The Church of the Nazarene, a conservative Christian denomination, in the Wesleyan tradition, is worried about the continued loss of young adults.
In a recent Pew study, more 18- to 29-year olds reported having a positive view of science than those in any other age category. More specifically, sixty-one percent of young people believe life evolved over time due to either natural process or divine guidance. Seventy percent of all college graduates – no matter their age – affirm some form of evolution. In sum, young people and those with degrees in higher education are more likely to trust scientists who argue for the validity of evolution.
Statistics also show, unfortunately, that young people leave the church and/or become atheists because they perceive the church to be opposed to science in general and evolution in specific. In his book, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving the Church and Rethinking Faith, David Kinnaman uses the data from Barna Group research to show why 18- to 29-year olds are leaving the Church. Nearly 3 in 10 say the church is out of step with science, and one quarter say Christianity is anti-science. About one quarter of young people are turned off by the creation vs. evolution debate, and about one-fifth say Christianity is anti-intellectual.
Kinnaman quotes one young person and why he left faith over the church’s failure to accept science: “To be honest, I think that learning about science was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” says the young person. “I knew from church that I couldn’t believe in both science and God, so that was it. I didn’t believe in God anymore.”
Stories from Nazarene parents, youth pastors, and university professors indicate that some young people are leaving the Church of the Nazarene for the reasons Kinnaman reports. These young people think they cannot affirm the idea that God creates through evolution and still feel welcome in the denomination.
Dan Boone, president of Trevecca Nazarene University, asks an important question of himself that also applies to the Church of the Nazarene, “Will I engage a young generation in an open-minded biblical conversation that welcomes scientific discovery, reasoned philosophy, and careful logic? Or will I ignore all of these in favor of an interpretation of creation that is barely one hundred years old and rooted in the fear of science?”
Oord, along with eight other Nazarene scholars, has started a project called Nazarenes Exploring Evolution. Oord writes:
Recent polling shows that the majority of scientists believe in evolution. More than 9 of 10 professional scientists believe the evidence for evolution is compelling. While the theory of evolution comes in a variety of forms, virtually all forms say that gradual changes occurred to produce new species over long periods of time.
Not only do the majority of scientists affirm evolution, the general features of evolutionary theory – including an old earth and natural selection – are widely accepted in culture today. Most public television and scientifically-oriented programs simply assume the general truth of evolutionary theory.
Recent polling also shows, however, that more than half of American Evangelicals believe humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.Those who hold this view typically believe the world is relatively young. And they interpret Genesis (and other books of the Bible) in a particular way to support their young earth view.
This difference between 1) the majority of Evangelicals and 2) the majority of scientists seems true of the Church of the Nazarene. Many denominational scholars in various disciplines – scientific, biblical, and theological – believe the general theory of evolution is compatible with Wesleyan-holiness theology. Yet, many nonspecialists in the Church of the Nazarene reject evolution. In fact, a 2007 Pew poll said only 21% of Nazarenes mostly agree or completely agree that evolution is the best explanation for the origins of life on earth.[ Dan Boone, president of Trevecca Nazarene University, sums it up: “the bulk of our Christian scholars/scientists are in a camp different from the bulk of our laity [on issues of evolution].”
I and about eight other scholars and leaders have begun a project called, “Nazarenes Exploring Evolution.” The project and its participants work to foster greater understanding among members of the Church of the Nazarene about the potential fruitful relation between Wesleyan-holiness theology and evolution. It does so by exploring scripture, science, theology, and other realms of knowledge. It seeks not to ridicule those who hold non-evolutionary views of creation, such as Young Earth Creationism, Progressive Creationism, or Intelligent Design. Instead, it offers Theistic Evolution (or similar views) to members of the denomination as a viable alternative among accounts of how God creates the universe.
Nazarene Scientists on God Creating through Evolution
In a 2009 Pew research study, 97% of scientists said humans and other living things have evolved over time by natural processes, guided by God, or evolved in some other way. To date, no one has taken a poll of scientists in Church of the Nazarene colleges and universities to determine how they think about evolution. But some scientists in the denomination have published their views on the subject.
Fred Cawthorne, of Trevecca Nazarene University, says that “evolution by no means contradicts the fact that God is the Maker of heaven and earth and that he has been actively guiding and sustaining the universe for all time. If we say God cannot create through a gradual, progressive process such as evolution, then we limit God’s transcendence and immanence.”
Karl Giberson, long-time professor at Eastern Nazarene College, affirms evolution: “I think evolution is true. The process, as I reflect on it, is an expression of God’s creativity, although in a way that is not captured by the scientific view of the world… God’s creative activity must not be confined to a six-day period – ‘in the beginning’ – or the occasional intervention along the evolutionary path. God’s role in creation must be more universal – so universal it cannot be circumscribed by the contours of individual phenomena or events.”
Darrel Falk, of Point Loma Nazarene University, says that “for the past century and a half, thousands of scientists from disciplines as diverse as physics, geology, astronomy, and biology have amassed a tremendous mass of data, and the answer is absolutely clear and equally certain. The earth is not young, and the life forms did not appear in six twenty-four-hour days. God created gradually.”
Rick Colling, a long time scientist at Olivet Nazarene University, says that “some people, on religious grounds, choose to aggressively ignore or deny many scientific concepts and principles, especially in the domain of evolution… The problem, as I see it, is that we tend to squeeze God into small rigid boxes… Unfortunately, this approach to religious faith is fraught with liability because it prevents God from truly being God – a creator capable of using any means He chooses for His creation.”
Regardless of my view of religion, I see this as a good step in the right direction. Any move towards reason and away from myth is a good one. I read several of Karl Giberson’s books when I was trying to decide whether I want to remain a Christian. While I found his books quite helpful, I thought Giberson had to strain at times to maintain at least a modicum of orthodoxy.
As many of you know, I pastored in SE Ohio for many years. During my time in the hills of Perry County, I preached for several local Nazarene churches. My then friend, Bill Beard, pastored several Nazarene churches in the area and he would have me come and preach for him.
Bill was required to take classes at Mount Vernon Nazarene University before the Nazarene’s would ordain him. I remember him telling me theological horror stories about professors who didn’t believe in inerrancy. His concern over “liberalism” in the Nazarene Church ultimately led him out of the Nazarenes and to the Christian Union Church.
In the rural Midwest, Nazarene churches can be quite Fundamentalist. I can’t imagine any talk about evolution will be accepted. I suspect the scholars in the Nazarenes Exploring Evolution Project know this. They will likely focus on the coasts, major cities, and their universities, as they try to sell Nazarenes on the notion that Evolution and Wesleyan theology are compatible.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out. I commend Oord and his fellow band of Evolutionists for attempting to breach the ignorance divide that is so common among Evangelicals. I do wonder if their attempt will result in a large number of Nazarene churches attempting to flee the denomination for denominations that still pride themselves in scientific ignorance?