How to explore questions about science and faith in your ministry

Photo by Greg Rakozy

It did not take long after I first became a youth pastor to realize all that my seminary training had not covered. 

I had received a sound theological education, but much of the day-to-day work required on-the-job training. How do I recruit volunteers? What YouTube videos are teenagers watching? What color should I paint the youth room? Decisions like these are what I spent much of my time thinking about. Most of them I could, with the help of others, figure out. 

But there was one area where I felt completely inadequate: talking about science. 

Several of the teenagers in our group loved science and even went on to major in the sciences in college. Me? I took the easiest science courses I could find and focused all my energies on the humanities. So I also took the easy route in youth ministry—I avoided the subject and let students figure out how science and faith related to each other on their own. Yet, after hearing that 29 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds with a Christian background view the church as out of step with the scientific world, and 25 percent of them view the church as anti-science, I can’t help but wish I’d done a better job showing my students that all truth leads to Jesus.[1]

Since then, I’ve been fortunate enough to work with pastors and scholars from around the US who have a lot of experience integrating science and faith.[2] I’ll share some of what I have learned and walk you through an example from a pertinent topic to today’s teenagers.

Five tips for integrating science into your youth ministry

1. Listen: 

Your students are encountering science in some way every day. Listen to what interests them and use that as a jumping off point. 

2. Research: 

When integrating science into a lesson, the first step is to do some research. You might even try subscribing to science websites that will curate the latest research, such as Popular Science,  Quanta Magazine, or Aeon Magazine. I also subscribe to eSTEAM and BioLogos, two organizations that view science through theological lenses.

3. Discern: 

It can be difficult to discern the good resources from the bad ones. When encountering new resources, ask yourself:

  • What type of site is it? Sensationalized news sites are going to sensationalize. Popular news sites are going to simplify. Science news sites are more nuanced but can also be more difficult to understand. 
  • What are the sources? Good sites tend to draw upon multiple researchers and studies, include dissenting voices, and ask scientists about their specialty. 
  • What is the bias? Is it an opinion piece? Press release? Written for practitioners? For philosophers? Is the site clear about this? Better sites are clear about the purpose of the article. 

4. Invite: 

If possible, extend an invitation to any scientists in your congregation or community who might be willing to share about their work—either with you ahead of time or with your students directly. This helps to ensure that accurate science will be presented and gives Christian scientists space to model scientific exploration as a Christian vocation. 

5. Explore Scripture further: 

Given what you’ve learned from the scientific community, take this back to Scripture and your understanding of how the Bible and the theology of your tradition speak to the questions at hand.

Applying this method to one topic: The Image of God

Let’s take this approach and explore it related to teaching about the Image of God. Depending upon your students, you might bring up a number of scientific findings in a lesson on the Image of God. Here’s how I might start. I know my students are interested in this topic because it came up recently in a study on Genesis, so I started with listening to their questions. Now I do a bit of online research:

  • If I’m interested in the archeological or genetic evidence on the origins of humanity, Big Questions Online has a great resource on this. 
  • Personally, I’m fascinated by genetics. So my first stop is to The Faraday Institute, an organization that has theological essays about complex scientific issues. Their essay, “Human Genomics and the Image of God,” will tell you about how Francis Collins, a Christian scientist, viewed his work as the head of the Human Genome Project as an act of worship. 
  • After this, I search one of my favorite science/theology resources, BioLogos, and find a great article by Denis Alexander entitled, “Genes, Determinism, and God.” Alexander argues that the science of genetics subverts any attempt to discriminate on the basis of their “genetic endowment.”
  • How about the cognitive biases that affect our thinking? This article from Nautilus will give me some insights. 

By now, I’ve got some ideas for how to bring science into my lesson and begin to dig deeper. Since our congregation has been talking a lot about diversity and difference through the lens of 1 John (“Let us love … in truth and action,” 1 John 3:18, NRSV), I see how genetics can begin to help us view all humans as bearers of the image of God. I am also vaguely familiar with how the field of genetics and DNA has been used to justify racism over the past century. So I do a little more digging into an excellent BioLogos article on the history of race. And yet, according to the National Institutes of Health’s Human Genome Project, the genetic difference between humans is only 0.1% at the base-pair level!

All this may not help us understand what Genesis 1:26-27 means when it tells that we were created in the image of God. We must turn to Scripture and theology for that. But it can tell us that science is helping us understand that we are more alike than we are different, and this echoes the biblical narrative. I might also look at John 1, Psalm 139, or Galatians 3:28 for further biblical study. 

Now I might consider how to integrate science and faith in our lesson.One easy and effective way could be to use science as the opening hook. I could open up by talking about the history of genetics and how it is so easy for us to find excuses to oppress others. Or I could bring in genetics to show how much we have in common, which echoes Scripture. Another option might be to focus on how that 0.1% of difference at the base-pair level of our genes is an incredible gift from God. It may be a relatively small number, but it is enough to produce an incredible amount of diversity in humans. That 0.1% contributes to different shades of hair, eye, and skin color, different heights and weights, and different talents and skills. I could also show this video documenting the reactions of people who discover their genetic ancestry for the first time, realizing how much more they have in common with people against whom they have held biases in the past. Any of these paths could strengthen a lesson and illuminate what it means to be a human made in the image of God.

As a bonus, I might invite a neuropsychologist who is part of our congregation to come share with students about how our brains reflect the Image of God, and our neurological pathways connect us with one another in profound ways. This is turning out to be a two-week series! 

Next steps and resources 

There are many other ways science can be integrated into youth ministry. 

When it comes to integrating science into your ministry, only your imagination is the limit.

Taking that first foray into the realm of science and faith can be difficult. But it is increasingly necessary if we are to facilitate lifelong faith in our youth. As a word of encouragement, I will leave you with this charge from Francis Collins:

“God is most certainly not threatened by science; he made it all possible. So let us together seek to reclaim the solid ground of an intellectually and spiritually satisfying synthesis of all great truths… . Our hopes, joys, and the future of our world depend on it.”[3]


Additional Resources

*Note that these resources represent a broad spectrum of theological and scientific approaches. FYI does not necessarily endorse the viewpoints or positions of authors or organizations included in this list.

Websites:

  • The STEAM Project: Science and Theology for Emerging Adult Ministries
    • In 2016, Fuller Theological Seminary received a grant to help 30 congregations integrate science into their ministry. You’ll find information about their projects on this website. You’ll also find several hundred categorized links to science and science and faith articles, books, websites, curricula, and videos.
  • The Search Institute
    • The Search Institute is one of the leading organizations researching what helps children and teenagers to thrive. It is worth wading through the plethora of information at this site to find the gems on youth development.
  • Plpit Initiative
    • Plpit helps pastors bring science into their sermons. They summarize scientific research, make theological connections, and offer ideas to include the research in congregational life. Check out this short list of Seven Ways to Put Science in the Pulpitfor ideas. 
  • The BioLogos Foundation
    • BioLogos is the leading organization in bringing evolutionary science into dialogue with the Christian faith. They have published hundreds of short, accessible articles on subjects as diverse as the multiverse and the genetic history of homo sapiens.

Curricula:

  • Youth Specialties - National Geographic’s "The Story of God”: A Free Discussion Guide
    • “The Story of God” is a remarkable documentary series on the National Geographic Channel. The host, Morgan Freeman, offers a unique, inquisitive perspective to how “god” is understood in different cultures and times that invites viewers to critically reflect on their own understanding of divinity. Youth Specialties designed a thorough curriculum for youth that is easily adaptable to different youth ministry contexts.
  • Fastly
    • Faith and Science Togetheris a curriculum designed for use in a Christian high school, although it can easily be adapted to other contexts. They have several activity guides on a variety of different subjects all available for free.
  • Faith and Science
    • This youth-group curriculum, sponsored by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, considers the general relationship between faith and science, how neurology and theology interact, and what it might mean for Christianity if aliens are discovered on another planet. It is primarily designed for a one-day retreat, although it can be adapted for other uses.
  • Science for Youth Ministry - A Cosmic Adventure through Science & Faith
    • This four-session curriculum winds through the history and philosophy of science and faith through compelling videos designed for teenagers. 
  • The Author of Life
    • Two youth group leaders, one a high school biology instructor and the other a school chaplain, produced seven short videos with discussion guides designed for Christian high school students. Most of the discussion revolves around evolution and the origins of life. Naturally, this includes questions surrounding the relationship of the bible and science and how God works in the world.
  • Jesus, Beginnings, and Science: A Guide for Group Conversation
    • David Vosburg, a chemist, and Kate Vosburg, a campus pastor, co-wrote a book curriculum with twelve lessons on what the Bible has to say about science, creation, and human origins. This is a good introduction into the conversation for youth and college-aged students.
  •  Test of Faith
    • This curriculum introduces participants to the integration of science and faith with contributions from some of the top Christian thinkers in the field

Books:

  • Mere Science and Christian Faith by Greg Cootsona
    • Greg Cootsona considers how perceived conflict between science and religion has contributed to the exodus of emerging adults from the church. He then shows how science and faith can work together and offers a number of examples, including Adam and Eve, technology, cognitive science, and sexuality.
  • Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies: Youth Ministry in the Age of Science by Andrew Root
    • Andy Root considers how science and faith might interact in youth ministries. He tells the story of a fictional youth minister, Jared, and his interactions with several fictional youth. These stories provide an accessible view of the history of science and faith, and a reminder of what’s at stake in the science and faith conversation—real people with real stories who struggle with loving Jesus and learning from science.

Articles and Videos:

  • Nature – “Sex and Drugs and Self-Control: How the Teen Brain Navigates Risk"
    • Teens are often stereotyped as emotional, irrational, and rebellious. Research on the nature of adolescent brains digs into this stereotype. A couple of recent studies suggest that when others are present, teens’ behavior changes. The presence of peers tends to produce riskier decisions, while the presence of others, say the teen’s mother, tends to produce safer decisions. (The video embedded in the middle is well worth the five minutes).
  • Frontline - "Inside the Teenage Brain"
    • Ever wonder what goes on inside of a teenager’s brain? This hour-long episode of Frontline interviews parent, teenagers, and a host of scientists to answer that question in terms non-scientists can understand. This episode was aired in 2002 so the video is a little grainy. However, the information is still helpful and interesting.
  • The Institute for Youth Ministry - "Big Juicy Questions"
    • Science is increasingly popular in the lives of youth and emerging adults. The author of this article, Tim Suttle, argues that ministries to young people need to engage science and make space for paradox and ambiguity.
  • Youth Worker - "Neuron, Shmeuron: Why Should We Care About Adolescent Brain Development?"
    • Mark Oestreicher of the Youth Cartel talks about how adolescents’ brains work and offers ideas to shape the ways we facilitate spiritual formation.
 

[1] David Kinnaman, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church and Rethinking Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011), 136.

[2] For more on science and faith in youth ministry, see Steve Argue’s 2017 blog post, “Youth Ministry’'s Pivot in the Faith and Science Conversation.”

[3] Francis S. Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (New York: Free Press, 2006), 233-34.