Weston church explores the subject of Science and Faith during their Christian Ed classes
Like many churches in recent years, the Congregational Church of Weston, UCC (CCW) has been looking for ways to grow attendance and membership. The church was concerned that few families were attending and often there was only one child (or none) in some of the Sunday school classes. Catherine Liddell, the Director of Christian Education/Faith Discovery for Children at the church, decided something different than the usual church school curriculum needed to be developed in order to attract families.
Although it is a small church, CCW has a surprising number of scientist types in their congregation, either by interest or by profession. As a result, the topic of a relationship between science and faith bubbles beneath the surface and pokes through from time to time.
During Liddell’s discussions with the Designated Term Pastors Jill and Rick Edens, Jill came up with the idea of taking on the theme ‘Science and Faith Walk Hand in Hand.’ Liddell had been interested in this subject, and had already read a book called ‘Is That Story True?’ by Laura Alary, at children’s time during one of the worship services. Following that service, several of the adults suggested she read it every week.
“It’s a pretty sophisticated concept that a story doesn’t have to be factually true to contain truth,” explained Liddell, “but this book gets as close to any I’ve seen to laying that out for children.”
Liddell says that during the conversation she was reminded of the book and a spark of an idea lit immediately. “My first thoughts went to the Genesis creation story. But then I thought, no, the issue is deeper than that. It really refers to the different ways a story can be true. It goes to the different questions science and faith attempt to answer,” said Liddell. “The team thought this might be a topic with appeal to the wider community; that perhaps children might come from families that may be staying away from church because of a perceived split between faith and science.”
That’s when Liddell reached out to Debbie Gline Allen, Consultant for Christian Education and Youth Ministry for the Massachusetts Conference. (Coincidentally, Gline Allen was Liddell’s predecessor as Christian Education Director at the Weston church.)
The two met at the Conference’s Framingham office and Gline Allen introduced Liddell to a set of videos made by Paul Wallace, an astrophysicist talking about his own journey to discover a relationship between science and faith. Wallace is s a self-proclaimed “science nerd” who is also an ordained minister, and who now teaches physics at the college level.
“While we provide many curated resource recommendations on the MA Conference Faith Formation Resources web page, I had just come across and viewed the ‘Cosmic Adventure Through Science and Faith’ videos and read through the free accompanying curriculum materials the week before Cathy contacted me,” said Gline Allen. “They are so well done and engaging that I immediately posted the link on our webpage. I was thrilled to be able to recommend them to a specific congregation so soon.”
Liddell went home, watched the first one and was impressed by the video’s narrator and the telling of his story, which is comprised of four 8-minute videos that can be downloaded for free. In addition, there are worksheets for each video that can also be downloaded at no charge.
Although the video description has an age recommendation of aged 10 (5th grade and up), Liddell felt there would be enough basic information that even her third-graders would be able to understand and benefit. She also had one of the scientist members, a retired microbiologist, watch the videos and he thought they were really well done. So she moved forward with the series.
“I didn’t know what to expect the first time I showed the videos,” said Liddell. “We had maybe four or five kids in an age range from 3rd to 7th grade. I used part of the worksheets as the basis for getting a conversation going right after the video. There wasn’t much coming from them, though. So we went to a different room which I had set up for a more casual discussion, again using prompts from the worksheet. Those questions did seep in and bring out some more nuanced responses and conversation. In the middle of that, another child showed up who hadn’t seen the video. When class time was over, I excused the children to go to coffee hour, but I mentioned that I would be showing the video again so our late-comer could see it. I went into the room to set that up and when I turned around, there they all were, sitting on their stools! So we all watched it again. That ensuing discussion engendered noticeably more participation than the first time around. So, note to future users: just show it twice in a row right from the start!”
When asked what kind of lasting effect the video had on the children, Liddell answered that she wished she could convey the look on one 6th grader’s face when she pointed out that not everything you read in books is a measurable fact. “His look was one of shock,” she said. “And there was a look of puzzlement on the children’s faces when the video’s narrator read quotes from various 17th century scientists, one of which was from Galileo.” Liddell reminds readers that Galileo got into trouble with the Pope because he proclaimed that the Bible is not a science book. That was a dangerous statement in Galileo’s time. “It seems like an obvious statement on the surface,” she said, “and yet there are many readers of the Bible today who approach it as if it were a science book.”
“I think that once we let go of the idea that much of what is in the Bible is not trying to be scientific fact, that the Bible is not trying to tell us how the universe and creation was made but how we are to be in it; that it’s about the relationship between us as humans, but also between us and God. Once we grasp that, the questions and answers we find in the Bible are far more life changing than trying to figure out how creation could have happened in six days.”
“I would love for the children to begin to understand that,” said Liddell. “And for those who think the concept is too complex for the young, one has to realize that children are constantly learning from everything around them. When I was mentoring a few years ago, a confirmand declared that in 10 years we wouldn’t need religion because by then science will have answered most of the questions about how we got here. They need to learn that this is not a choice between science or faith. The fact is that one without the other is incomplete at best, and in some circumstances possibly even dangerous.”
Unfortunately, the science series did not help to bring in new families. Liddell wonders if they did not do a good enough job getting the word out, or if the idea was out of sync with parents, or if there were other competing Sunday morning activities. However, Liddell believes it is important to keep trying new experiences.
“Keep in mind that children are on a journey from perceiving their world in concrete terms to feeling it in relation to others’ experiences,” she said. “That’s a big leap, and learning from the Bible can help if teachers are able to guide the children through their voyage with the help of these types of videos, worksheets, and discussions.
Liddell also believes it is important to create a program of faith discovery that is solid theologically, but offers perhaps a “practical” side, both in the sense of living one’s faith, but also in helping to bridge divides that might arise between school learning and church experience. “One can hope that such a vision will be attractive to families with young children,” said Liddell. “And these kinds of efforts are ongoing at the Congregational Church of Weston, UCC, for sure.”
“Even though this series did not grow our numbers, Cathy's sensitivity to the needs of this small congregation's families has led to several creative programming ideas this year, chief among them: ‘Science and Faith Walk Hand in Hand,’” said Rev. Dr. Jill Edens, Designated Term Minister. “With so few children we struggle to find a Sunday when enough children are present to have a Sunday School class. Families did make an effort to bring their children to this series which we will extend into January, and Cathy has been introducing more and more multi-generational opportunities so that children and adults are learning and worshiping together. With a worshiping congregation of 23 adults and, depending on the Sunday 0-6 children, Cathy's attentive leadership is making Christian formation possible for such a small community.”
Catherine Liddell can be reached at the church office at 781-899-5417 or email email@example.com.
You can reach Debbie Gline Allen directly at the Massachusetts Conference office at (508) 603-6601 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Videos discussed are available on YouTube. Just search for ‘A Cosmic Adventure through Science and Faith.’ You can also visit the Science for Youth Ministry website, http://scienceym.org/curriculum/ to access the to access the student guide and a leader’s guide. And it’s all free.