A Sunday on campus provides a fresh look at faith/science ministry ideas

Alma Mater, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. By Kevin Dooley, cc via Flickr

After becoming a “townie” this last month in our family’s big move to Champaign-Urbana or the C-U as locals say, attending the local campus church was a pleasant eye-opening experience.

A few Sundays ago, I was offered a fresh look at how young adults approach faith. It was encouraging. Seeing young adults in action daily during the week too has also brought home the greater importance of emphasizing that it is important to encourage them to understand that taking STEM courses shouldn’t be a stumbling block to faith, and vice versa.

Whether it is explaining how many worms are now living in the compost pile in the front hallway of the church, hosting an eco-justice discussion or pointing to the precise engineering of a Moravian star to talk about the compatibility of faith and science, ELCA Pastor Amy Thoren at St. Andrews Church in Champaign is eager to reach out to undergrad and graduate students who are questioning what their faith life should be after moving away from home.

The mission statement of the congregation just off the quad is one that seeks to gather those who “are eager for the kind of ministry found on a university campus: a ministry welcoming of questions and challenge, intellectually inquisitive and thoughtful, and always in dialogue with the academic rigors found across the street and in the lives of many of our people.”

It is important as many students leaving home for the first time to have a comfortable spiritual home as they wrestle with basic questions of faith. It is a pastor’s duty to shepherd young people who are just now trying to identify who they are outside of their immediate family unit. It is an intense time in a young person’s life.

Then again some high school students had their own time of questioning of how science and faith “fit” at an even younger age, as retired science educator R. Wesley McCoy notes in this month’s essay, “Christians embracing evolution.” It is reassuring though to know that there are science teachers and pastors who agree that science as a vocation is important and is worthy of a faith community’s support.

Whether the student is in high school or college, the vocal support of their studies as well as of their faith journey is important for parents, educators and congregational leaders alike. Have you ever asked the youth in your congregation what they want to be when they grow up? Have they ever responded with a career of theoretical physicist? If, so that’s great. But even if they are unsure it is important to follow-up (even if you don’t know a thing much about science) so that they can see their interests and their community of faith don’t have to be competing for their attention. Take the time to learn from them what drew them to the sciences and what they dream of accomplishing someday.

Perhaps the most encouraging part of this month’s issue of Covalence is the news of a John Templeton Foundation-funded effort headed up by Fuller Seminary in California called Science and Theology in Emerging Adult Ministries or STEAM for short. The term “emerging adult” seems like an excellent focus at the intersection of faith and science, where so many decisions are often made in those years between 18-30 and when so many of us are unsure of ourselves and the world we find ourselves in — not that it necessarily gets any easier as we become older.

One of the numerous STEAM grants awarded through Fuller Seminary is at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church and Campus Ministry in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The church is reaching out to students through small groups to determine if and why they feel tension between the practice of faith and the study of science. They plan on bringing in outside speakers to address the student’s concerns and to also form a mentorship network between local ministers and university scientists.

STEAM has its roots in the Scientists in Congregations, which was a well-received effort that sought to bring scientists and scientific dialogue into the pews.  STEAM began in early 2016 and the funded projects are just now taking off.

It will be interesting to see where these nationwide efforts lead and how many young lives are impacted. A new ministry or two may just become a permanent fixture on campus!

Susan Barreto

Susan Barreto

Susan is an author with a long-time interest in religion and science. She currently edits Covalence, the Lutheran Alliance for Faith, Science and Technology’s online magazine. She has written articles in The Lutheran and the Zygon Center for Religion and Science newsletter. Susan is a board member for the Center for Advanced Study of Religion and Science, the supporting organization for the Zygon Center and the Zygon Journal. She also co-wrote Our Bodies Are Selves with Dr. Philip Hefner and Dr. Ann Pederson.

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