New scientific discoveries present opportunities for greater theological insight. There is often a high level of unexpressed interest among individuals within congregations about the ways in which science and religion interact. One way to explore this dialogue is to begin a discussion group among interested members of the congregation (and often non-members) - Forum on Religion and Science (FORS).
Who should take the lead?
It will be important to secure pastoral support for a discussion group such as this. In some cases, a member of the pastoral staff is scientifically trained and in a good position to lead a FORS. More typically, this is not the case but there is a member - or several members - within the congregation who would be willing to start a group in cooperation with the pastoral staff. A science teacher, doctor, nurse, engineer, or someone who is not working in the sciences but has great interest in the topic, will be a potential group leader. In some cases, a small team of individuals can start the project.
Our experience shows that once a Science/Religion discussion group is advertised it appeals to many individuals within the church community. In many cases attendees include individuals who are on the periphery of congregational involvement - perhaps they attend because their spouse is a devoted member or they have children in church school - and have never been given the opportunity to explore these questions that are important to them. In addition, we have discovered that when FORS groups are advertised beyond the congregation they are often attract people who are outside the congregation, and have even led to new members.
How to get started
Once leaders for the group have been identified, one non-threatening way to begin a FORS is to lead a book discussion. Any of the books suggested above would be a good starting point. "The Language of God" by Francis Collins is particularly recommended. Collins is a geneticist who led the successful government effort to decode the human genome. He is an evangelical Christian who came through his faith largely through his study of science. His book is readable and encompasses many topics beyond genetics, including evolution and the origin of the universe. We also recommend the United Church of Christ's A New Voice Arising: A Pastoral Letter on Faith Engaging Science and Technology and Barbara Brown Taylor's The Luminous Web. There are essays and sermons and on these themes, and even a link to the National Council of Churches Curriculum and Study Guide on Biotechnology at www.ucc.org.
In some cases, it is possible to lead a discussion group by topic. Evolution is always of great interest. Others include human origins, Big Bang and the origin of the universe, stem cells, end of life issues, global warming, environmental justice, and many others. It might take a while for someone to develop the confidence to lead these discussions, but they can be tailored to the interests of the group. Many PBS series, including NOVA, Frontline, and some specials provide rich opportunities for discussion and are available for nominal cost.
One caution is that it is easy to discuss the science but forget the religious aspect of these topics. Your pastor can suggest biblical passages that might be pertinent or ethical issues can be uncovered using the internet to round out the discussion.
How to keep the group going
Once you have established the level of interest in your congregation it is important to meet with the core group to determine their interests for future topics. There are always books to discuss, but often individuals have contact with specialists outside the congregation who can lead a topic of interest. It helps to build group unity to give those who express interest in a given topic the opportunity to find a way to present it. Don't underestimate the resourcefulness of your group! They are there because they are interested!
Another possibility is to prepare a field trip to a local planetarium, science museum, college lab or some other interesting resource that will give the group an opportunity to discover new perspectives on various topics and share their impressions and spiritual insights with others. Some people are moved to wondrous spiritual discovery by observing a planet through a telescope or viewing an embryo through a microscope. These become in fact not scientific observations, but religious experiences that can be shared.
Book discussions usually work best if they are done weekly, but topical discussions work well about once per month. Start it as an "Eating Meeting" group - church folk love potlucks! Adult Sunday School class or study can be a possibility, perhaps a movie or video night.
Be sure to develop an e-mail/mailing list for people who express interest.
The UCC National Task Force on Science and Religion is preparing web resources including book lists and lesson plans for various topics in science and religion. Information already exists for stem cells and end-of-life issues at UCC.org. Other lesson plans and discussion questions are currently under preparation. In the meantime, individual questions and concerns can be addressed to the task force through Frank Villa by e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) and we can provide guidance based on a variety of experiences. We hope to hear from you.
Good luck in starting a FORS group. You will find it a valuable experience!
Frank Villa, Vice Chair, UCC Science and Technology Network (UCC STN)