Youth Ministry’s Pivot in the Faith and Science Conversation | Critical Reflections

Posted on July 23, 2017

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This article was inboxed to me by a congregant and friend. Out of respect for the people I serve and with whom I share community, I offer below the article in full with my comments in bold and blue, “[via:…].”

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.

[via: Not to mention gene manipulation, telekinesis, cyborgs, artificial intelligence, and transhumanism.]

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.

[via: While I agree, I would push this one step further. Adolescence is a time of differentiation and individuation, at within the context of Western American culture. As such, the questions that emerge are not just the “beginning” of a spiritual journey but a “testing” of the journey thus far. Everything to this point is now being scrutinized and questioned as to whether or not it can withstand the test of brutal inquiry. While many have departed from the faith because of the false dichotomy of “lose/lose” as mentioned above, the implication is that within that framework, faith–and the constructs therein–are actually internally incoherent, rationally inconsistent, and existentially irrelevant. All fancy words to mean, it doesn’t make sense when pressed with the hard questions. I do appreciate this pivot, from the “end” to the “beginning,” but the rapidity by which rationalism and humanism has taken hold may be more powerful than shift can handle. Maybe.]

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?

[via: Okay, I am totally on board with the heart and spirit of this exercise, but there are several problems with the bullet points above.

First, there appears to me a key element of this article (so far) that the author should be stating clearly if all of this is going to work. And that is, to do this conversation right, one will need to stop believing things that are simply untrue, even if your faith tradition teaches it. You can have the posture of starting conversations about faith and science all you want, but if your hope and goal is to validate a belief that is simply untrue as equally tenable as a valid scientific theory, then your posture is irrelevant. For example: “Hey kids, I know scientific consensus believes that the earth is old, but we’re going to be open minded. We’re going to take the ‘high road,’ and be ‘thoughtful,’ and consider, what does the Bible say about it?” Not going to work.

Second, (bullet point one), how many youth workers out there have studied anything elementary on epistemology? Encouraging students how to believe is absolutely laudable, and if more of that could happen, then by all means, please let it happen. I am dubious as to the ability of most people in the ministry to even articulate a fundamental understanding of epistemic issues. This is going to be a problem if we try to start teaching “how” to think, if we ourselves haven’t even studied “how” thinking happens in the first place.

I have no quibbles with bullet points two and three above. We should listen carefully to what students are talking about. We should also recognize where we are uncomfortable, and do the introspective work, asking why we feel that way. Those are great steps towards better understanding.

The last bullet point needs a direct response. Who can help us begin to address the scientific topics that young people care about? Easy. Scientists. Regardless of someone’s faith background, if you want to understand science, then adhere to the principles and methodologies that make science the discipline that it is. Want to know how old the earth is? Consult a host of geologists and astrophysicists. Want to know how babies are formed? Ask a biologist. What to know how religions evolved? Ask an anthropologist. And according to good scientific practice, ask a whole bunch scientists, not just the ones who believe what you believe. Do “peer-reviewed” study, just like scientists do “peer-reviewed” publications.

Now, I understand that there are other issues regarding the intersection or relationship of faith and science. For that, you need theology and philosophy, and there are a host of authors out there doing this work. It’s the same process though. Keep certain questions in their right category/discipline.]

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!

[via: Regarding bullet point three above, when it comes to science, yes, success is in the seeking. However, there are some things that need to be stated as “right” and “true.” The theory of gravity is “true.” The theory of evolution is “true.” Quantum field theory is “true.” Heliocentrism is “true.” Etc. While this may sound grandiose, see Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture for a fuller explanation.]

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

[via: This is the best point so far. I wonder, however, whether or not the author realizes just how ingrained those tribal boundaries are. If one was to really let go of these boundaries, a whole lot of things in a whole lot of religious traditions will collapse. Is the author aware of this “house of cards?”]

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.

[via: Very well said.]

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.

Pivoting

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.

[via: Again, very well said. Again, does the author realize what this may imply. An “agile, reliable faith that can grow with them,” may mean a complete overhaul of the beliefs they have inherited. The trend of “deconstruction” currently happening is not going away.]

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.

[via: While I have my critiques above, overall, I appreciate the tone, sentiment, and goal of the author of this article. This is absolutely one of the most critical areas for consideration. If clergy and Christianity can continue to pivot, I suppose there is hope for the world.]

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