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This past Wednesday my good friend Andy Root from Luther Seminary led a workshop for youth leaders on the topic of “Science and Youth Ministry”. Seems like a strange topic I know—what does a Wednesday night youth group gathering have to do with Einstein’s theory of relativity? Usually if you were to see a title like this you might think it will be about defending against godless forms of science (evolution) by giving young people important apologetic tools. This wasn’t the focus of Andy’s talk. Instead, he discussed the social practice of science and the social practice of faith. He talked about how his research shows that there’s a disconnect between the way young people think about science and faith and the way their youth pastors think about the issue. Andy discussed how Nicene Christianity affirms God became flesh in Jesus Christ, and in doing so affirmed the material nature of this world. Ultimately, Andy demonstrated that it is Christianity that opened up the possibility for science and scientific discovery with its affirmation of the created world in ways that other philosophical systems had not. In other words, a line can be drawn from Athanasius through Darwin to Einstein, a line which shows that Christianity and science are not in conflict in the ways people might think they are. So why address youth leaders? Because they are on the front lines of this so-called conflict, and they have the space to help young people recognize the important connections between Christian faith and science.
When you examine the recent data demonstrating that young people are increasingly leaving the church, or even leaving the faith, one of the primary reasons is the complexity of the scientific technological world they inhabit and take for granted, and what is perceived to be an archaic, simplistic, religious faith. In high school and college young people learn about the complexity of human life, about biological evolution, about black holes and supernovas in the outer reaches of the universe. Then they go to their church, or their youth group, and receive a thin version of Christianity that is unable to sustain the weight of the complexity of life. But it’s not just science that is complex, the entire lived experience of young people is complex. Recently I had students write their own version of Augustine’s Confessions. I told them I didn’t want their deep dark secrets but they gave them to me anyway. There were moments where I had to step away and gather myself, blown away by the amount of hurt and hardship they were dealing with. In the face of all of life’s complexity, the Christian community is often guilty of providing a simplistic gospel that cannot address the issues people are facing. And then we wonder why people are leaving churches, or leaving Christian faith all together. The beautiful truth of the gospel is that it addresses the complexities of this world. We worship a Triune God who’s very existence is love and relationality, we worship a God who became flesh and affirmed the diversity of all this created stuff, and we worship a God who on the cross of Jesus Christ entered into our pain and suffering, entered into our forsakenness, all for the purpose of leading us into the newness of life. Too often the adult world assumes young people don’t want to engage the complexities of faith, and maybe on the surface they give off that impression. But beneath the surface many young people are longing for something to grab a hold off in the midst of the complexity of life, and our task, as the Christian community, is to help them find it.