Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Science and the Pulpit:
Ministering to Scientifically Literate People

Here are pitfalls to avoid and positive approaches to take when speaking about science from the pulpit.
By Christina M.H. Powell


We live in a world of specialization and technological sophistication. Long gone are the days of the Renaissance when Christian leaders were as well-versed in matters of science as they were in matters of Scripture. Yet pastors without training in the sciences find themselves addressing topics at the intersection of faith and science.
Scientific advances raise bioethical issues that deserve input from spiritual leaders. Popular secular authors claim that science can provide moral guidance and displace the need for faith. Parishioners and church visitors with technical backgrounds wonder how to integrate scientific knowledge and Christian theology. Pastors who address these concerns provide helpful guidance to their congregations. Yet cultural misunderstandings and historical inaccuracies often conspire to derail positive dialogue about matters of faith and science.
In the first part of this article I describe three pitfalls pastors need to avoid when speaking about science from the pulpit. To provide insight into the origins of these unhelpful approaches to conversations about faith and science, I offer a brief review of the historical relationship between theology and scientific thought. In the second half of this article, I propose three positive approaches to speaking about science from the pulpit. Each approach can form the basis for useful dialogue about matters of faith and science in a variety of ministry settings beyond the pulpit, such as counseling sessions and conversations with those interested in learning more about the Christian faith. Taken together, these three approaches form a philosophy for productively ministering to scientifically literate people.


“If it bleeds, it leads.” This oft-used saying among journalists speaks to the role of drama and controversy in generating people’s interest in a story. No wonder most media coverage on the topic of science and theology emphasizes the conflict between the two disciplines. Historical fiction is the basis for at least one of the stories of the ongoing controversy between science and faith.
According to the Members of the Historical Association: “The idea that educated men at the time of Columbus believed that the earth was flat, and that this belief was one of the obstacles to be overcome by Columbus before he could get his project sanctioned, remains one of the hardiest errors in teaching.”1 Schools have taught generations of American school children that Christopher Columbus stood before a council of hooded theologians who warned him that he might fall off the edge of a flat earth if he set sail on his voyage. While there was a council at Salamanca in 1486, theologians did not believe the earth was flat, only that the distance to cross the ocean to the Indies was too far.2 The story of the flat-earth theologians disbelieving Columbus was constructed as historical fiction by the famous American author Washington Irving (1783–1859) in his 1828 book, A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus.3 With a few exceptions, no educated person from the third century B.C. onward believed the earth was flat. Before the 1830s, no one believed that people in Columbus’ day thought the earth was flat.4 Why did this story become one of the most persistent myths in modern education?
Beginning in the 1860s, the flat-earth myth became part of a larger story, the conflict between science and religion throughout Western history. Historian John Draper (1811–82) and his prominent followers spread this historical fiction as an accurate account in textbooks, encyclopedias, and scholarly articles. One well-known follower of Draper was Andrew Dickson White (1832–1918), the first president of Cornell University and a history professor. In his two-volume History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom published in 1896, he attempted to show how religion had thwarted the progress of science throughout Western history, using the theologians who disagreed with Columbus as one example.5
While controversy can generate interest and an audience, pastors must avoid promoting conflict between faith and science from the pulpit. Believers who work in scientific fields want to integrate faith and science. They see both the book of nature and the Bible as providing insight into reality. Unneeded conflict discounts the valuable contributions to society made by scientific advances, making the scientist feel unwelcome at church. Much of the supposed conflict between faith and science is the product of error, as the flat-earth myth demonstrates. Pastors need to promote truth instead of perpetuating popular errors. Furthermore, promoting conflict between science and theology causes believers to compartmentalize their faith and profession, instead of constructing a complete worldview where their faith permeates every aspect of their lives. In the worst case, the perceived conflict can cause people to feel the need to choose between faith and scientific truth.


A second pitfall pastors need to avoid is painting a caricature of scientists in sermon illustrations. Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll, and other fictional scientists conform to the Hollywood image of a lone, mad scientist who plays God without regard to consequences. These scientists solve problems with a flash of insight, often without the input of other colleagues. Often these characters are brilliant, but flawed, individuals.
Real-life scientists work in a community of other scientists. In many ways, the scientific community functions like the Christian community. William G. Pollard (1911–89), a physicist and Anglican priest, wrote a book in 1961 that explored the role of community in both science and faith.6 The practice of science is similar to other human endeavors, and scientists are no more or less flawed than other human beings.
Sermon illustrations about ungodly professors trying to destroy the faith of Christian young people fall into the category of caricatures worth avoiding. Like lawyer jokes, you may get a laugh or a momentary connection with some members of your audience, but breeding anti-intellectualism in the church ultimately becomes negative. It is much more beneficial to encourage Christian students to one day become university professors. We need capable Christian thinkers who can contribute their voices to the marketplace of ideas. We need not fear education as destructive to faith.


Parishioners and seekers with technical backgrounds have been trained to expect complex answers and to live with ambiguity. When they ask difficult questions about the Bible or the relationship of science and faith, they do not expect their pastor to have a quick answer to all their questions. They will respect someone who understands his limits and needs to research a matter further before answering. On the other hand, they have been trained to disregard simplistic answers to difficult questions. They will view as intellectually suspect a pastor who gives easy answers to the challenging questions of the ages.
A great approach to counseling people with intellectual doubts about their faith is to give them some research to do on their own. Recommend a good book to read, give them some references, or point them in the direction of another scientifically minded member of your congregation. Walk alongside them in their faith journey, but let them take their own steps and make their own discoveries.


Avoiding preaching pitfalls is crucial to ministering to scientifically literate people. While a pastor can avoid the pitfalls by never addressing scientific topics from the pulpit, a better approach is to use science constructively in your sermons. The No. 1 rule for reaching a scientifically minded listener is to use accurate information. Like sour notes jar the ears of a musician, outdated and inaccurate data make a cacophonous noise to a scientist.
In science, information quickly becomes outdated. Scientific thinking more than 10 years old may no longer be relevant. Be careful when quoting from scientific sources published more than a few years ago. The best approach you can take when selecting a sermon illustration with scientific content is to share the story with a trusted, scientifically trained member of your congregation before telling the story from the pulpit. Your parishioner will appreciate your desire to seek his or her partnership in ministry in this way. The people in the pews on Sunday morning will appreciate the relevance of your illustration.


Jesus taught the crowds using parables, many based on the agrarian culture of His day. Current scientific discoveries can inspire many great sermon illustrations for imparting spiritual truth. A good illustration must be scientifically accurate, provide enough information so people unfamiliar with a certain field of science can still understand the main point of the story, and relate the scientific material to the spiritual truth in a natural, unforced way.
While pastors can find material for developing such illustrations by reading popular science magazines and staying abreast of science news, the best approach to discovering scientific truths that can function as parables is by interacting with the members of your congregation with technical backgrounds. When you ask questions about their professions and their technical interests, you are pastoring them by entering into their world. The connections you establish with them by showing you care about what they do during their workweek will strengthen your ability to counsel them and provide spiritual guidance when needed. In addition, you will walk away from the conversation with great preaching material.


When science and faith appear to be in conflict, the reason is often that a scholar failed to respect the limitations of either science or theology. While the scientific method is a powerful tool for understanding the natural world, spiritual truth transcends technical analysis. Similarly, while the Bible is accurate, God never intended the Scriptures to serve as a scientific textbook. Together, science and theology give us a more complete view of reality and the human condition.
As pastors, teach your congregation to use science wisely without dismissing the supernatural. Show respect for the contributions of science, while leading your people to deepen their faith. Become comfortable living with unanswered questions as you journey through this life seeing “only a reflection as in a mirror” until you see Christ face to face (1 Corinthians 13:12).
Christina M.H. Powell
Christina M.H. Powell, Ph.D., an ordained minister, author, medical writer, and research scientist trained at Harvard Medical School and Harvard University. She speaks in churches and conferences nationwide and addresses faith and science issues at http://www.questionyourdoubts.com.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Is He Crazy to Share His Pulpit?

Larry Osborne more from this author »

Date Published: 8/6/2013

"The notion of sharing my pulpit was unthinkable, tantamount to a denial of my calling."
When I first entered the pastorate, I considered preparing and preaching Sunday’s sermon the essence of ministry. Everything else was secondary. The notion of sharing my pulpit was unthinkable, tantamount to a denial of my calling.
But it wasn’t long until I discovered that there was much more to being a good preacher than just preaching. From the beginning, people looked to me for far more than a weekly sermon. They wanted from me counsel, administration, vision, recruitment and a host of other skills that had little or nothing to do with my pulpit prowess.
And to my surprise, all that other stuff really did matter. When it was handled well, our ministry flourished. When handled poorly, we struggled. It was then I first began to think about doing the unthinkable: sharing my pulpit with another preacher. Four years later I decided to go for it.
Here was my thinking: By turning over some of the time spent preparing and preaching sermons, I would be able to give better direction to our overall ministry. That would result in a healthier church and spiritual environment and, in the long run, my sermons would be more effective, even if less frequent.
I was right.
Now, seven years later, I’m more convinced than ever. I doubt I could ever return to the days of being a one-man show. Sharing the pulpit has been too beneficial. It’s proven to be one of the best things that ever happened to our church and to me.
Here’s why—and what it took to make it work.

What It Did For The Church

One of the most significant things it did for our church was to make it more stable—by making it less dependent on me.
Let’s face it: attendance and giving at most churches rises and falls with the presence of the senior pastor. Any prolonged illness or move to another church usually results in a dramatic drop-off. Sharing the pulpit (which in our case means having a second pastor preach between 20 and 30 percent of the morning messages) has helped mitigate the problem by giving our people the chance to buy into two preachers—and most have.
As a result, when I now leave for a conference, mission trip or vacation, we hardly miss a beat. There is never an appreciable drop in attendance or giving. Things keep right on going.
That’s not to say that my long-term absence or move to another church wouldn’t have an effect. Of course it would. As the initiating leader of our ministry and staff, I’m a vital cog in the wheel. But it wouldn’t hobble our ministry nearly as much as if I were the only “first-string varsity preacher” our people knew.
Should I be removed from the scene, our people wouldn’t be faced with a sudden parade of strangers in the pulpit (or an ill-equipped associate, learning on the job). They’d simply get an extra dose of “the other preacher,” someone they’ve already grown to love and respect.
The church has also benefited in other ways. They’ve received a more balanced presentation of Scripture than I could ever give on my own. While Mike (the other preaching pastor) and I share the same core theological perspective, we often approach life and Scripture from different angles. I’m more practical and oriented to the bottom line. He’s more of an intellectual and a scholar. Thus each of us ends up seeing things and reaching people that the other misses.

How The Senior Pastor Benefits

However, the church isn’t the only one that has benefited. I have, too, perhaps even more so. To begin with, it’s given me a chance to regularly recharge my creative batteries.
We each have a reservoir of creativity. For some of us it runs deeper than for others. But for each of us there’s a bottom. Unless we’re able to periodically replenish it, sooner or later it runs dry. When that happens, the joy goes out of preaching, for us as well as for our listeners.
I once served in a ministry where I was responsible to teach five or six different Bible studies every week. For a while it was exhilarating. But after three or four years I began to fade. It’s not that I ran out of passages or topics to teach. I ran out of creative and thoughtful ways to present them. The result was a marked increase in truisms, clichés—and a little plagiarism!—and boredom all around.
Now I use my breaks from the pulpit to rekindle my creativity, to catch up on non-preparatory reading, to reflect and to dream new dreams. Breaks recharge my creative juices in a way that another week of sermon preparation cannot.
I also use my nonpreaching weeks to regroup emotionally. Preaching is hard work, and it takes its emotional toll. It’s no small matter to stand up and presume to speak for God. No wonder we’re known to take Sunday afternoon naps and Mondays off. Yet for me, the actual preaching and preparing of a sermon isn’t the hard part. I love it. The hard part is always knowing I’ve got another one due in a couple of days. That keeps me on edge and always pushing.
During my first four years at the church, I preached every Sunday except for my vacations. That meant that, no matter where I went or what I did, next week’s sermon was always percolating in the back of my mind. I’d wake up in the middle of the night to scratch out an outline. I’d take notepads on vacation. At conferences and seminars, I’d disappear for a few hours to hammer out that final point or closing illustration.
The result was a slow but steady drain on my emotional reserves. As much as I love study and preaching, it was too much of a good thing. Too often, by the time my vacation rolled around, preaching had become a chore instead of a privilege; I was reading the Bible for sermon material, not personal growth. Furthermore, most of my ministry was on automatic pilot.
That hardly ever happens anymore. I find that my regular breaks from the pulpit get me off the sermon prep treadmill before I’ve reached a point of emotional exhaustion. Though I often end up working just as hard and even harder during my non-preaching weeks, it’s the change in routine that makes the difference. Preaching can hardly become monotonous when it’s periodically taken away. In fact, I always miss it, and I invariably return with heightened enthusiasm for proclaiming God’s Word.
Sharing the pulpit has also helped me follow through better on my responsibilities as the church’s leader. Like most pastors, I have a love/hate relationship with administration: I love what it accomplishes. I hate doing it. I didn’t enter the ministry so I could juggle budgets, supervise a staff, crank out policy statements or return phone calls. But that’s part of the package, and if I want to do a good job, I have to do those things well and in a timely manner.
Still, they aren’t a lot of fun. If I can find half an excuse, I’ll put them off until next week. And preparing Sunday’s sermon has always been a great excuse. That’s where my weeks out of the pulpit come in. When I’m not scheduled to preach, I no longer have an excuse to let things go. Those important-but-not-urgent administrative matters that have been pushed to the side have a chance to rise to the top of my to-do list. And miracle of miracles, they usually get done.
I’ve often been told that one of the secrets to our congregation’s health and growth has been my excellent administration. But little do people know that what they’re so impressed with would never get done if I had my way—or if I had a sermon to prepare every week.

What It Takes To Make It Work

As valuable as sharing the pulpit can be, it can also be a disaster if done poorly or naively. We’ve all heard horror stories of an idealistic co-pastorate gone bad or a trusted associate who turned into an Absalom at the gate. That’s probably why so many of my mentors recommended against it, and why so few pastors try it.
But I’ve found it neither difficult nor dangerous as long as I pay careful attention to four key factors.
Mutual Respect and Trust
The first thing I look for in a person to share the pulpit with is someone I can respect and trust. The second thing I look for is someone who respects and trusts me.
The power and prestige of the pulpit are too great to give to someone I’m not sure about. Once they have that platform, it’s hard to take it back.
Before turning over the pulpit to Mike, I had known and watched him for four years. Like most of our staff, he was hired from within, so his loyalty and integrity had been tested by time and through actual disagreements. I knew I was putting a Jonathan, not an Absalom, in the pulpit.
Bringing in an outsider is a lot trickier. No amount of interviewing and candidating can guarantee that two people will work well together once they’re actually on the job. Only time will tell. That’s why I’d wait at least one year before starting to share the pulpit with a newly hired staff member. I’d want to confirm that the person I thought I’d hired was the person I actually got.
Make no mistake, sharing the pulpit can be tough on a shaky relationship. That’s because people tend to choose sides—even when there isn’t a contest. Both Mike and I have found that when some people compliment us, they suggest subtly a criticism of the other person: “Mike, your sermons are meaty,” or “Larry, your sermons are practical.” It’s not that they are trying to be malicious or drive a wedge between us; it’s just their way of saying, “I like you best.”
That’s no big deal as long as we understand what’s happening and share a genuine respect and love for each other. But if either of us lacks that respect and if we begin seeing ourselves as competitors instead of coworkers, those kind of comments would widen the rift, serving as encouragement and confirmation of the ugly things we were already thinking.
Of such stuff coups and church splits are made. And that’s why I’ll always wait until I’m certain of the relationship before sharing the pulpit with anybody.
Good Preaching
The second thing I look for is someone who’ll do a good job in the pulpit. I realize that something as subjective as “good preaching” is hard to define. But for our purposes, let’s define a good preacher as someone the congregation thinks is worth listening to.
I know of one church where the senior pastor tried to share his pulpit with a warm-hearted and greatly loved associate. Unfortunately, he was also a pedestrian communicator. Attendance dived.
The best candidates for pulpit time aren’t always the next in line on the staff hierarchy. They might not even be on the staff. I know of one church where a part-time youth pastor was the one tapped to share the pulpit. I know of another where a lay preacher was clearly the best person for the job. (Obviously, in a solo pastorate it would have to be a lay person, perhaps a gifted Sunday school teacher or someone serving in a parachurch ministry.)
The key is to find someone the members feel good about and who can help them grow. If you do that, people won’t care where that person fits into the staff hierarchy.
In a smaller church, it’s possible to get by with some on-the-job training. When I first brought Mike aboard, he had never preached a sermon in his life. But I knew from his success as a Bible teacher at a Christian school and various home Bible studies that he had the gift. All he lacked was experience.
Proper Billing
Once I’ve found the right person, I still have to make sure that he gets proper billing. Otherwise, he’ll always be seen as my substitute, someone who’s giving them less than the best.
I’ve found one of the most effective ways to present someone as the other preacher rather than my stand-in is to be highly visible whenever he’s scheduled to preach. To do that, I’ll often make the weekly announcements. That lets everyone know that I’m in town and healthy. It also sends a clear message that he’s not just filling in because I’m unavailable.
That proved to be particularly valuable when I first started sharing the pulpit. In fact, when I went out of town, I often came back early just to show my face. Though it’s something I no longer need to do, it paid high dividends during those early days.
It’s also important not to give away all the Sundays nobody wants. To assign someone to preach during my vacations and holiday weekends is hardly sharing the pulpit. It’s dumping the dogs!
Finally, I’m careful about how I talk about our roles. I always introduce myself as “one of the pastors.” I never call Mike “my associate.” He’s the “other pastor” or “one of the other pastors.”
None of these techniques are as vital as mutual respect and good preaching skills. Still, they’ve gone a long way toward establishing the credibility of the other person in the pulpit.
Meeting Congregational Expectations
Every congregation has expectations (mostly unwritten), tampered with at great peril. To share the pulpit successfully, it’s important to know what these expectations are and to meet them or find a way to change them.
For instance, our people expect me to be in the pulpit on Christmas and Easter. I can give away any other Sunday without hearing a complaint. But let me fail to preach on either of those days and I’ll have a small uprising on my hands.
How much of the pulpit can be shared will also be dictated by congregational expectations. As Lyle Schaller has noted, churches that place a greater emphasis on the sermon and the personality of the preacher, rather than on the Eucharist and the office of the minister, will have a harder time adjusting to an equal interchange of preachers.
In our case, we’re sermon-centered. So when I first started sharing the pulpit, I was pushing it when I was out of the pulpit 15 percent of the time.
Now, I’m out as much as 30 percent, but that’s probably as high as it will ever be able to go here. The pastor of one church never missed a Sunday during his long tenure. Even during his vacations he shuttled back and forth on weekends to be in the pulpit. As you can imagine, that built in the congregation some incredible expectations. When a friend of mine became this pastor’s successor, the best he could do was to turn over some Sunday nights and his vacation weekends. Anything more would have been interpreted as shirking his duties. The key in any situation is to know what will and won’t work there and to adjust accordingly.
Preaching, I’ve discovered, is only one part of being a pastor. It may be the most important part, but it is still only a part. When I learned to share that part with a trusted and skillful colleague, it not only made me a better preacher but also a better pastor. And it made our church a better church.

Larry Osborne
Larry Osborne serves as senior pastor and teaching pastor at North Coast Church in Vista, CA, a multi-site ministry with more than 7,000 in attendance each week. He just released his newest book, Sticky Teams: Keeping Your Leadership and Staff on the Same Page (Zondervan); he’s also the author of Sticky Church: Slamming the Back Door Shut (Zondervan). For more of Larry's thoughts, check out his blog at LarryOsborneLive.com orNorthCoastChurch.com.

Source: sermoncentral.com

Monday, August 05, 2013

From my most recent article at Christianity.com.

Regular preachers need to be more like starters than bench players.

The bench player is a specialist. A southpaw might take the mound to pitch to one player. A sharp shooter enters the game to knock down threes to spark a comeback.

But the starters need to do everything well. These are the triple-threat basketball players, athletes who can shoot, pass, or drive to the basket. These are the five-tool baseball players, guys who can hit for average, hit for power, throw, field, and run fast around the bases.

The triple threat, five-tool preacher is characterized by variety in his sermons. He varies his structure, tone, and delivery of the sermon, so that his church never hears the same message twice.

Must you add variety to your sermons?

Why can’t you just preach three points and a poem on a weekly basis if that’s what you’re good at? Fair question, but here are some reasons why you shouldn’t:
  • You won’t reach diverse people if you don’t vary your sermons. Your church will be filled with people who resemble you, crippling outreach to various personality types and ethnic groups. If you preach only Paul, you will have only analytical thinkers. How will you reach creatives?
  • Also, you won’t preach the whole counsel of God. The content of the Bible varies broadly in genre and tone. If you can’t preach all of it, you will neglect many books of the Bible.
  • Finally, you will bore your church! God’s world and God’s word both demonstrate that he has created us for variety. When you become predictable your people lose interest.

How to add variety to your sermons

Although five-tool baseball players are a rare commodity, there is no reason why you can’t develop a broader skill set behind the pulpit. All it takes is intentionality, and a bit of practice. Here are three simple ways to change things up.
Read the rest here!
(Image credit)