By Linda Worthington
“Faith, Science and Ministry: Where Faith and Science Meet” was the topic for a daylong program held at Oakdale UMC in Olney Jan. 20. It was sponsored by WesleyNexus (www.WesleyNexus.org) of the Baltimore-Washington Conference, a group that was formed by five United Methodists but is not an official entity of the church.
The Convocation was presented by Bishop Sharma Lewis of the Virginia United Methodist Conference and the Fox Endowment, the first time in the denomination a bishop has hosted a convocation on faith, science and ministry. Bishop LaTrelle Easterling encouraged pastors and lay people to attend the collaborative “first of its kind event.”
Live-streamed from the Virginia Conference Center in Glen Allen, Va., some 200 pastors and laypersons at five satellite stations in the Baltimore-Washington and Virginia Conferences participated in real time. At Oakdale UMC, which hosted one of the Maryland locations, they sat around tables in the fellowship hall.
Though many churches are used to using screens in worship services, this was an unusual format for learning – live-streaming the audience and speakers from the Virginia Conference Center, near Richmond.
Bishop Lewis, who, like the BWC episcopal leader is African-American, a woman, and serving her first episcopal appointment, stated the convocation’s purpose and the ministry issue concern across the denomination as “we are losing too many young people and young adults.”
“Sixty percent of our young people will not take the Christian faith into adult lives significantly because of perceptions of conflict between science and faith,” the introductory brochure stated, raising the importance of the topic for clergy and lay people alike.
Much of Bishop Lewis’ opening presentation focused on that message. As they go off to college, young adults encounter the disciplines of modern science – physics, biology, astronomy and the courses leading to careers in medicine, she said. With her own background in biology, chemistry and theology, she said she is often asked, “How do you believe in God with your background?”
One of her replies is that “Faith gives us proof of what we cannot see.”
Dr. April Maskiewicz Cordero brought the plenary address, “The Coexistence of Evolution and Christianity.” A professor of biology at Point Loma Nazarene University, she was raised in the evangelical faith tradition but seeks to develop more effective approaches to teaching ecology and evolution that help students use biological ways of thinking and reasoning about the living world.
“I came to realize that most of the Bible is not written as a science text, and is written for people in a specific time,” she said, as she grappled with the perceived conflicts between faith and evolution. “Most students come in believing you must choose between evolution and the Bible.”
Cordero uses her position as a Christian biologist to investigate science students’ perceptions of the relationship between scientific issues that evoke controversy (i.e. origins of life, evolution, human origins) and Christian faith, including the current debates on creationism vs. evolution.
She says that many students have a faith background, but lose their faith “when their pastors speak against evolution.”
Sixty-four percent of young adults have never received training in faith and science, she said. A way to help with understanding is to acknowledge and verbalize the misunderstandings – evolution is without a creator, thus rejects God, but is evident in the diversity of species, which have developed from earlier forms.
But, “science cannot answer the question, why are we here,” she said. “Nor just because we can’t explain it in scientific terms does not mean God does not exist.”
The conflict between the Bible and evolution “is only in our interpretation,” she said.
“Everything biology studies points to God,” Cordero said, “The more I study, find out, the stronger is my relationship to God.”
In a dialog between Cordero and the bishop, they were asked by a youth pastor how to help today’s youth talk about evolution.
“Growing up, we wanted to talk about evolution,” Bishop Lewis said, “but we never in our churches talked about it.”
Cordero suggested that the youth pastor bring in others to help, to speak about creation and evolution, and provide more than one perspective.
“Have a debate/panel on what we all agree on, then the discuss the differences with love for each other. Use videos,” she said.
The first of three workshops was led by Jennifer Secki Shields, WesleyNexus Board member and founder and director of Discovery & Faith. For 16 years she was director of Christian Education in the Arlington District (Va.). Her topic, “Stumbling Blocks & Building Blocks,” focused on teaching younger children in Church Schools about “How to Follow Jesus in a Science-Shaped Culture.”
“Our children are ‘consuming’ science,” she said and illustrated with a young child’s book, “Quantum Physics for Babies,” which is actually “consumed” sometimes by toddlers.
The work of Discovery & Faith is based on the real “rubber meets the road” challenges for discipleship and evangelism in a culture that is strongly impacted by science, she said. “If faith is to have cultural relevance, it must include science.” Even four-year-olds raise questions about science.
“Children worldwide by age 11 perceive the conflict between faith and science,” she claimed. “And three of five young Christians disconnect from faith by age 15.”
The Rev. Bill Maisch, pastor of Memorial UMC in Poolesville in the Baltimore-Washington Conference, presented on bringing science to bear in sermons, worship and ministry.
Maisch has worked with Scouts, as well as young adults, especially when he was a chaplain in the U.S. Air Force. He suggests bringing a variety of methods to understanding God and evolution, including the Wesleyan Quadrilateral: experience, tradition, reason and Scripture.
“What might these be telling us about God?” he asked.
Whether one looks at Scripture as “infallible and inherent” or inspired by God to those who wrote it, and on to us; or you’re one who hasn’t given it much thought, but have opinions of God and the Bible anyway, is the basis for a conversation to lead to greater understanding of what truth really is, he said.
The last presentation built on the earlier ones. “Creation care and end-of-life medical ethics,” led by Michael Wriston, PhD. He stressed the importance of clearing out clutter and letting your heirs know your wishes before the date of your demise.
He said, “I make a point to speak of God every day in my ongoing activity (work).”
The audience at Oakdale UMC and the four other locations, following each presentation, interacted with the professionals on the screen and each one took questions willingly. The day at Oakdale ended with small group discussions of how to apply the lessons presented throughout the day.