us have in mind when we talk about “faith and science” are not specific scientific findings.  Instead, we’ve got ‘science’ in mind: to borrow his phrase, a “comprehensive social practice.”  In other words, often when we talk about science we’ve got in mind something that more closely resembles a religion-like thing insofar as it makes claims on what we ought to live and do and why.  Which is to say that religion and ‘science’ both require loyalties and, unlike (neutral) scientific findings and faith, these two are at odds.

At its most basic, the Christian faith tells us we live in a personal universe, one made and sustained by a God who is intimately related to what He makes.  ‘Science,’ on the other hand, promotes and assumes an impersonal universe.  See the bind?  These two ways of seeing and participating in the world—faith and ‘science’—are diametrically opposed when it comes to describing that very world, and so anyone caught in their crosshairs must make a choice: faith or ‘science.’

The effects of this dilemma in the church are obvious and often polarizing: should I choose faith (and thus downplay the import of scientific findings) or should I choose science (and thus downplay the import of faith)?  At its worst, the first option leaves a church on a lonely, overly skeptical island, completely cut off from the insights of entire scientific community.  And the second option, at its worst, leaves individuals with a withered or non-existent faith.

By making a distinction between scientific findings and ‘science,’ then, Root helps us to get the heart of the matter.  The issue is less one between faith and science.  There are a host of ways that we can make meaningful connections between the findings in biology, chemistry, and physics, for example, and our faith.  The issue, instead, is with the assumption of ‘science’ that since the universe is impersonal, to be a faithful Christian is to intentionally choose to be mute, immoral, or childish when it comes to dealing with how things really are.  Without making this distinction, then, we see far too many kids thinking they must make a false choice between believing in the gospel of Jesus Christ or believing in the Big Bang theory, for example.

Move #2: Getting a picture for how faith and science do relate, then

To put it far too briefly, ultimately Root ends up arguing for an asymmetrical but generally harmonious relationship between science and faith wherein the claims of the former can and do fit quite nicely within the broader context of the former.  It’s an asymmetrical relationship precisely because once we get straight what it is we’re doing in faith—“seek[ing] the face of God in mystery”—we’re poised to be able to rightly weigh in on the “faceless answers” of science. 

The bulk of the book is thus devoted to exploring just how it is that the faithful can, have, and perhaps ought to relate to a small sample set of scientific claims that intersect with core Christian beliefs.  That Root does this through both argument and imaginative conversations between a youth pastor named Jared and a host of his youth group attendees keeps the book lively and engaging.  I could imagine a church or lay leadership team taking up the narratival portions of the book as a focus for discussion: reading the fictional conversations that prompt Jared’s own journey and reflecting on how his conclusions/foibles/confusions do or do not mirror the their own.

A friendly critique

As much as I would recommend this book as a source for churches and faith-based organizations working with kids, I’d still like to offer a friendly challenge to the essential distinction Root draws between faith and science.  According to Root, what best accounts for the salient difference between faith and science is seen when their aims or goals are made explicit.  Whereas faith “seeks the face of God in mystery (this is its soteriological goal),” the scientific “can only offer faceless answers” (139-40).  Elsewhere, faith has a “moral goal” (144) whereas the “goal of the scientific is to empirically deliverer results, solutions, answers.  But faith has little of this as its pursuit.  Faith reaches out not for results, solutions and clear answers, but for encounter with a transcendent personal reality that remains always shrouded in mystery” (112).  Generally speaking, Root’s claims are sound.  There’s an intuitive logic nicely captured in his image of “faceless answers.”  So to be clear, I am not saying that what Root claims here is wrong, per se.  I am saying, however, that at important points his rhetoric runs the risk of outpacing his argument.

Take prayer, for instance.  As a reminder, Root tells us that the “goal of the scientific is to empirically deliver results, solutions, answers.  But faith has little of this as its pursuit” (112; emphasis mine).  To drive home his point Root returns to the life and death (fictional) drama surrounding Gena and her cancer:

The health sciences see Gena mainly as her illness, and see her illness as the problem of low white blood cells.  But faith sees Gena as a person who must be ministered to.  The goal for the scientific in relation to Gena is to functionally overcome her sickness (something Jared, Aly, and her family yearn for).  But faith, on the other hand, asks, Who is Gena, and how does she live and participate in this personal world?  What kind of life and death upholds her personhood in love and mercy?  And in life and death, how might we help her commune with this personal God and those she loves?  These are quite different aims. (112)

In laudable effort to distance faith from mere instrumentalization (I pray X and I’m guaranteed Y) and emphasize its personal, experiential aims, Root runs the risk of blunting the scandal of petitionary prayer.  In other words, petitionary prayer—where we ask for things we do not have, for things to be different than they currently are—is certainly more than functional in its goal, but it is never less than that. 

Indeed, the practice of prayer perhaps pushes back even further on Root’s essential distinction between faith and science as one of aim or goal.  From the ancient world to the present, prayer has been described—with rare monotony!—as a dialogue between God and humanity.  Importantly, our prayers are always a response to a conversation God prompts (by the teaching and example of Christ), maintains (by the Spirit who speaks when we cannot (Rom 8)), and answers (by the Father to whom we direct our pleas).

If prayer is, as Robert Jenson argues, a distinctively human act, then perhaps one way of accounting for the difference between science and faith (as both human endeavors) rests not so much in aim as in object.  For in faith—of which prayer is its principal act, so says Augustine, Thomas, and Barth, for example—we approach truth (as an aim) in, through, and by our interaction with God as Truth (as Object).  In other words, what accounts for the most important distinction between faith and science is that in the former, its Object talks back.  In faith our truth-seeking is a response and so a secondary, not principle, move.

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: Lindsey Hankins

Lindsey Hankins is a PhD candidate at Princeton Theological Seminary with previous degrees in Historical and Systematic Theology (MA) and Christian History (MA) from Wheaton College and Biblical and Theological Studies from Bethel University, MN (BA). Her MA thesis, Making Martyrs Male: A Reappraisal of Gendered Rhetoric in Ancient Martyrdom Accounts, was written under the support of Wheaton’s Center for Early Christian Studies fellowship grant. She is currently completing a dissertation on Thomas Aquinas and prayer.

“Um, How Do I Pray?”

“Ms. Rachael, may I pray us out?”

I looked at David blankly for a moment, a bit in shock. Never in my year of knowing him had I ever heard him ask to pray. Even more, I’ve never even heard him share any prayer requests. I wasn’t even sure if he believed in God.

Um, How Do I Pray?

I quickly shook off my shock and responded, “Of course! Please, please pray us out. I’ll get us started and you can finish.” So I prayed for some of the prayer requests offered up then handed it over to David.

He paused for a moment, seemingly nervous. He then squeezed my hand, leaned in, and whispered, “Um, how do I pray?”

I looked around the room at the 22 other middle schoolers who, rather than seeming to judge David for his lack of knowledge, seemed to be waiting for the answer. How do we pray?

I work for an Episcopal church, which at its very center is The Book of Common Prayer. It seems as young Episcopalians who have been in church their whole lives, these kids would know without hesitation how to pray. As a person who has been praying for so long, I take for granted my ability to pray. It’s been important for me to remember that I actually had to learn how to do it.

In fact, an important part of my spiritual formation as an adult, has been to learn different ways to pray. 

I was reminded of the story in Luke of the Lord’s prayer in which Jesus’ disciples – those closest to him – asked him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples to pray.”

In fact, an important part of my spiritual formation as an adult, has been to learn different ways to pray.

And so we have the Lord’s prayer, which we mumble off in Church on Sunday mornings or at home. We almost take for granted that Jesus taught us this prayer not as something only to be said verbatim, but as a tool for understanding what prayer is and how to do it.

Teaching Youth About Prayer

With that in mind, I thought I’d offer you the ways in which I have been teaching youth about prayer.

1. Visuals

We are blessed enough to have a whole Youth House. An entire house devoted to the youth of our church. It has all the usual markings of a youth space – a ping-pong table and a pool table. It is always stocked with plenty of snacks and soda. Even with all these youthful fixtures, it felt like something was missing. I finally realized, other than a few crosses flung here and there, there was no real visible sign that this was indeed a sacred space, or a place where as a community we pray together.

So I hung up three peg boards in our gathering room. One for hanging prayers, one for hanging words of gratitude, and one for words of encouragement. On the first wall there are tags in a basket that students can take to write prayers and supplications on. They then hang it from the wall and know that I, or another leader, will pray for those requests that week. The tags stay up as a visible reminder that we are a praying community.

On the second wall, there is a similar basket with blank tags on which students can write words of gratitude. What are they thankful to God for that week? They can write it on a tag and hang it on the wall.

On the third wall there are tags with encouraging scripture verses or quotes from theologians hanging from string. If a student feels they need a word of encouragement for the week, or a friend might need one, they can take one of the tags. My hope is that eventually the room feels like it’s full of prayer not just because we pray in it, but because we can see the prayers for ourselves.

2. Listening for God

I think one of the most valuable things we can teach youth is that God is always speaking to them; that there is always a word from God to be heard.

A few weeks ago, I read the story of Jesus’ baptism to my high school group. I had them close their eyes for a moment and told them to imagine that the words of God to Jesus in the baptism story, were God’s words to them. I said aloud “you are my beloved child, with you I am well pleased.”

I then passed out envelopes and paper and pens and asked them to spread out throughout the youth house and be quiet for 5-10 minutes as they to wrote a letter to themselves from God. I promised I wouldn’t read them, and had them put the letters in sealed envelopes and to address the envelopes to themselves. I then promised to send the letters out in a few months. I told them I’d love for them to get in the practice of sitting and listening for God speak to them – that this in and of itself is a form of prayer.

3. Praying for each other

What does it mean to be a praying community? It means to be together in prayer. Part of the value of youth group is providing a community of peers for our youth. A true community that shares in one another’s joy and sorrows. We share highs and lows at each youth group – but to be in Christian community means that we’re praying for each other’s lows and praising God for each other’s highs.

I share a story with my youth about a time when I was struggling to pray. I couldn’t quite find the words, and was afraid that my prayers wouldn’t be answered. But I had a wonderful community around me lifting me up in prayer and I depended on them saying the words I didn’t have the courage to say.

I told my students I’d like them to be that for each other. I gave them each two pieces of paper and asked them to think of one person they know who needs some prayer – maybe they’re sick or sad. Maybe they’re lonely or have a hard test coming up. Whatever the prayer was, I asked them to write the name or the initials of the person they wanted to pray for and to hang it up on the prayer wall I mentioned earlier. Similarly, I told them to use the other piece of paper to write the name of a person they’d like to thank God for, or to say a word of thanks for something good that’s happened for someone they know and to hang that on the wall.

4. Praying for yourself

Prayer of ExamenSome people feel just fine listing off a list of petitions for God. Other’s feel to self-focused. We’re taught to be humble and to lack self-interest. But the truth is, God wants us to depend on Him; to rest in God and the truth that God will cover our needs. It can be helpful for youth to sit in quiet and examine where they sense a need.

Give them examples to help start this practice. Oftentimes some of our young people haven’t been taught to understand there are needs that aren’t material. In a wealthy community kids sometimes feel they have everything they need – water, food, shelter – what could they possibly ask for?

With this in mind I introduced my high schoolers to St. Ignatius’ Daily Examen. We lit candles, and I dimmed the lights. I had them take a couple of deep breaths and get comfortable, then I walked them through the Examen (this is a good resource if you are unfamiliar with the Examen). I did an abbreviated version which was about 7 minutes long. Then I passed out an Examen guide so they could practice it on their own if they chose.

Have Faith

Sometimes when we think of asking teenagers to pray, there’s some anxiety. Surely a 14-year-old boy can’t sit still long enough to do an Examen exercise. Well, have some faith in your youth. Prayer lightens our burden and yokes us to Christ. It is an essential part of Christian identity. We see Jesus going off to pray all throughout the Gospels. But prayer can be intimidating, so offering your youth tools and most importantly – encouragement is essential when you are the spiritual leader of youth!

What tools have you used to teach your youth about prayer? I would love to read about them in the comments!


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.