Youth Ministry’s Pivot in the Faith and Science Conversation
If you’re a youth pastor or student ministry leader, one critical task you hold is planning and choosing teaching topics throughout the year. Chances are good that from time to time you wonder, “How will we address the ‘faith and science’ conversation with our students this year?” For most of us, this isn’t an easy question to answer!
Young people today live in a world where science has cloned animals, explored global warming, heard the heartbeat of a fetus, demonstrated that the earth has limited resources, improved human health conditions, and revealed up-close pictures of Saturn’s moons. Science is exciting, and young people are more informed than ever.
As new discoveries shape and reshape our understanding of the physical world, it won’t be uncommon for youth workers to be expected to address new perspectives in our teaching. Even more, young people are looking to trusted adults like us to help them speak of faith and science as friends, not enemies. Entrenched positions that demand young people choose a “side” between faith or science offer a lose/lose proposition that seems unrealistic for young people, and honestly, unfair.
But this tumultuous narrative of faith and science is not necessarily the narrative that adolescents and emerging adults want to believe. In response, we can make a few pivots in the way we approach faith and science with our students, perhaps shifting some of our assumptions in order to forge more fruitful conversations.
In particular, let’s consider making a missional pivot, a pedagogical pivot, and a formational pivot.
1. Make a missional pivot from youth ministry as an “end” to a “beginning”
The pressure youth workers feel from others who believe that their job is to “get kids back in church” rests on an assumption that youth ministry is some sort of stop-gap where young peoples’ faith is solidified before they head out into the world. This is an unrealistic expectation, but one we sometimes start believing ourselves. Instead, we must remember that youth ministry ought to establish a “beginning” in one’s spiritual journey, not an “end.” While the spiritual journey starts long before adolescence, we are guides through a season that prompts new beginnings in the way young people understand God, the world, and themselves, leading them toward faith in adulthood.
This is true with any form of teaching. As an educator, I have failed students if I have curtailed their curiosity, made them afraid to explore, shamed them into behaviors, caricatured others who are not like “us,” or steered them away from hard questions (ones that even scare me). I have failed if students pass all their assignments but cannot transfer course ideas into real-life contexts. As one person in her twenties told me, “My youth group taught me how to believe, not just what to believe.” This is a hopeful picture of preparing our young beyond youth group. This is the missional pivot.
This pivot extends far beyond faith and science, but to focus in on our current topic: What might it mean for youth workers to be the ones who start conversations about faith and science rather than try to end them? Reflect on the following questions:
- How do we create environments where we encourage students how to believe, not just what to believe?
- What topics surrounding science do we hear our students talk about the most?
- Where do we feel uncomfortable about specific scientific subjects as they relate to faith, and why do we feel that way?
- Who can help us begin to address the scientific topics that young people in our context care about?
2. Make a pedagogical pivot from passivity to agency
Youth ministry leaders’ imperative is to support young people’s need for a dynamically agile faith that grows with them. Some call this task “meaning making.”
Meaning making is an active process through which we seek to make sense of our world, identities, relationships, and purposes. This process is especially pertinent to young people. They are on a quest that needs the support of adults who encourage their questions, not short-circuit them. 1 Here is where youth ministry can do more for our young people, especially those who are interested in the sciences. Let’s help them.
The pedagogical, or teaching, pivot required of us is to help young people move from passive to active learning. Active learning requires a different approach to teaching in which young people are encouraged to be agents of their own meaning making. It assumes that young people are experts of their own lives and have something to offer. Acknowledging this reality requires something different in youth workers’ teaching. We have the beautiful, terrifying responsibility of helping young people connect what they know with the ideas and perspectives they are discovering.
To make this pedagogical pivot from passivity to agency, consider the following:
- Create a place (a notebook, a blog, a poster) where students can write down the topics of faith and science that they want to talk about.
- Invite students into not only asking questions, but also seeking out answers to their questions.
- Encourage a safe environment where success is in the seeking, not just in getting the “right” answer (which is often difficult with complex faith/science topics).
- Train and support other adult leaders to withhold “solving” complex problems with simplified answers. We are teaching our young to make meaning of their spiritual quests over the long haul. Short, quick answers will promote passivity rather than fueling agency!
3. Make an environmental pivot from control to curiosity
Possibly one of the most challenging moves faith communities and youth ministries must make is to give up our power in order to empower young people. This means empowering young people’s curiosity in their meaning making—something youth ministry often resists. 2
This pivot requires us to give up control in order to nurture curiosity. Tried and true “relevant” approaches to get young people to our programs may deny the very things young people need to explore, discover, and consider.
This environmental pivot will also require something else of youth workers: admitting that we have lost our own ability to be curious. This may be for two reasons: first, we’re afraid; and second, we’re afraid.
First, we’re afraid that the topics young people may want explore will contaminate our reputations. We actually run from controversy for this reason. This may be why the “slippery slope” argument is often evoked. Boundaries that control are valued over curiosity that may contaminate. 3
Second, youth workers fear jeopardizing our own faith formation. Some research suggests that the relational nature of faith creates contagiousness. In other words, the faith journeys of young people may call into question our own faith journeys. Youth workers often manage our fears by controlling the topics and conversations so that our own theological assumptions and spiritual lives remain unthreatened. Ministry approaches that discourage curiosity out of suspicion or personal protection short-circuit young people’s faith journeys. Committing to curiosity over control, therefore, challenges (and saves!) everyone.
To make an environmental pivot from control to curiosity, consider the following:
- How might you encourage each student’s own curiosity? What are they interested in? Make it a goal to find out!
- Consider what topics (especially with faith and science) you address. Beyond the theoretical, walk out what these issues mean for your young people. For example, what might faith and science discussions mean for their relationships, their environment, or their town?
- Pay attention to your own internal reactions. What makes you nervous? What are you trying to control? Why might that be happening?
- Pay attention to your volunteer team in order to support them. Remember that they are on their own faith journeys, even as adults.
Cries and warnings that young people are leaving the church sometimes seem to have less to do with interest in young people’s spiritual journeys and more to do with helping churches look younger and reclaim “relevance.” However, perhaps the relevance that young people long for is generated by communities who are willing to start conversations, value agency, and encourage curiosity.
Young people need courageous adults who are willing to use their resources to encourage young people’s agency to think for themselves; their creativity to explore faithful next steps; and their meaning making to develop an agile, reliable faith that can grow with them. I believe youth workers can pivot toward better conversations about faith and science, and a host of other challenging topics, that will truly help young people and benefit us all.
How are you guiding better conversations about faith and science in your context? What have you learned along the way? What might be a next step for you as you plan for this conversation in the upcoming ministry year?
This post was made possible by Science for Youth Ministry in association with Luther Seminary and the John Templeton Foundation. Learn more at www.scienceym.org.
1. lgneizi, Michael. "Meaning-Making in the Learning and Teaching Process." New Directions for Teaching and Learning 2000, no. 82 (2000): 5-14. Kegan, Robert. In over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994.
2. For those interested in curiosity research, see: Kashdan, T. B., Rose, P., & Fincham, F. D. (2004). Curiosity and exploration: Facilitating positive subjective experiences and personal growth opportunities. Journal of Personality Assessment, 82(3), 291-305. Marvin, C. B., & Shohamy, D. (2016). Curiosity and reward: Valence predicts choice and information prediction errors enhance learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 145(3), 266-272.
3. Beck, R. (2012). Unclean: Meditations on purity, hospitality, and mortality. Cambridge, U.K.: Lutterworth Press.