Do Christians in the sciences connect with church? What have been the positive experiences of scientists in church? What have been the challenges?
“Church” is a foundational part of who and what it means to be Christian. The church was established by Jesus. When He asked His disciples, “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus responded, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:15-18). That rock-solid confession of Jesus as Messiah and God is the basis of the new community of faith Jesus established, the Church.
The Book of Acts describes the dramatic growth and remarkable community life of the early church. Believers in churches had a passion for sharing God’s love through Word, living it out in deed, and embodying it in justice and mercy. The New Testament letters develop a strong theology of Christians in church communities connected with one another, encouraging one another, teaching one another, caring for one another, correcting one another, building up one another, forgiving one another, loving one another, and being God’s missional people. Being part of “church” is not presented as an optional extra in Scripture. Biblically, being in Christian community – church – is presented as an essential foundation for knowing, following, and living out one’s faith in Jesus.
“The church” writes Thomas Groome, “is to be a community of those who confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, who ratify that faith by baptism, and who manifest the Kingdom of God as preached by Jesus, by proclaiming in word, celebrating in worship, and living in deed the Kingdom already and the Kingdom promised.” That’s a mouthful! But it is also very profound. What are the experiences of scientists with church? Do they find community with others who confess Jesus as Saviour and Lord? Do they “proclaim in word, celebrate in worship, and live in deed the Kingdom of God”? Do scientists who are Christian connect with local churches?
Scientists at Church?
Sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund, in her study of the religious beliefs and practices of scientists at elite universities in the United States, writes, “When we look at the numbers for attendance at religious services … there are stark differences between scientists and members of the general public. About 18 percent of scientists attend religious services at least once a month or more, compared with about 46% of those in the general (U.S.) population. Yet those numbers tell us very little about how the 1 in 5 scientists who attend a house of worship at least monthly experience their particular religious communities” (Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think, p.37).
By comparison: in Canada in 2017, an Angus Reid Survey reports that 20% of the general public report attendance at religious services once a month or more. What percentage of scientists in Canada have faith and attend religious services would be interesting to compare with American data, but that information is not available (a possible Ph.D. thesis for some enterprising sociologist?). Howard Ecklund’s highlighted word is most significant for my research: what is the experience at church of these scientists of faith? (whatever their percentage of the population might be).
Christian churches in Canada span the full range of denominational traditions:
- Roman Catholic
- Eastern Orthodox (in many different variations)
- Mainline Protestant (Anglicans, Presbyterians, Lutheran, Reformed, United Church of Canada [formed in 1925 as a merger of Congregational, Methodist, and many Presbyterian churches])
- Evangelical Protestants (including many denominations and independent churches from anabaptist (e.g. Baptists, Mennonites), charismatic (e.g. Pentecostals), congregational (e.g. Wesleyans, Nazarenes), and other traditions.
Historically, some of these traditions have been more accommodating than others of people in the sciences. Mainline, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox traditions have typically been less engaged in Young Earth, anti-evolution approaches.
Some faith traditions, however, have a history of being more suspicious and hostile toward science in general and scientists in particular. In other cases, the faith tradition embraces a variety of local churches, or individual Christians some of whom are very open to and supportive of scientists and their work, others of whom are less welcoming.
One of themes that came out in my interviews with scientists, regardless of their specific church affiliation, was their experiences of church were a mixture of positive blessings and significant challenges. The next pages look at some specific examples of these. I conclude with some opportunities for moving forward in constructive ways.