“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.
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.”
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.”
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?
http://kindredyouthministry.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Ive-seen-a-thing-or-two-small2.jpg4501200Amy Groverhttp://kindredyouthministry.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/logo-with-tag.pngAmy Grover2018-01-10 13:14:332018-01-10 13:14:48I’ve Seen a Thing or Two, Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies
Each year my wife and I lead membership classes at the church where we serve as pastors. This past year we had a twelve-year-old boy ask about as earnest a question as I’ve ever heard in any study, class, group, or program. He asked, “But what about the dinosaurs?” As he continued talking, it became apparent that the question behind his question was this, “If God created the world exactly as is written, where do dinosaurs enter and exit the history of the world, and why can’t I find them in the Bible?” It was a big, and meaningful question. Perhaps the question really was, “If dinosaurs don’t appear in the Bible, can I trust that it’s actually true?” Big questions for a twelve-year-old, and yet not uncommon at all.
What about the dinosaurs? It’s one of many meaningful and earnest scientific questions that our youth and young adults are asking in the church and of the church; and sadly, I don’t think we’re always offering well thought out, meaningful answers. Was the world created in six, literal, twenty-four hour days, or did the universe evolve over millions of years? Did Jesus actually rise from the dead? Was there really a flood? Are miracles real? Why am I here? How does it all end?
These are just a few of many questions that are being asked by youth as they grow up and interact with the world around them. Again, the question behind many of the questions is: “What is the meaning of life and where do I fit into it?” This is the crucial question we live our lives trying to answer. We might not all ask it in the same way or come to the same conclusion, but we’re all trying to figure out how we fit into the world around us.
In The Transforming Vision, Brian Walsh and Richard Middleton suggest that everyone has a worldview which includes four basic questions: “Who Am I? Where am I? What’s Wrong? What is the Remedy?”Sadly, I think these questions expose a truth about the church—it is largely unsafe to express doubt in church.
How often have we turned on the television and heard the host say, “Tonight we will be talking about faith versus science. Or first guest is a former University of Oxford professor, evolutionary biologist, and bestselling author. He believes that science, not faith, holds the answers to all questions. On the other side of the aisle we have Joe Smith, who will speak for the legitimacy of faith and Christianity. Joe home schools his kids, thinks Oprah is the Antichrist, and lives in a swamp.
This is the common myth: science and faith, like oil and water, simply don’t mix. Science is based on cold, hard fact, while faith is based on hopeful fantasy. Sadly, this idea permeates the church when we don’t offer a forum for questions to be asked and meaningful answers sought. Instead, and too often, we offer one answer, “the Bible tells me so,” and without realizing it we communicate to our youth and young adults that there is no place for questions or doubt within the church. When we fail to engage in meaningful conversations about science and faith, we miss an opportunity to use doubt as a moment for growth. Instead, we fear doubt and pretend it doesn’t exist or that it can be explained away with simple answers. In the process, we alienate those who are asking the tough questions and expecting meaningful answers.
What is Doubt?
Doubt is a feeling of uncertainty or lack of conviction. Interestingly, older definitions also include the word fear. I want to suggest that doubt is a problem in the church today, not because it necessarily leads to disbelief, a lack of faith, or a turning away from the church, but rather because we’re raising up a generation that doesn’t know what to do with its doubt. The church, I believe, has wrongly associated doubt with disbelief; thinking it is one step on the necessary path to atheism, or worse, leaving the church. In this sense, doubt has become something to avoid and fear. If, on the other hand, we were to embrace doubt, would we rather see an increase and flourishing of faith? The science and religion discussion, I think, opens up a conversation around a more fundamental issue in the church, “How do we deal with our doubt?” And more to the point of this post, “How do we encourage our youth to express and explore their doubt?”
When we fail to engage in meaningful conversations about science and faith, we miss an opportunity to use doubt as a moment for growth.
Doubt, rightly understood, can be a church term—a theological term that helps us understand God, the world, and our unique place inside of creation. Doubt helps foster faith, but only if it is engaged. When the twelve-year-old, or anyone for that matter, asks the question, “What about the dinosaurs,” the youth leader is faced with their own question, “Do I lean in and embrace the potential for doubt or do I shy away in fear of doubt?” When we engage doubt we create the environment for our youth and young adults to sharpen their faith. Doubt acts like a catalyst for greater faith to grow. If, on the other hand, we fear doubt, we create an environment where it is unsafe to ask questions and where we hinder the growth of faith. So, there really are two kinds of doubt; good doubt and bad doubt. Good doubt is used to foster faith and it arises when doubt is engaged. Bad doubt, on the other hand, is a doubt that is left largely unaddressed and unengaged.
The problem as I see it is that we don’t give ample space for our children, youth and young adults to ask meaningful scientific questions about reality. In doing so we inadvertently maintain their child-like faith with childish answers. When we avoid these questions in the church, people looks to find answers elsewhere. They often turn to science for answers to their questions about life and death. Ask any teenager what books they’re reading or podcasts they’re listening to and more often than not it will be a science based program. One of the main reasons this happens is because by its very nature, science is a process of asking questions and seeking answers. It is safe to ask questions of science. What we need to seriously reflect on is whether it is safe to ask those same questions of faith.
So the burden largely falls on the church to develop strategies for engaging the questions, doubts, and scientific interests of its children, youth, and young adults. One such strategy might be reclaimed from science itself, the scientific method, which is founded on the first step of asking meaningful questions.
The Scientific Method
The scientific method is the process by which scientific experiment is carried out. It involves formulating questions based on observations, making hypothesis, deriving predictions for logical consequences, and carrying out experiments to prove or refute the original hypothesis. 1. Begin with a question: “Why is the sky blue?” 2. Develop a hypothesis: Because light refracts through gaseous particles in the atmosphere. 3. Develop an experiment: Shine light through a solution of water and milk demonstrating that the blue light is scattered further than the other colors within the light spectrum making it visible.
My rudimentary (at best) scientific knowledge aside, what is apparent in the scientific experiment is a deep rooted hunger for knowledge and understanding. What I want to suggest is that it is that very spirit that we need to reclaim within the church today. In a sense, we need to reclaim the scientific method within the church; a fearlessness to address questions that might raise doubts about the things we believe.
A Potential Starting Point
As we continue to do faithful ministry in the local church, we need to reclaim the spirit of the scientific method and ask bold questions. As pastors and leaders we need to be the first to admit that we don’t have all the answers and that the Bible doesn’t contain every single answer to every single scientific question that can be raised. Humility, I believe, is the first step in embracing a culture within the church where there can be open and honest conversation about doubt, science and faith. Humility deescalates and disarms conflict, largely before it has even begun. Humility is also the very spirit that allows us to ask questions, for by asking questions we admit that there are things we do not yet know. When we address doubt from a place of humility we convey that it is safe to have meaningful discussion without a fear of judgement.
In the ministry I lead, one of our values is “No question is off limits.” It doesn’t mean we’ll answer all of the questions that come our way, or that we need to know the answers to every single question that can be asked. It does mean that we work hard to create a culture that embraces questions and isn’t afraid of searching for answers. If we are to steward the faith of the next generation well, we need to embrace dialogue between science and religion. We need to create cultures and environments where no question is off limits. We need to lean into doubt and recognize it as a crucial part of Christian formation.
Here are five things you can do right now to create environments for youth and young adults to ask questions, explore doubt, and foster faith.
5 Things You Can Do Right Now
1. Commit to the hard and sometimes awkward conversations
When we commit to the awkward conversation and awkward places in ministry, we do justice to people’s doubt and honor their process of learning and engaging with God.
2. Practice humility
Humility, I believe, is the best place from which to have awkward conversations. Acknowledging that it’s okay to struggle with doubt and okay to ask difficult questions is the starting point for dialogue.
3. No questions are off limits
We can communicate in many different ways that certain questions are off limits; explicitly and implicitly. One of the things I’m convinced of more and more is that youth and children especially need to know what is on the table and what is off the table. They need consistency. We need to affirm and reaffirm that there are no questions we won’t address and that every question is an opportunity for growth — both for the leader and the youth.
4. Pastor people through their doubt
Doubt is a part of a developing spiritual life. Pastoring people through their doubt well necessarily means leaning into doubt and embracing it rather than fearfully avoiding topics that might create or address doubt. The best practice is to approach it as a non-anxious presence, ready and willing to have meaningful discussion around issues of faith, science, and doubt.
5. Invite your parents to do the same
Again, we want to communicate a consistent message that doubt is okay and the church is a safe place to ask questions. Inviting the parents of our youth and children into the same awkward conversations gives consistency to that message. It is important to continually invite parents into the faith development of their children and youth. So equip your parents to sit well inside of the tensions that arise out of meaningful questions. They’ll be glad you did.
 Brian J. Walsh, J. Richard Middleton, Transforming Vision 35
 Mark Clark, The Problem of God: Answering a Skeptics Challenge to Christianity
 If you look at the top 10 most downloaded podcasts the list continues to include shows like “Stuff You Should Know,” and “RadioLab” which include conversations surrounding science and the meaning of life.
Grant Vissers is a husband and pastor at St. Paul’s Leaskdale North of Toronto. Growing up he wanted to be anything but a pastor. Really, anything. After graduating high school he finally accepted that he was being called into ministry.
Along the way Grant worked at camp for seven years and as a worship pastor for two in Montreal, Canada. In 2014, he graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary with his Master of Divinity degree and stepped back into ministry, but not before getting married in July 2014.
He loves Jesus and believe that even if you’ve given up on the church, God hasn’t given up on you.
http://kindredyouthministry.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/What-About-the-Dinosaurs-small.jpg4501200Amy Groverhttp://kindredyouthministry.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/logo-with-tag.pngAmy Grover2018-01-09 17:07:102018-01-10 13:20:34What About the Dinosaurs? Questions of Faith & Science
I felt like a real jerk. I was hosting a discussion for parents trying to think Christianly about sex and their teenage kids. After about an hour of convincing these parents they needed to talk with their kids about sex, Melissa raised her hands and in an act of desperation, asked for the words to share with her 13 year old son. I felt bad because of course I had no simple answer.Instead, we decided the best thing to do was to continue the discussion with one another as a community.
Parents who want to talk with their kids about sex. Impressive, right?
At my little Presbyterian church, a group of parents wanted to have an ongoing discussion about faith, sexuality, and parenting. Collectively we knew our kids needed us as parents to walk with them through their becoming sexual people- but almost none of us knew how to even begin doing this. With changes in technology, a seemingly hyper-sexual culture, and busier schedules than any of us had ever experienced- we were supposed to navigate this wildly intimate and important conversation. How could we make sense of that?
So, the parents did the most natural thing possible- they sent me to ask college kids for help.
I gathered a few rocking chairs on the porch of the church office with half a dozen college students and took out my yellow note pad. So…. How old were you when you first watched pornography? Who first told you about sex? How did that go? Did you ever hear the church comment on sexuality? What did they say? Who can you go to for questions about sex? What does being a Christian have to do with your sexuality?
The conversation was amazing! I was worried that they wouldn’t want to talk about sexuality at all, but in reality- they were desperate for someone to ask the questions and create a space for conversation. We laughed at funny moments and sat in silence with each other in a few moments of pain. They thought it was hilarious that a group of parents wanted to know what they thought, how their experience was, and if they had any parenting advice for these middle aged terrified adults in their church. At the end of our time the college students asked if we could do this again.
What a win!
Hard conversations are all around us and most of the time we avoid them like the plague. But how interesting that both the adult class on parenting and the college students gathering were hungry for more at the end of the hour. We actually agreed to schedule two more focused conversations next semester!
A common thread… no one is talking.
One big idea that both groups observed was that there was an implicit understanding that the church and sexuality had much to say to one another, but that rarely was there any helpful or productive dialogue. Most experienced nothing more than silence. Both groups, the parents and kids, left sexuality and faith as parallel but rarely intersecting aspects of our lives. The message most often communicated to kids was you shouldn’t touch, think, or talk about sex and if you do… there will be a miserably uncomfortable conversation to be had… so watch out!
Sometimes we just need to open the door to these conversations and trust that we can take a few steps.
But these experiences described above have proven otherwise. Sometimes we just need to open the door to these conversations and trust that we can take a few steps. I was forced to also consider what other hard or scary conversations are out there for parents. While sex clearly belongs in this category- so does the relationship between science and faith. But first, Love.
Lovely Mixed Messages
We are always being formed (and de-formed).
The question, however, is this: to what (or whom) are we being formed?
Over the years in youth ministry I came across a helpful question grounded in a story. We always tell stories, right? I would recall the evening I decided to tell my girlfriend (now wife of 15 years) that I loved her. I paint the picture of a nervous 20 year old with sweaty palms trying to find the right moment to announce his love. I set up the scene and invite those listening to imagine the tension, the fear, the excitement of the moment: “Bethany, I have something I want to say to you. I love you.” Then I leave people in the horribly awkward silence… and ask them… what is the only response that I was hoping for?
Of course the room shouts out “I love you too!”
God’s “I love you” is on display in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Our “I love you too” is the only response that makes sense. “I love you too” is the beginning of spiritual formation, and love then begins to take shape in our lives.This expression of love offers a trajectory of formation, an object of our affection- namely Jesus. Saint Augustine alerts us that our loves need to be managed, intentionally oriented towards God again and again:
“But living a just and holy life requires one to be capable of an objective and impartial evaluation of things: to love things, that is to say, in the right order, so that you do not love what is not to be loved, or fail to love what is to be loved, or have a greater love for what should be loved less, or an equal love for things that should be loved less or more, or a lesser or greater love for things that should be loved equally.” (1)
Having “Ordered Love” means keeping our eyes on Jesus.
When our hearts are ordered towards God our actions should begin to follow suit. The ways in which our love is on display are what we call virtues. Virtues, as simply defined by Smith, are moral habits internally orienting us to the good. (2) The goal is to live our “I love you too” towards God and neighbor with as much continuity of word and deed as possible. To have developed virtue would mean carrying out these habits without much thought as if they were natural. To respond to a false accusation with patience would be evidence of such a virtue and the hope would be that the development of such virtues would enable the Christian to more faithfully express love as a response to the love of God.
It’s important to keep this conversation in perspective- the development of virtue is not a human achievement. Rather, we are discussing the ways in which we participate with God in the shaping of our hearts towards God.
This is a work of the Holy Spirit, a gift!
We desire to embrace these virtues and ultimately, through imitation and practice, (3) begin to integrate these ideals as part of who we have been made to be in Christ. These habits, and the implications of our orienting our hearts and minds through them, create what James K.A. Smith calls “formative love shaping rituals”. (4) In short, this is his working definition for liturgy. Liturgies can be formative, or de-formative, love shaping rituals that draw us towards or away from God. Smith points out that our hearts are always discerning between what seems to be competing liturgies in culture.
Smith explains this experience almost as a dichotomy. Liturgies that lead towards a faithful ordering of our hearts desire and secular liturgies that lead away. His concern is surrounding habituation- the ways in which these secular liturgies might de-form the Christian, disorder their loves away from a central and exclusive focus on Christ. While I think there is value to this concern, it also seems worthwhile to remember that God’s goodness to the Christian isn’t bound up in their ability to remain faithful, but rather in the work of Jesus Christ. Still, the task of having clear eyes in order to name these liturgies is of great importance.
And here is our problem with science.
Science is not liturgy.
There is trepidation concerning conversations about science and faith because we have experienced the discipline of science as something far more than it was ever intended to be. What was a method for discovery was pushed into being understood as an all encompassing cultural liturgy- a narrative to define all narratives. Backing up we see the internal logic of cultural liturgies and how they come to be: (5)
Step 1. Love leads to Response
Step 2. Response leads to Expression (Virtue)
Step 3. Virtue gathered becomes Liturgy
A birth story: Science as cultural liturgy…
Our pursuit of understanding has given us a love for the empirical (step 1). This embrace of the empirical has lead to a response found in the scientific method as the epistemological method par excellence (step 2). This epistemic goal, grounded in the scientific method, is exercised across multiple disciplines and universalized as the filter by which all of reality is understood and evaluated (step 3). Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
Science saved my son’s life
Don’t get me wrong. I am grateful for the scientific advances of today. I like my iPhone, and our family of 7 drives a suburban. We are all for science! The gifts of the scientific age have been amazing, and no one wants to go back to a time before the enlightenment. My son needed a heart surgery at 18 months, I sure was a fan of science the day we brought him home from the hospital. It is clear that science and the scientific method are to be appreciated, utilized, and not treated with such skepticism in conversations regarding the faith.
The disciplines related to science were never meant to be universalized as virtue in total, much less an all encompassing cultural liturgy by which we measure everything. Andy Root calls these cultural liturgies social practices. He then points out that the tension between faith and science is more about the swollen place of science in culture as a “comprehensive social practice” rather than the discipline or methodology of science in it’s original form. (6) Once we distinguish between the scientific findings and theories gifted from the discipline of science versus experiencing science as the comprehensive social practice- we are able to have helpful conversations about the intersection of science and faith as constructive.
Back to Love
Once we name the temptation to choose the “comprehensive social practice of science” as a secular liturgy, then we are able relativize this misunderstanding in light of our ordered loves towards God and neighbor without losing science all together. This simply means that when science is placed in service of ministry- encountering God and the other- then we are engaging it properly and can enjoy all that it has to offer. I was grateful for science when my son needed heart surgery because I love my son! I am grateful for my suburban and iPhone because this last thanksgiving we drove down to be with family and our iPhone helped us navigate the traffic as well as listen to some great podcasts (in particular a kid friendly NPR science podcast called “Brains On!”).
Science and Rocking Chairs…
Science doesn’t need to be scary. Those hard conversations on the porch in a rocking chair can take place now because we aren’t talking about competing ideologies- but rather questions about findings and theories and how they relate to the work of God in the world. This will still be challenging- but this is good news!
One of the major concerns of youth ministry today is that all we have invited kids into what Dr. Kenda Dean calls the “church of benign whatever-ism” where we teach “that Christianity is not a big deal, that God requires little, and the church is a helpful social institution filled with nice people focused primarily on folks like us.” (7) This indictment is echoed by Dr. Ben Conner who claims that “youth ministry, at it’s worst, is about creating sober virgins who go to college.” When Youth Ministry withdraws from difficult conversations about things that matter- like sex, or science, it’s no wonder that young people dismiss the church!
So we practice…
In the same way that my community is wrestling with how to have healthier conversations around sexuality with our teenagers, we must learn as communities of faith how to properly engage conversations about faith and science. So far, most of the time, this has been to embrace the “comprehensive social practice of science”, drinking the Kool-aid, and fighting full stop against what is perceived to be a direct affront. But this is a false dichotomy! Understanding that we are talking about placing scientific findings and theories into conversation with the work of God in the world- we are able to take a different approach. An approach of hope and joy as we seek to understand this wild gift of life and creation and one another!
My goal here has been to entice you towards the conversations that so many kids wish they could have… maybe it’s about sex, but I also think they want to explore holding science and faith together. So far… most of the time, the church has done everything it could to keep these apart not knowing how to handle the situation. My guess is that this is driven more by fear than anything. So lets be better than that- fear gets no say in a ministry held up by Jesus.
We have a chance to be intentional and thoughtful when it comes to having these conversations. My good friend and colleague in youth ministry, Rachael McNeal, has written a great blog post about this very thing. Go check it out!
(3) Smith points to imitation and practice as the primary means of acquisition for the virtuous life. This will come back into play at the end of this blog post when we discuss practices that might enable a healthier engagement with the so called “competing liturgies” of science and faith.
(4) Smith, You Are What You Love, 22.
(5) I realize that I am creating all sorts of problems in this massive reduction of understanding. My goal is to help us begin, to move towards, connecting with this much larger and more complex idea. Baby steps!
(6) Root, Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies, 55.
(7) Dean, Almost Christian, 12.
About the Author: Justin Forbes
Justin serves as the director of the Youth Ministry program at Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL and has been involved in youth ministry since 1998. He’s also a co-founder of Kindred Youth Ministry. His passion is teaching and mentoring youth ministers. Click here to read more about Justin.
http://kindredyouthministry.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Sex-Love-Science-small.jpg4501200Amy Groverhttp://kindredyouthministry.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/logo-with-tag.pngAmy Grover2018-01-09 13:39:412018-01-10 13:16:04Sex, Love, and Science: Let's Talk About Talking About Science
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?
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.
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.
In 1965 seventeen-year-old Randy Gardner set a world record by going without sleep for eleven days. Though others have attempted and claimed to accomplish similar feats since Gardner, Gardner’s case stands out because of Gardner’s youth and because of the extent to which his condition was monitored throughout his sleeplessness. Among those keeping watch was Stanford sleep scientist William C. Dement, who chronicled the effects of Gardner’s self-induced insomnia.
[Gardner] became irritable, forgetful, nauseous, and, to no one’s surprise, unbelievably tired. Five days into his experiment, Randy began to suffer from what could pass for Alzheimer’s disease. He was actively hallucinating, severely disoriented, and paranoid. He thought a local radio host was out to get him because of changes in his memory. In the last four days of his experiment, he lost motor function, his fingers trembling and his speech slurred.
Gardner survived and recovered, but the trauma of sleeplessness and the fear of what could happen during future record-setting attempts ultimately led the Guinness Book of World Records to cease tracking duration of sleeplessness as a record. An exceptionally rare genetic disorder suggests the Guinness Book made a wise choice. Fatal Familial Insomnia affects only about twenty families worldwide. It typically manifests itself in adults in their thirties, and the condition makes it impossible for its victims to sleep. Its symptoms include fevers, tremors, profuse sweating, uncontrollable muscular jerks and tics, feelings of crushing anxiety and depression, and psychosis. “Finally, mercifully, the patient slips into a coma and dies.”
The facts that a genetic disorder causes Fatal Familial Insomnia and that Randy Gardner ultimately recovered from his self-induced insomnia may lead us to the popular conclusion that sleep deprivation is a bit like middle school: inconvenient, but not fatal, and most recover.The science of sleeplessness suggests otherwise.
Consider, for example, the influence of fatigue on driving. “[F]atigue-related crashes account for 1.2 million accidents and 500,000 injuries annually – including 60,000 debilitating injuries and 8,000 fatalities,” and young people are disproportionately likely to drive drowsy. Furthermore, inadequate rest among young people has been associated with obesity, anxiety, physical distress, problems with memory consolidation, ADHD, and mental illness. This should give us pause. Sleep and rest – according to developmental and sleep science – are matters of life and death. Yet the broader culture shrugs its collective shoulders, and young people find themselves caught in the crosshairs.
Does youth ministry have any sense of what’s at stake when it comes to rest? Youth group lock-ins suggest not. Another tradition deep in the Judeo-Christian theological tradition suggests maybe so.
Sabbath: We’re Incomplete without It
Though theologians, pastors, and youth ministries frequently overlook it, the very first saga in Scripture features rest at its apex. Swiss theologian Karl Barth (rhymes with tart) looks to the seven days of creation in Genesis for vital clues about the identity of God, creation, and the nature of the relationship between the two. Barth insists that God’s goal and purpose for creation is to make possible the covenant relationship between God and humanity in Jesus Christ. God creates the heavens and the earth so that God can be in relationship with creation, and with humankind in particular. The first six days already reveal the initial contours of this relationship, yet as Barth turns the page to the seventh day, he writes, “Creation is finished, but the history of creation is not yet concluded.”
Does youth ministry have any sense of what’s at stake when it comes to rest?
There is more to the story than the first six days. While Barth clearly did not use the NRSV in his study of the seventh day, the NRSV translation of these verses lifts up a dimension of the text which Barth emphasizes. Note the confusing use of the word “finished”: “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done” (Genesis 2:1-2). The first use of “finished” appears to point backward to the work of the first six days. That work is finished. And yet, on the seventh day, God “finished” the work that God had done. How do we make sense of this? How is it possible that on the seventh day God both finished and rested from all the work that God had done?
Barth insists the finishing and the resting cannot be separated. This, however, does not mean that God continues creative activity similar to the first six days. Rather, it means that on the seventh day, it is God’s very rest that brings the whole creation – and humankind as part of that creation – to completion. Imagine. It is no material thing that finishes creation. Rather, it is God’s Sabbath rest and the implied invitation to all of creation to join in that rest. On this read, we remain incomplete and unfinished apart from Sabbath rest.
The sleep science and the Sabbath do not say exactly the same thing, but they do surely raise common questions. Faith and science converge on questions of rest, sleep, and young people. They converge to ask, what if it is true? What if Sabbath and sleep science both echo a deep and mysterious truth about what it means to be human? What if our very lives and even the whole of creation remain unfinished and incomplete apart from regular and sufficient rest? How would this change our young people? How would it change our ministries, our teaching, our parenting, or our relationships to work and technology? How would it change us?
Though vibrant and relevant answers to these questions require input from those closest to us and our ministries, I’ll offer here a few ideas to get the ball rolling.
This isn’t as crazy as it sounds. I know a youth pastor who scheduled mandatory nap time into all the retreats and trips she led for her youth group. It took some time for the tradition to take root, but it wasn’t long before the youth named nap-time as one of the primary reasons to go on youth trips. When new youth come along, they sometimes scoff, yet the youth who know the grace of the naps quickly defend the quiet time. The napping tradition echoes the theological conviction of the seventh day of creation: rest is integral to our identity. It’s just part of who we are.
In 1859, nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale wrote, “Unnecessary noise is the most cruel abuse of care which can be inflicted on either the sick or the well.” Contemporary science suggests Nightingale had it right, but do we ever give our young people the gift of silence? Or are we more likely to frantically fill every moment with noise (talking, music, videos, earbuds, etc.)? Just this week, I spoke with a youth pastor who works in an affluent community in Florida. She incorporates extended times of silence into prayer with her junior highers. At the end of a recent gathering, she gave them the choice of ending a bit early or doing silent prayer. They chose silent prayer. How might we regularly include silence into the rhythms of our ministries?
Slow Food (not what you think)
For many of us, quick meals at fast food joints while traveling from one place to another are part and parcel of our youth ministries. We have to get to the retreat by 8:00 Friday night; we left right after school; we stop in a hurry; “Everybody eat as quickly as you can so we can get on the road!”
What would it look like to orchestrate meals with our youth that are intentionally slow? In Genesis 1, the description of the sixth day includes explicit mention of food. God provides food for all creation (Genesis 1:29-30). Then comes Day Seven. It implies there may have been some slow dining on that first Sabbath. When God provides manna in the wilderness for the Israelites, the Sabbath instruction forbids gathering manna but commands eating (Exodus 16:25). What if a slow meal sensitizes us to God’s presence and provision?
I’m on tricky ground here because many who lead youth ministries also take the lead when it comes to worship. That may not feel like rest. It may not be rest. Yet vast swaths of the Judeo-Christian tradition have included and continue to include worship of God (prayers, song, teaching, sacraments) within their Sabbath keeping. At some level, we might even argue that worship is the whole point. At its best, our worship of God reminds us that human achievement, status, and accomplishment have never been enough to bring us to life or save us from ourselves or others. God alone brings life and salvation. Both Sabbath and worship point to this. Maybe we can thoughtfully put them together. Even if leading worship is part of our job, at the least we can teach young people how worship at its best embodies holy rest.
A Word of Caution
I’d like to think all of this sounds enticing – like a delectable multi-course meal. Through the Sabbath, God does offer an extraordinary invitation. Yet if we’re addicted to noise, productivity, and fast everything like I think we are, then we should be prepared for a real struggle. The Sabbath challenges identities rooted in ceaseless motion or getting stuff done. It calls for their passing. If your journey is anything like mine, this means that the Sabbath journey will go through anxiety and death, not around it.
Thankfully, we serve a resurrection God who would never lead us through the death of any identity unless a truer, more faithful identity was already prepared. The hope is that in the end we may hear God’s stunning affirmation: “You are my beloved child.”
May it be so.
This blog is excerpted and adapted from Disorienting Grace: Youth, Sabbath, and the Hope of a Grace-Rooted Identity by Nathan T. Stucky, William B. Eerdmans Publishing, forthcoming.
 As reported by John Medina. John Medina, Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School (Seattle: Pear Press, 2008), 151-2.
The Rev. Nathan T. Stucky, Ph.D., hails from Kansas but lives in Princeton, NJ, where he serves as Director of the Farminary Project at Princeton Theological Seminary. An ordained Mennonite (Mennonite Church USA), Nate’s work with the Farminary integrates theological education with small-scale, sustainable agriculture at Princeton Seminary’s 21-acre farm. He has a special interest in the role of community formation and Sabbath in the education of pastors, church leaders, youth ministers, parents, and young people. A musician, frequent retreat speaker, and farmer, Nate holds a B.A. in music from Bethel College (Kansas), and a M.Div. from Princeton Seminary. Before coming to Princeton Seminary, Nate worked in youth ministry and farming. He and his wife, Janel, are the happy parents of Joshua (11), Jenna (8) and Isaac (5).
“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.
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.
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….
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.
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.
“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.
Also, 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.
http://kindredyouthministry.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Meaning-Wonder-of-Youth-Small.firstname.lastname@example.org://email@example.com 06:00:362017-07-04 01:33:17The Meaning and Wonder of Youth
Knowledge is fostered by curiosity; wisdom is fostered by awe. Awe precedes faith; it is the root of faith. We must be guided by awe to be worthy of faith. Forfeit your sense of awe, let your conceit diminish your ability to revere, and the world becomes a market place for you. The loss of awe is the avoidance of insight. A return to reverence is the first prerequisite for a revival of wisdom, for the discovery of the world as an allusion to God.
Abraham Heschel, Who Is Man?
Science, Faith, and Wonder
Curiosity, awe, reverence—wonder. All of these are tied up in wonder. Together they are the desire and ability to encounter something simply because it is interesting, awesome, or holy. In my understanding , wonder is a virtue, something that we should help young people cultivate over time. Sadly, North American society disagrees with me.
A peculiar pragmatism rooted in the material reality around us structures our lives in such ways that we are not only blind to wonder, we actively avoid it, going so far as denigrating it. Shoving aside wonder and settling for its enemy, willful ignorance, leaves us with bald anti-intellectualism and a reduced sense of reality. This kind of reduction hurts us as individuals and as a church because wonder is at the root of both science and faith.
Sometimes science and faith get pitted against each other as if they are antagonists in some cosmic MMA fight. Science gets reduced to solving material problems and faith gets reduced to solving our spiritual needs in this battle royale.
To defeat willful ignorance, to overthrow anti-intellectualism and expand reality past the mere physical, science and Christianity must band together and use the power of wonder in active battle.
The Battleground of Youth Ministry
While there are many fronts to this battle, one where there is a natural overlap is in youth ministry. Young people of high school age are both discovering God at a deep level and engaging in the deeper questions of science. And isn’t it the hope of every teacher to inspire their protégés to love science so much that they pursue it all the way down? Isn’t it the prayer of every youth worker and faithful parent for their loved young person to be so enraptured with God that they become a disciple?
At the foundation of science and at the root of Christian faith is wonder, and youth ministry must pay attention to wonder for the betterment of science, Christianity, and young people.
At the foundation of science and at the root of Christian faith is wonder, and youth ministry must pay attention to wonder for the betterment of science, Christianity, and young people.
Language of battle and wonder and anti-intellectualism can sound more dramatic than the prosaic reality. Take a conversation between two middle-aged men I overheard. I was sitting in a hospital waiting room and they entered having a loud conversation.
Blue Flannel Guy: “…there you go again using a $50.00 word, spending money like you’ve got tons. Can’t you just use a $1.00 word instead?”
Green Flannel Guy: [Awkward chuckle.] “Well it is pretty early in the morning, I’ll have to think of something.”
Blue Flannel Guy: “Seriously. Who uses ‘all-e-gor-ay’ and expects other people to understand what they mean?”
Green Flannel Guy: “Well, you know, I was just talking, you know, just…”
There are a number of problems with this scene, not least of which are sartorial. Now, stop. Really stop and honestly answer whether or not you know the word “sartorial” in that last sentence? Could you intuit its meaning? Did you look it up?
Both of those responses, contemplating the meaning of “sartorial” or researching it, call for creativity and curiosity. Ignorance can lead to wonder which in turn calls forth creativity and curiosity. Sadly, Blue Flannel Guy exhibited neither of those traits. Instead, Blue Flannel Guy made fun of his friend for using a literary term that a society that has near universal education should likely know. For Blue Flannel Guy, his ignorance was not the problem; Green Flannel Guy’s discussion of something that he had worked hard at understanding was the problem.
This kind of anti-intellectualism isn’t particularly noteworthy except that there are consequences when we, as a society and as a church, let these kinds of exchanges go on without remark or critique. Consider the number of unfamiliar terms that Blue Flannel Guy, Green Flannel Guy, and me, Know-What-”Allegory”-Is Guy will encounter as we step into the medical doctor’s office.
For example, I was in the doctor’s office because a friend was having an electroencephalogram. Because I know some Greek I can see that “electro” and “encephalo” and “gram” are distinct words and can piece together that an EEG, what the test is usually called, is really an electrical picture of the brain. And this is how it was described by the technician to my friend.
The technician was a student herself and was being apprenticed by another trained staff. The technician-in-training hooked up 29 different sensors to my friend’s head and upper body, all the while holding two conversations. One, with my friend, was describing in accessible ways what was going to happen. She used words that were precise but not technical like, “I’m placing these sensors so that they can create an image of your brain in that computer there.” The other, with the supervising staff member, was filled with hard words that I would need to look up. She was clearly referencing different parts of the brain and methodically working through a process that involved a great deal of precision and technical expertise.
The Need for Expertise
I did not begrudge the technician her use of $50.00 words. I would never think to denigrate her for knowing them. Truth be told, I would have been scared if she hadn’t used them. She was, after all, hooking up electrical sensors to my friend’s brain. I wouldn’t want her to be ignorant of what she was doing when I have no idea what the health consequences might be for my friend.
Ignorance can lead to wonder which in turn calls forth creativity and curiosity.
I wonder if Blue Flannel Guy would be calling out his doctor for using $50.00 words rather than $1.00? Later I overheard him talking about why he was there. He had cancer. He needed a blood test to see how the treatment had gone. He was facing a 50/50 chance of dying soon and only medical science, with all its $50.00 words, could save him.
Lucky for Blue Flannel Guy, at some point someone had to wonder how the human body worked. At some point we knew very little about the human body but we wondered what made it move. We ate and wondered how that worked. We had sex and then nine months later had babies. This was a mysterious process that prompted us to wonder. The human form fascinated us and so we began to sketch it, to poke it, to prod it, to test it, and eventually dissect it so we could take our sketching, poking, prodding, and testing down, down, down, all the way to the molecular level. Once we learned some things we had to unlearn them and discover new things and then we could build knowledge from there. And in the process of wondering and studying and searching we saved millions of lives. Millions.
When Utility Overshadows Wonder
But science, when combined with capitalism, has denuded the wonder that founded it. We don’t value wonder; we value utility. Science is a tool that we use to get something that we want. We want longer life and so we invest heavily in research and development and then sell the results of that research as drugs to those who are dying.
At some level this is actually a good thing. Again, note the millions of lives saved. Science, when understood in relation to capitalism, always leads to a kind of pragmatism. This pragmatism can be the good kind or, as often is the case, the bad kind.
Good Pragmatism: Responsible Humanitarianism
The good kind poses questions that are germane to the broader human experience of life together. It uses wonder and instead of inquiring about the object—say, cancer or tuberculosis—it inquires about the humans that suffer from cancer or tuberculosis. Science is a tool to solve problems broadly held to be morally and practically important.
For example, we can think of Paul Farmer and the organization he helped found, Partners in Health. Farmer’s quest is nothing less than the eradication of tuberculosis and AIDS from the poorest of the poor in the world. His story, as told by Tracy Kidder in Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World, is one of deep, and good, pragmatism.
Farmer saw his patients dying from tuberculosis, which science had dealt with in parts of the world that could afford treatment. The problem: drugs exist to save lives but the current system means that millions will needlessly die. Besides using science to solve the problem of tuberculosis, he used science to answer a deep wondering—what would a country of Haiti be like if they did not die of tuberculosis?
Bad Pragmatism: Profiteering Oppression
In contrast, the bad kind of pragmatism limits the scope of the problem to the immediate beneficiaries. That is, it focuses strictly on those who financially benefit from a new drug rather than those who would physically and emotionally benefit from a new drug.
For example, we might remember Martin Shkreli, who raised the price of an AIDS drug by more than 5,000% overnight. When defending this decision before the United States Congress, he repeatedly invoked his Fifth Amendment rights to cover up the fact that he knew that this was immoral. Shkreli’s company maintains that they lost money on Daraprim, the AIDS drug—yet they approved $685,000 in raises for three highly compensated executives the month after raising the price and spent $23,000 to charter yacht service for a night, $6,500 in fireworks, and $250,000 on entertainment, listed on the receipt as a “celebrity performance.” This is an instance of bad pragmatism: using science to solve an immoral problem, namely, how to line the pockets of CEOs.
Pragmatism Neuters Wonder
This combination of science and capitalism that leads to pragmatism, either good or bad, is one of the main culprits of the willful ignorance that leads to anti-intellectualism in our society. We risk fundamentally misunderstanding science when we reduce it to its pragmatic benefits for us, however good those benefits might be. We willfully look past the fact that the giants of the science world have moved well beyond a simple mechanistic vision of the universe because we can easily see the benefits of that simple mechanistic view.
What has quantum mechanics done for making my life better? More than four dimensions are possible? So what? Does it make my phone get a better signal? If not, it’s too hard. Too much deep thinking for so little pragmatic benefit. As long as the doctor can cure us of cancer or find out what is wrong with our brain, we don’t care what words they use, what got them to that point, how the body fits into the rest of the matter of the universe. We just want results. Because we conceive of science pragmatically, we miss that a science rooted in wonder isn’t asking the same questions.
If we are honest, Christianity falls victim to the same dangers as science does. Christianity plus capitalism equals a certain kind of pragmatism. Our faith becomes something that helps us to do something else, but does not have value in and for itself.
God can help us when we struggle. We search the Psalms and find comfort knowing that God is our rock and our fortress because we really want God to be that in our life at that time. God becomes a cosmic soother or blankie because we are scared and frightened.
God can help us when we have an ethical dilemma. We think and meditate on the Ten Commandments or the double love commandment that Jesus gives us, distill them to life principles, and apply them to whatever situation we face. God becomes an ethical principle because we need to do the right thing. Whatever the case, God is anything but God, since pragmatism will always start with our problems, our needs, and our wants.
God Is No Pragmatist
This reduction of God to something based on us as humans inherently reduces the role of wonder in our faith. We cease to be captivated and awed by God as God, we stop wondering how the divine can take shape in the material world, we cease our search for understanding how God and time interact or how atonement works or how sanctification really plays out or … well you get the picture. We find answers and settle for them because they work. Providence becomes palliative and grace transforms into an ethical principle.
God was never interested in being simply a principle.
It turns out that God was never interested in being simply the answers to our needs. God was never interested in being simply a principle. God insists on being so much more—the power that creates, sustains, and accompanies all things. That God does not come to us as a principle but as a person—namely, Jesus Christ—is far from pragmatic. It is wonderful and lavish.
Mountain or Molehill?
Presenting it this baldly likely has some protesting. “Hey, I read my Bible! I let God be God!” And this may be true for you. But consider whether it is easier to lead a youth program based on God being God or on the pragmatic God?
Education: How Can I Apply This?
Two experiences jump to mind for me. First, for a number of years I taught youth ministry to undergraduates. Many of those students were amazing and it was a privilege to be present with them as they started out their university education (I taught an Intro to Youth Ministry course). However, I am sure that many of them would tell you that they struggled to see how some of what we discussed “applied” to what they imagined youth ministry to be.
When discussing youth culture, “postmodernism” was a catch-all phrase meaning all things bad. Universally the students had learned in their churches that postmodernism was antithetical to the Gospel, that Jesus had nothing to do with it, and that it was dangerous. I took that as a challenge and assigned Foucault, Derrida, and Lyotard. To a student the response was, well, incredulous. “Why are we studying this! How can I apply this!”
Any time someone skips straight to application, you know you are deep in the grip of pragmatism which cannot wonder about reality outside the narrow criteria of utilitarian value. And this was my response. We study these thinkers because they are asking deep and significant questions about reality, a reality that young people live in. We might disagree with their answers but unless we wonder alongside them, how do we really know that Derrida is the devil? Wonder was not a virtue that their churches had inculcated within them.
Congregations: Challenged to Wonder
The second has less to do with youth ministry and more to do with the church culture at large. I sit on a committee of my denomination charged with considering church doctrine. It is largely made up of academics, ministers who have graduate degrees, and lay people with advanced education. These are not dumb people.
Yet, when I used the word “apophaticism” in a paper meant for them, more than one essentially pulled a Blue Flannel Guy. “While I have access to a dictionary right here on my computer, this is an unfamiliar word and should be excluded.” Really? Apophaticism is a form of mysticism that approaches questions of God through the negative. If you have ever uttered the phrase, “dark night of the soul,” then you have uttered an apophatic statement. There are large chunks of Scripture that witness to God in an apophatic way (think Wisdom literature). Throughout Christian tradition there have always been those who have wondered about God this way. Yet, in a forum filled with educated people discussing theology, I am instructed to dumb it down?
Wonder as Respecting the Other
Wonder, at least as I am presenting it, requires that we encounter the other as a subject and an agent in its own right. We don’t wonder about an object without respecting that it is other than us, that its existence is complex, that there is a mystery inherent because we can never wholly capture it, that there are limits to our own knowledge and therefore limits that the object we encounter cannot transcend as well. If this sounds a lot like what Andy Root argues in places like Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry or The Relational Pastor, then good. Where Andy focuses on our relationships with each other and therefore with God, I am extending part of that logic to science and Christianity.
Andy’s critique of youth ministry is that it has been captured by a certain kind of pragmatism, the same kind that I tried to describe that has also captured science. There are better and worse forms of it, but at the end, it is all problematic because it reduces something that is far more complex, mysterious, tragic, and wondrous to an expression of our own perceived needs. Frankly, we don’t know ourselves very well when we reduce our own needs to that which we can easily understand or articulate.
Real Living Requires Wonder
Both science and Christianity, at least in their best forms, reject a kind of pragmatism infused with capitalism. Rather, both science and Christianity beg for an encounter that starts in wonder and leads to curiosity and diligent study. When pragmatism reduces us to our own poorly understood needs it also reduces the possibility of wonder as wonder.
So how do we “apply” this? How can we inculcate wonder? I have three suggestions:
First, I think that we do not make sufficient use of North American wilderness and young people. It takes days, perhaps weeks, of exposure, but we can help young people get close to wonder by removing them from the distractions of modern convenience . To sit on rocks as a raging river rumbles at your feet, to cross over a pass among the Rockies, or to contemplate the intricacy of a spider web—all can induce wonder, awe even. This is not some kind of natural theology, but it does force someone to take the natural world as it is and not as it serves us.
We have a God who is ceaselessly, unpragmatically creative, so let yourself be formed in the image of this God, rather than the God of American pragmatism.
Second, we should not shy away from pushing young people to grapple with some of the great questions of faith. This includes grappling directly with Scripture. Of course not everyone will become great theologians or scholars; however, programs that push young people not only to make a commitment to Jesus Christ, but also to think broadly about what discipleship means in their context, can only help dispel the anti-intellectualism that permeates much of youth ministry.
Third, we can model an alliance between science and Christianity. By broadening our own understanding in the areas that we are weak in, either science or Christianity, we can exercise our own wonder. If we are not curious, if we are only interested in applying whatever we learn, then how can we expect young people to do anything but? Clearly, we operate within a world dominated by economic pragmatism, so wholesale rebellion is not likely, perhaps not desirable. But it is a worthy goal of wondering broadly, of searching for answers to questions that entice us into areas of ignorance, and for appreciating the mystery of science or Christianity. The reality of both depends on it.
The Capacity for Wonder
So don’t be satisfied simply with application. Model wonder for your young people, drawing them to the tremendous God you love and want them to learn to love as well. Be willing to explore those vistas of ignorance in your life, and cultivate your capacity to wonder. We have a God who is ceaselessly, unpragmatically creative, so let yourself be formed in the image of this God, rather than the God of American pragmatism.
About the Author: Blair Bertrand
Blair has been doing youth ministry since he was a youth, a time when his beloved Montreal Canadians were still winning Stanley Cups. While working in churches as a youth director, he discovered that he wasn’t bad at school. He now has an M.Div., and M.A. in Youth Ministry, and a Ph.D. in Practical Theology, all from Princeton Theological Seminary. His last call was to be the minister at congregation doing a big building project in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia and his next call is overseas; Blair, with his wife and three kids, are all moving to Malawi so he can teach at a seminary and consult in the denominational youth office.