The creation / evolution topic can be very divisive within a church community. Because of this, the approach I’ve generally taken at my church is to discuss the issue only when asked, and only with those who ask. Raising this topic can be unhelpful at times, and cause problems for those not adequately prepared to deal with the implications. As Steve has ably discussed here before, the choice on whether to engage in this discussion needs to be approached carefully and with wisdom. Until recently, given that the Creation/evolution discussion was not a major focus of my local congregation, I felt no pressing need to voice my views on the matter. Rather, I discussed it privately and informally with those who expressed an interest in the subject.
A Time to Speak Up
This situation changed for me last year when my local church announced it would be running The Truth Project (hereafter “TTP”), a DVD series from Focus on the Family. TTP covers a lot of ground, but my primary concern was how the series handled evolution. TTP very clearly presents evolution as a demonic lie that is in direct conflict with the Christian perspective that humans are created in the image of God. Moreover, TTP spends a significant amount of time discussing evolution, identifying it as an example of godless philosophy in several of the videos, including the “science” lectures (where of course it is the prime focus). For those not familiar with TTP, Mike Beidler is currently blogging his way through the series.
The concern I had then (and still have now) is that presenting evolution and Creation as a dichotomous choice is both false, and potentially dangerous for believers and non-believers. I decided that it was time to address the issue at the congregational level. One email (among several) I sent to my church leadership on this issue contained the following:
I would hold that the “either evolution or God” is a false dichotomy. I would also hold that it is a dangerous one. In TTP, evolution and God’s creation are held out as mutually exclusive options: in this mindset, then, evidence for evolution becomes evidence against God. I have seen students struggle with this issue as they study biology. This is a mindset we would do well not to saddle young people with (or anyone, for that matter).Later I requested an opportunity to present an Evolutionary Creationist viewpoint on biology at the church, but that request was denied. As an alternative, a church member hosted a unofficial evening at his home where I gave this presentation. The evening was a pleasure – not because we were all in agreement (indeed, the material was very challenging for most attendees) but because of the charity that surrounded the discussion. If nothing else, the evening demonstrated that constructive dialogue within an Evangelical congregation is possible (and everyone still shakes my hand on Sunday; so, so far, so good).
Contrary to what you hear through many Christian channels, there is ample evidence for evolution, human evolution included. When students encounter this evidence with the either/or mindset, it can shipwreck their faith. When outsiders who know Biology come into the church, they write us off as ignorant and dismiss the claims of Christ along with our flawed Biology. In both cases, our poor handling of science raises unnecessary barriers to faith.
I would suggest, especially for the science section of TTP, that there be a willingness to engage a discussion in the church about the full range of Christian responses to evolution, and even explore some of the reasons why Christians in the biological sciences feel that evolution is a valid scientific theory. I’m not normally one for pushing these discussions, but we’ve never had the opposing views taught through an official venue before either.
On the down side, however, our congregation is currently running TTP again as an adult Sunday School class. C’est la vie.
A Tale of Two Congregations
In contrast to the situation at my own church, I recently received an invitation from the leadership of another local congregation to provide a presentation on evolution and Evolutionary Creationism. This congregation runs a “theology café” every so often at a local coffee shop owned by some of their members. This allows them to engage in interesting and controversial issues from a Christian perspective in a public setting.
I’ll admit that I was a little wary when first approached (wondering if perhaps they were looking for an ID/anti-evolutionary view) but those fears were quickly laid to rest. Over coffee (at the venue, of course) it became clear that what they wanted was a discussion from an evangelical perspective that was accepting of evolution. Their motivation? Many in the congregation had read Brian McClaren’s trilogy (A New Kind of Christian; The Story We Find Ourselves In; The Last Word and the Word After That). The second book in the series showcases a positive relationship between Christianity and evolution as a major plot component, and this left the congregation wanting to explore things further. I presented essentially the same material as I had to my own congregants, and the evening generated very fruitful discussions on faith, science and approaching Genesis on its own terms.
The next day I received the following feedback from the church leadership:
Dennis, Thanks so much for an excellent evening. I have heard many express real appreciation not only for the content but also for your grace and the very interesting and understandable way in which you presented it. I think this will not only open up thinking in the science realm but will help get us all excited again about the early chapters of Genesis and what God is communicating there.A Time of Transition
Dennis, I would echo those thanks. Our community is really growing in its ability to face these kinds of questions and you enriched that journey for us. Thanks for taking the time.
A belief in God as Creator is a bedrock, non-negotiable assumption of Christianity. Many believers, however, conflate this belief with a specific mechanism by which God created. Untangling those two ideas cuts to the heart of the nature of Scripture and how it should be approached. Perhaps the greatest tragedy in the evangelical church is not that we, on the whole, reject evolution: worse still, we have not prepared our congregants to deal with the exegetical and hermeneutical issues that evolution engenders, despite the many opportunities Scripture itself gives us for such preparation.
A second bedrock belief, however, is that God’s works are also a form of His revelation. Since Scripture and nature have the same Author, they cannot conflict with each other. Reading God’s words in nature clearly shows that evolution, including human evolution, was part of His creative strategy. Given the overwhelming evidence for human evolution, it is only a matter of time before the evangelical church comes around to this method of creation. The only question is how long this transition will take, and how much damage will ensue in the process.
While I don’t see this as a fast transition, I see good reasons for hope. More and more voices (e.g. Biologos) are chiming in to affirm that science and Christian faith are not at odds, and that one can rejoice in God’s Word in nature and God’s Word in Scripture without falsely pitting one against the other. Resources to address this issue at a congregational level are becoming available as well (e.g. Test of Faith). Already, there are rare evangelical congregations that affirm a positive relationship between the science of evolution and the Good News of Jesus Christ. This affirmation removes a potential stumbling block for believers, and tears down a barrier to faith for non-believers. At the end of the day, these are part and parcel of what being an Evangelical is all about.