Science and Faith in Harmony: Positive ways to include science in worship

Deborah Haarsma and Scott Hoezee explain how worship that honors God as Creator can defuse culture wars between science and faith.

What assumptions about science and faith would you expect to find among people in these settings?

  • In a darkened auditorium, all eyes are on the screen where a spiral galaxy seems to look back. “This is the Whirlpool Galaxy, which is more than 22 million light years away,” the speaker says. “Amazing,” someone murmurs.
  • The organist slides onto the organ bench, while lyrics fill the screen. The woman upfront says, “Please join me in singing ‘How Great Thou Art.’”

Would it surprise you to learn that both scenarios are from a single worship service? Deborah Haarsma, a Calvin College physics and astronomy professor, planned and led the service at Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Haarsma co-authored Origins: A Reformed Look at Creation, Design, & Evolution and consulted on the new Test of Faith project. She says she has friends who are Christians and scientists so want “a church that preaches the gospel and has a high view of Scripture. Yet many churches say that science is against faith. People say, ‘You’re a biologist, but you don’t believe that evolution stuff, do you?’ or ‘You’re an astronomer? You can’t believe in the Big Bang. That’s not Christian.’ ”

Such stories strengthen her commitment to bring science into worship. Haarsma and preaching expert Scott Hoezee see scientists who are Christians as untapped resources. Their multiple viewpoints on science and faith can help worshipers use science to care for each other and the earth as God does.

Involve Christians who are scientists

Haarsma’s Psalm 19 service, part of her congregation’s series on the Psalms, was similar to what she’s led at science conferences and chapel services. “Maybe you’ve seen the Milky Way when you were camping. When David was sitting in the hills of Judah and looked up at the night sky, he would have seen the Milky Way too. It inspired him to sing, ‘The heavens declare the glory of God,’ ” she tells worshipers.

She shows photographs of Saturn’s rings, Eagle Nebula, and other galaxies to show how spacecraft and powerful telescopes help humans “see beyond just the stars at night. There are probably 10 billion galaxies in our universe,” Haarsma says.

She sometimes plays piano during congregational singing and appreciates singing “God of Wonders, beyond our galaxy, you are holy, holy. The universe declares your majesty…” Her husband and co-author, Loren Haarsma, also teaches physics at Calvin College. He uses electrophysiology to research how atoms flow in and out of cells.

The “Come, boiling test tubes!” phrase in the hymn “Earth and All Stars” misses the point, she thinks. “It’s not the boiling test tubes or computer programs that make me worship God when I look at nature. It’s the amazing systems and processes God created, like plate tectonics that produce mountains, rift valleys, and volcanoes!

“I love singing ‘All things bright and beautiful…the Lord God made them all.’ I used to picture God standing in the Garden of Eden, with little birds flying out of his hands, one by one. Now I understand that in the context of how God used evolution and random processes to develop an extravagance of colors, scents, and sizes,” she says.

Many Christian views

Haarsma has met many students who grew up, as she did, in congregations that assume young earth creationism, the view that God directly created the earth in six, 24-hour days no more than 10,000 years ago. “No one ever told them there are multiple Christian views on origins, stem cells, global warming, and other scientific issues,” she says. In the disconnect between their studies and “the Christian position,” university students often lose their faith.

“A lot of language in textbooks or PBS science shows is very neutral. People mentally translate that to atheist. It’s important to explicitly bring in God language, to say, ‘God drew together the dust in the solar system. God made the planets.’

“We are free to explore the universe with joyful curiosity, relying on God’s faithfulness, discovering all the wonderful how and when of creation,” Haarsma often explains. She recommends two Chris Rice songs, “Hallelujahs” and “And Your Praise Goes On,” that express the idea of all creation praising the Creator.

A pediatrician in her church recently began a congregational prayer with these words: “Creator God, out of nothing you created all that is. You hurled the galaxies through time and space…. The universe is your hourglass, the continental drift your minute hand, and the Grand Canyon your second hand. You are infinite.”

Seeing earth as a “pale blue dot” in an immense cosmos prompts the question that Psalm 8 asks God. “What are humans that you are mindful of us? How can you care for us?”

Haarsma knows, more than David did, how huge the universe is. “But God is even bigger. And what gives us significance is that the same God who created and governs all the galaxies chose to become human, like one of us. He loves each of us enough to die for us,” she says.

She describes worship as “our fundamental faith response to God’s creation.” Scripture teaches us about God’s glory, creativity, power, and immensity. Nature, aided by science and technology, reveals God’s amazing extent.

Science that leads to service

Leading the Psalm 19 service at Neland Avenue reminded Haarsma of something she’s often noticed. “Kids, in general, are really interested in hearing about science in worship. It was not a clear night, but I was prepared to bring everybody (after church) to the Calvin College observatory to look through the telescope.”

She suggests including science in congregational life. “Have someone lead a nature walk at the church picnic. Ask someone to bring their telescope and have a star party after an evening baseball game.”

Appreciating nature as God’s creation and science as God’s gift for exploring creation should lead worshipers to care about creation. She says that arguing about scientific theories of origins ignores “the Genesis 1 mandate to steward the earth so all people can use the garden God has given us. There’s room for debate on methods, but we have erred, so far, on the side of causing species to go extinct and heating the planet.

“Here’s an example. With global warming and rising sea levels, Bangladesh is going to get flooded. Think of all the very poor people in Bangladesh who haven’t heard the gospel and are going to be suffering disproportionately for our energy use.”

Science as a Partner for Preaching

Every week, in churches across the world, Christians use sound systems and PowerPoint projection to hear God’s Word and praise God through song. They pray for people waiting for MRI or CAT results and ask God to bless laser surgeons who will remove cataracts and skin cancers.

But here’s the irony.

“All this technology relies on quantum physics and the stuff Einstein talked about. When the fruits of science are used to look for a tumor on your spine, it’s considered reliable. Yet when those same tools discover a star that’s three million light years away, many Christians say, “The scientists are wrong, because the universe can’t be that old. It’s only 10,000 years old.’

“If science gets mentioned at all in worship, it gets reduced to hot-button issues and the most atheistic version of evolution. Science becomes that which we are against as people of faith,” says Scott Hoezee, director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Hoezee, however, explains that becoming more scientifically literate helps pastors provide congregations with a framework that connects the cross and creation and enriches faith and life. Hoezee and Deborah Haarsma, a Calvin College physics and astronomy professor, are developing science resources for ministry at The Ministry Theorem.

Provide a framework of grace

In his book Proclaim the Wonder: Engaging Science on Sunday and in a recent essay, Hoezee provides “a framework of confidence, calm, and grace in which to talk about faith and science.” He appeals to fellow believers to talk about faith and science in these ways:

  • Practice grace, especially with people of other viewpoints.
  • Address complex issues with God-given curiosity and genuine desire to learn.
  • Move from either/or thinking (e.g. creation or evolution, God or science, faith or logic, order or randomness) to both/and thinking.
  • Acknowledge more than one way of knowing, including learning through our senses, science, and the Holy Spirit.
  • Recognize that events have more than one cause. Describing how life began does not explain why it began or what it means.

People sometimes talk as if science is faith-free, based completely on evidence, and theology is irrationally based on faith, with no evidence. Yet both science and theology are human systems for making sense of reality.

“When you talk to really bright and reflective Christians who are also scientists, like John Polkinghorne or Francis Collins, they’ll tell you there’s more fluidity between science and theology than what the popular imagination thinks.

“Scientists are forced to take a lot on faith. They are always constructing models that have gaps in them and have to assume certain things. People have believed in atoms since the time of Democritus but nobody actually saw an atom until really recently. They just believed it was there,” Hoezee says.

Preachers can explain that although science can’t prove God exists, neither can science empirically prove that God doesn’t exist. What’s more, believers have reasons for faith, though faith leads to a different sort of knowledge than science does. “The inner testimony of the Holy Spirit that John Calvin talked about could be seen in terms of epistemology, a theory of knowledge,” Hoezee says.

“Connect the dots between creation and redemption”

Hoezee suggests that preachers help their congregations “connect the dots between creation and redemption” by accepting both books of God’s revelation. These are God’s works, also described as the “beautiful book” of nature or general revelation, and God’s Word, also described as Scripture or special revelation, which is fulfilled in Jesus Christ. You might plan a pair of worship services on God’s revelations to explain how we, like Peter on Cornelius’ roof, must sometimes change our understanding of what God is doing or what God’s Word has told us.

“Preachers who make themselves more aware of science can weave that into their sermons, as illustrations or reasons to praise God. Start by listening to the stories of deeply committed Christians who work in the sciences,” Hoezee advises.

Give worshipers a more positive view of science by asking a scientist to explain her work, give a testimony, bring the message, or offer the prayer of illumination or congregational prayer. Include brief video clips or insights from scientists in sermons.

Sing “Praise the Source of Faith and Learning” (scroll down), a hymn by Thomas Troeger. Its chorus compares faith and learning to two currents that blend “till they carve a single course,” returning to God, their source. Francis S. Collins, who directed the Human Genome Project and wrote The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, led U.S. legislators in singing the song after addressing them at the2007 National Prayer Breakfast.

Hoezee cautions that preachers who ignore or disrespect scientific findings often alienate Christian scientists and educated young people. “The more we set science and faith against each other, the more God looks capricious. You end up worshiping a God who seems quite content to trick you with stars or dinosaur bones that only look old.

“Being more open to scientific insight in the context of worship enriches our sense of wonder at God’s awe and majesty. Yet for all we know—and that people in biblical times didn’t know—about childbirth or conception, we still pray for God to help us get pregnant. Those of us who are conservative Christians still believe in the virgin birth. So if worshipers see that science doesn’t displace God, they can go forth into the world with more confidence and joy,” Hoezee says.

Creation matters to God so…

“There is a direct relationship between recognizing how much creation matters to God, and having that same creation matter to you. In Colossians 1:15-23, Paul connects the cross to creation. He keeps saying that what Jesus redeemed was not just invisible human souls, but ‘all things.’

“This does not dislodge the centrality of Jesus dying for my sins or Jesus dying to save me. But, when you realize that Jesus’ sacrifice also has something to do with trout and stars and panthers and prairie grass, then naturally your own interest in those things, as a believer, goes up. These are not just things destined to be burned but to be recreated in the new heavens and the new earth. Investing in them is an act of piety,” Hoezee explains.

He recommends reclaiming worship resources “from the time when Christians could write songs about how much we learn about God by looking at the natural world.” These include songs such as “The Canticle of the Sun” and “This Is My Father’s World”; settings of Psalms 8, 19, 67, and 104; and St. Francis Day visuals, prayers, litanies, and responsive readings.

Churches around the world have begun celebrating the Season of Creation on four Sundays in September. They confess alienation from Christ and creation, “celebrate with Christ the wonders of creation…and commit to a ministry of healing Earth.”

In worship spaces that feel cut off from the outside world, whether by stained glass or black box designs, Hoezee suggests using PowerPoint technology and slideware to bring in images of the natural world. Consider including images such as fossils, a double helix, pregnancy ultrasounds, Hubble space photos, or health and technology workers—so worshipers remember the vast scale of creation and redemption.

Learn More

Listen to brief audio excerpts from these interviews in July 2009:

Buy and review books for your church library:

Deb and Loren Haarsma are available to speak about creation, design, and evolution; how scientists can speak to churches; science in worship; and science as a Christian vocation. They use the interactive online Gallery of Random Art to illustrate how randomness and order can work together.

Listen to Scott Hoezee’s “Science on Sunday” presentation at the 2009 Calvin Symposium on Worship. Read his Perspectives essay “Beyond Shouting: Religion and Science in Conversation.”

Scott Hoezee and Deb Haarsma are directing a Templeton Grant, Science on Sunday: Integrating Science into the Life of the Congregation. They are collecting essays from Christians in the sciences, science and worship resources, as well as science-related resources for church education, youth groups, and service project. 

Check out Science for Ministry resources, contact other grantees, and apply in pairs (one pastor and one scientifically-inclined person) to attend the Science for Ministry Institute at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Stay up on the science, faith, and creation care issues by reading online magazines such as Science & Spirit and Justice Seekers.

American Scientific Affiliation, a fellowship of Christians in science, has helpful resources on science and technology ministry, including short videos about science and faith, why Christians should care for the environment, and a testimony by a Christian biochemist.

NASA used Chris Rice’s song “Hallelujahs” to wake sleeping astronauts on the Space Shuttle Discovery on November 1, 1998. It praises God for purple sky, lightning flashes, dolphins, “cratered moon and sparrow’s wings” and “the pulse of life within my wrist.”

Praise the Source of Faith and Learning” (scroll down), a hymn by Thomas Troeger, can be sung to Hyfrydol, a common Welsh tune used for “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” “Alleluia, Sing to Jesus,” and other hymns. The song is licensed through LicenSing.

Norman C. Habel, a biblical scholar in Australia, has written several songs for celebrating with creation that can be sung to common hymn tunes. The poem “A Scientist’s Psalm,” written years ago by biochemist Walter R. Hearn, recognizes that there’s always more to discover. One verse begins, “Beyond our own galactic rim / Billions more are praising Him.”

Listen to a Religion and Ethics episode, “Darwin at 200,” in which Bob Abernethy interviews Francis S. Collins and Loren Haarsma (among others). Missiologist Ralph D. Winter explains how looking again at Genesis expanded his view of Christian missions.

In this brief video clip, a Micronesian islander shows what rising sea levels have done to taro patches and island life. Visit the ECHO (Education Concerns for Hunger Organizations) global farm and research center in North Fort Myers, Florida.

In this brief video clip from 1983, Ted Kennedy speaks at Liberty University about how to disagree yet show respect. Some Bible commentaries on Jonahand the minor prophets repeat the story of how James Bartley, a sailor, survived being swallowed by a whale. Science historian Edward Davis reeled in the true story. Ted Olsen corrects misperceptions about Galileo and the church.

Apply ideas from the Calvin College Creation Care and sustainability projects to your school or church. Connect with other congregations that profess a love of God and God’s creation.

Use ideas from Reformed Worship stories on creationfarmingtechnology, and a worship service led by chemists. Download a pattern for an “all nature sings” banner.

Browse related stories on Abraham Kuyperhow worship change happens,postmodernismprojected images in worship, and worshiping as the people of God.

Start a Discussion

Talk about science and faith in worship:

  • What do you think about the claims that God is revealed in “two books” (nature and the Word) or that there is not a single “Christian view” on many scientific issues?
  • In what ways does your congregation depend on scientific discovery in worship, church life, and ordinary life? When and how do you talk in worship and church life about science, faith, creation and redemption, or what it means to be stewards of creation?
  • Which first steps would you like to make to present science more positively in worship visuals, prayers, sermons, and songs?
  • Who in your congregation works or volunteers in a science-related field? How might you invite them to plan or lead worship or lead a science-related activity outside worship?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to talk about science and faith or the scope of creation and redemption? 

  • Did you find a resource that helped Christians have a respectful discussion about their differing viewpoints on a science-related issue? If so, did these discussions yield any new insights on what it means to be one body in Christ?
  • Which resources—music, visuals, video, liturgical, online, conferences, whatever—have you found especially helpful in helping your congregation use science so it enriches and enlarges their faith?

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