Guiding Principles for Talking With Teenagers About Science and Faith

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A 2011 Barna Study addressed the question nearly every youth minister and Christian parent is asking: Why are young people raised in the church walking away? And even more important, what can we do about it?  A decade later, those questions are still pressing and Barnas answers are still timely. Here at Rooted, we long to see God work through youth ministers, parents, and churches to flip the statistic so that students would increasingly walk with Jesus into adulthood. We believe this vision is best accomplished through the five pillars of gospel centrality, theological depth through expository biblical teaching, relational discipleship, partnering with parents, and intergenerational integration. In this series Rooted writers show how this gospel-centered framework for youth ministry can help us address the six most common reasons young people leave church. We hope these reflections will help you to walk in wisdom as you point students to trust in Jesus now and well after they leave home.

As youth ministers, we sense how important it is to our students to be able to meaningfully integrate what they hear in their science classes with their faith in Jesus. Accordingly, we want to provide teaching on the matter that would give them confidence in the Scriptures—without causing them to think they must disengage from scientific enquiry. But if you’re like me, the thought of constructing a youth group talk on the subject, much less a thoughtful series, makes you break into a cold sweat as you anxiously recall struggling through biology labs in high school and college.

I was therefore incredibly grateful for the kind offer of a scientifically qualified friend at church to tackle this subject as a Sunday School series with our high schoolers last year. I watched our students breathe a sigh of relief as he patiently demonstrated how, contrary to what many have heard, good science actually supports the existence of a Creator. A number of our students, several of whom are deeply interested in the sciences, later commented that it was the best Sunday school teaching they had ever heard.

You can read some of my friend Dr. Steve Jamison’s teaching content here, but let me share four guiding principles he modeled in the series that I would encourage you to draw on in your own teaching on science and faith.

1.) A warm and non-anxious tone.

The Barna research confirms what we sense intuitively but may often forget: Students take away as much or more from the tone of our teaching as they do from the content of what we say. According to the research, young people have often perceived Christians as antagonistic to science. They cite a lack of humility in the Church, saying “ Christians are too confident they know all the answers.” Sometimes the opposite may also be true: In our concern that students not reject their faith Christ, we may project anxiety as we try to present information that may be out of our comfort zone.

While we want to confidently present both a rational and an emotional defense for God’s creative authorship of His world, we should examine our own hearts before we begin. Are we so sure of ourselves that we’re at risk of bulldozing students’ questions? Or on the other hand, are we in danger of being driven by fear that teenagers will reject the faith? As Steve presented the data about science confirming the biblical witness, I was struck by the fact that it was probably the first time many of our students had heard a Christian adult talk about science without erring on one of these two extremes. Because of his obvious regard for science and the scientific community, they were able to hear his words of caution regarding naturalism.

2.) A deescalated debate.

As we present the biblical narrative and scientific data to our students, we can be transparent in sharing that this is a conversation upon which faithful Christians often disagree. At the same time, our students will be best helped if we can demonstrate that the perceived conflict between science and faith is not all it’s cracked up to be. Whatever the specific nuances of our own position on creation and evolution, we would want to at least emphasize for students, as Steve has demonstrated, that good science points to the existence of a Creator—and likewise, that the biblical account of origins does not leave room for evolutionary theory as the “grand theory of everything.”

In other words, it’s okay to acknowledge that there is a debate going on. But that debate need not compel them to walk away from Christianity or from our churches. They don’t need to check their brains at the door to believe the story of the Bible, but neither do all Christians have to agree on the best way to integrate science and faith.

3.) A vocational affirmation.

Students who are gifted in the sciences are likely to take the tension in these conversations personally. They may fear our disapproval if they perceive that our churches, or we as youth ministers, are anti-science. We will want to be especially sensitive to their experience. If we are successful in achieving points one and two, however, our students should also feel affirmed to pursue science courses and even a career in the sciences.

Rather than dissuading teenagers from learning about God’s world through the sciences, our goal ought to be to prepare them to think both biblically and critically about what they hear, so that they will not be “taken captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ” (Col. 2:8). We want to empower them to approach their scientific discovery as Christians, with the Christian story as their primary framework for making sense of the world.

4.) An emphasis on the gospel.

Above all, we want our teaching and our relationships with students to be shaped by the gospel of grace. We want students to be so dazzled by the beauty of Jesus’ perfect life and his death and resurrection in their place that they trust in him as the Creator and Redeemer of the physical world, as well as of their lives.

As our own lives are increasingly rooted in Christ, we will find that we are free to admit we don’t have all the answers. We pray that God would use us to remove the stumbling block of the perceived conflict between science and faith for our students so that they might “continue in their faith, established and firm, not moving from the hope held out in the gospel” (Col. 1:23).

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