Those of us who preach have probably attended classes or read books that teach us to connect with contemporary culture in order to make our words relevant and memorable to the congregation. Many church leaders and preachers have a science background, or are interested in science, so are keen to bring science into their teaching and preaching, but how can we do this well? I’ve used science in my own sermons, but without always thinking about how I am making the links, the assumptions I’m making, or what is the best way to make the link with science.
To help us all think about this in a bit more detail, I have collected together as many ways as I can think of bringing science into sermons. Like all preaching, each one should be practiced carefully and prayerfully. Some are quite closely related to others on the list, although I think each is distinct in its method of connecting theology and science. Most should work well, a few are more tricky to pull off without doing theological damage, and one I would not suggest repeating as is it unhelpful – I have included it here so that others will not unthinkingly repeat it!
1. Invoking gratitude, awe, wonder and worship
This is a great one to try, and easy for a non-specialist. Stories of scientific discoveries draw attention to the wonder of creation. Simply find a recent story that inspires you from a reliable and up to date source, and share it at a relevant moment – preferably with some high-quality images if you have the technology available. The sense of awe that we feel when we grasp the magnitude of the universe or the complexity of our own bodies, for example, can help us to connect with God and thank and worship him alongside all of creation (without falling into the trap of worshipping creation itself!)
2. Increasing understanding or impact of a Biblical passage
This is one way in which specialist knowledge can be put to good use. For example, I have often used some details from my own knowledge of embryology to help people grasp the shocking reality of God becoming a tiny fragile blob of cells. It takes a bit more time and care to draw on other people’s specialist knowledge, but it’s worth doing if you can trust yourself to discern which are reliable sources of information or know scientists who you can ask for advice.
3. Parables from science
Jesus used stories from agriculture to illustrate his teaching, so why not try using science to draw attention to a theological point? For example, even Google’s Artificial Intelligence knows something about you before you put finger to keyboard – how much greater is God’s knowledge of us and his ability to lead us into the future! The key is to keep it simple. Too much detail stretches the metaphor a bit too far and it begins to get a bit clunky, or even amusing.
4. Theology of nature
The idea is to use theology as a lens with which to look at the world. Does theology bring clarity to the things we see? For example, creation is beautiful, which makes sense in the light of our knowledge that God is beautiful: the creation reflects something of its creator. The aim is to use what we know of God through the Bible and our ongoing relationship with him in order to bring clarity to phenomena that we see in the world. Again, it would be easy to overdo this so it’s best to keep it fairly simple. We must also remember that any clarity we find in this way is provisional, because scientific knowledge is provisional. The theologian Alister McGrath is a great advocate of this approach.
5. Learning wisdom
The book of Proverbs and other wisdom literature makes it clear than we can learn wisdom directly from creation. This is another one it would be easy to overdo, so it might be best to take a steer from the sorts of examples used in the Bible. For example, Proverbs 30:25-28 provides several lessons from the animal kingdom.
6. Providing motivation to do something practical
Understanding a scientific concept or technique can help us to be more motivated to do something practical. For example, seeing the latest climate change data might help us to realise how urgent it is that we obey the Biblical command to respect and care for creation. Understanding aspects of the theology of science may also motivate some people to do or continue their work in science.
7. To illustrate a personal testimony
When someone with a scientific background or interest in science tells a story about their faith journey, they will hopefully include some of that scientific detail. Of course, this may draw on any of the ways of using science outlined here.
8. Evidence for aspects of God’s character (careful!)
This is a form of natural theology that involves finding evidence for God’s character in creation, separately from the other ways in which he has revealed himself. In a sense, it’s the opposite of doing theology of nature. For example, creation is beautiful so we can assume that the Creator is beautiful. There are a number of pitfalls to avoid here including reading too much into creation, veering away from Biblical truth, forgetting that science is provisional, and forgetting that all of creation – though still good – is nevertheless affected by the fall. In the end, we can only find some very general things about the creator from his creation – if (some would say) anything at all.
9. Evidence for the existence of God (careful!)
This is another form of natural theology. For some people, scientific knowledge – such as the complexity of living organisms or the ‘fine-tuning’ of the cosmological constants – pointed them towards the existence of a creator and set them going on the next stage of their faith journey. As always, scientific knowledge is provisional so we can’t hold on to any of this too tightly. Another thing to bear in mind is that the pointer to a creator is something that an individual might feel very powerfully, but this is just one way to interpret the data – others might legitimately come to other conclusions in the absence of other types of evidence (e.g. the Bible, answers to prayer, or transformed lives).
10. Defending the reliability of the Bible (careful!)
Science can provide a reminder that the Biblical text often describes real events, albeit in ancient forms of writing. For example, it is evident from the Gospel narratives that many of the disciples could not believe that Jesus – who had clearly died – was alive again until they saw him with their own eyes. The text says that when a spear was thrust into the crucified Jesus’ side, ‘blood and water’ flowed out. We now understand that blood separates after the heart stops beating, into the heavier red blood cell component and the lighter plasma. It is likely that this is what the onlookers of the crucifixion saw, providing a further strand of evidence that Jesus did die. The pitfall is using science to affirm the reliability of the Bible is forgetting the ancient pre-scientific nature of the text, as well as over confidence – trying to line up everything in the Bible with science, as if that is possible or even helpful in a text that was written in a prescientific age, as well as investing too much faith in the ever-changing discoveries of science.
11. Proof for God (not recommended)
Some people use scientific arguments to try to compel belief in God, as if the evidence is so black and white that no other conclusion can be reached. These lose sight of the provisionality of science – that science is about evidence not proof, the ability to interpret the data in multiple ways, and can ignore nuances in the data itself. The really big and interesting questions of meaning and purpose – including the existence of God – cannot be decided on scientific evidence alone.
Much more could be said on the theology of nature, natural theology, concordism, and a number of other interesting points raised in this article. The aim here is simply to provide some ideas and point out the main opportunities and potential pitfalls.
Have you used any of these ways of including science in preaching yourself? What resonates with you and your scientific knowledge or preaching style in particular? If you can think of any other ways of using science in sermons, or pitfalls that I haven’t mentioned, do let me know.
Wonder, Wisdom and Worship: Opportunities and challenges for using science in preaching – Faraday seminar by David Wilkinson
Sermon starters and devotional pieces from Faraday Churches
David Wilkinson, The Message of Creation (IVP, 2002)
Scott Hoezee, Proclaim the Wonder: Engaging Science on Sunday (Baker, 2003)
Jennifer Brown, Is there a place for science in our preaching?
Rodney Holder, Faraday Paper no. 19: Natural Theology (pdf)
More online articles on natural theology from Faraday Churches
Advice on sourcing images from Faraday Churches
Denis Alexander, The Various Meanings of Concordism
John Van Sloten, God Speaks Science: Preaching from God’s Other Book
John Van Sloten, Every Job a Parable (NavPress, 2017)
Delight in Creation: Scientists share their work with the Church