Core Academy – a creation ministry in the USA – recently asked me to address the question above for an online conference. I decided to do so by interviewing my colleague Dr Stephen Lloyd, who, as well as being a speaker and researcher with Biblical Creation Trust, is also the pastor of Hope Church, Gravesend.
MP: Stephen, what are some of the encouragements or strengths of the evangelical church in the UK today? We’ve inherited a great legacy of reformation and revival, mission and evangelism. Is that legacy still evident?
SL: I think it is still evident in the sense that we are still here! We are very much built on what the Christians of the past have done and what they have taught us and how they got us to this point. We can be very thankful for how the church is persevering. I think as well it’s easy to look back on the past and see it as some sort of golden age, but actually, when you read what church life was like in the past, they had pretty much the same sort of struggles as we have today. Overall I think there’s a lot that we should be thankful for.
MP: What then are some of the challenges, leaving aside the obvious current restrictions due to the pandemic? What are some of the theological or practical weaknesses in the evangelical church here today?
SL: Well I think one of the challenges has actually come from a success of the church. The church has been very successful in university evangelism in the last few decades and that’s led to a church that is very middle class. There is a lot of work going on to try and reach more underprivileged communities, but still culturally that’s the case.
On a slightly different level, as a whole the church is better at exegesis than theology. You see that at an academic level. Someone like Jim Packer, who died recently, was actually very unusual in being such a prominent theologian. Our strengths have been more in understanding the details of the text, and I think that has been fed into preaching. A lot of preaching could be very exegetically accurate but maybe lacking some theological depth and breadth. So the preaching can sometimes be a bit formulaic.
And maybe in apologetics as well we’re not as strong as we think we are. We think we’re giving good answers, but I sometimes think they are answers that don’t always connect very well with where people are actually at today in all the cultural changes there have been.
MP: Yes, somebody said to me recently that the church is better at doing than being, sometimes lacking a practical application of the preaching, for example.
Let’s move on to creationism in particular. We’re also the homeland of Darwin himself, and in recent years there’s been a huge, continual promotion evolutionary thinking in the secular realm, but also within the church with organisations like the Faraday Institute pushing a theistic evolution approach. To what extent has that affected the church?
SL: It’s created a lot of cultural pressure on the church where there’s this narrative that to question evolution or somehow to believe in creation makes you an idiot! In particular to believe in a young earth puts you on a different intellectual planet. Groups like Faraday portray this as a total apologetic liability for the church. I think they are trying to be very strategic not simply in reaching current leaders but actually influencing the next generation. They’re increasingly producing materials for quite young children to introduce this way of thinking of trying to reconcile the Bible with evolution.
But I think there is a problem with their strategy though. In the end it’s an approach that is about stirring up apathy. It’s really saying, ‘Look, there’s nothing to see here. This is not an issue to worry about. Don’t get uptight about it.’ So it’s actually quite hard to generate further interest and work when you’re basically saying this is not an issue to worry about
MP: Why do you think it is that theistic evolution is increasingly popular among evangelicals and Christian leaders?
SL: We have to look at this sociologically as well as just thinking about some of the arguments. Sometimes we think it must be that they just came up with the best arguments. I don’t think that’s the case. It’s very much about personal influence. There were some key leaders in the student movement in the 1950s and 60s, people like Oliver Barclay and Donald MacKay who was a neuroscientist. They were very godly Christians who were a great influence but they promoted the way of thinking that encourages theistic evolution and that has shaped people that are in leadership today and their successors. We’ve had a whole generation of very eminent scientists who are Christians who have been shaped by this thinking, so that has then played into the church. The church is going to listen to people that are eminent scientists in their congregation who are sincere Christians.
I also think the attraction is it’s a lot easier to be a theistic evolutionist. There’s no extra work required. You can accept the standard findings of science. You don’t have to start doing some new work to try and answer these questions. So it just feels like a safer, easier place to be apologetically.
MP: In Biblical Creation Trust we often say that we’re trying to change the nature of the origins debate. So are there ways in which that debate is different in the UK compared to, say, the US or elsewhere?
SL: Yes, I think it’s really important to appreciate the big cultural differences between Britain and America. Even though in America you have church-state separation, the reality is that the church actually has far more influence on public life than in Britain where you have a nominal state church. For example, the US would never elect a president that isn’t positive about Christianity –whereas in the UK to be seen as quite religious would harm your electoral prospects.
Also, there are no Christian universities in this country; there’s far less home-schooling; and that all changes the nature of the debate. I think it means that in this country the creation debate is less polarised – or maybe less aggressively polarised – both between Christians and non-Christians but also within the church. But it is still polarised enough to terrify a lot of pastors. Pastors will have people with different views in their congregation, and they are terrified of addressing this issue or being too definite one way or the other because they’re desperate, understandably, to keep the congregation together and just focus on what they think matters most.
MP: As you say, there are huge differences in state education over here in primary and high school settings. It may not be so easy now to promote creationism, but there is that nominal Christian foundation that makes it quite easy for Christian teachers, for example, to speak about Christianity in school. So when it comes to young people and students, how well are we doing as the church and church leaders in not just encouraging young believers to hold on to a creationist position but in encouraging them to pursue origins-related fields of science when there’s interest?
SL: They do a lot better in the United States. There is quite a culture of fear among churches that are perhaps more sympathetic to creationism. There’s a fear that young people will lose their faith if they study the wrong subjects and maybe even a bit of a spirit of not seeing the value of study for its own sake to glorify God – so study not even for its apologetic purposes, but simply because we are understanding God’s world better. The focus can simply be on reading the Bible and evangelism – good things! – but to worry too much about these other academic issues is considered to be something we should not really be doing.
That’s a wrong way to think about it and it’s not actually historically where Christianity has been when you look at the past. Universities and academia have actually come out of Christian thinking and we need to recapture some of that and have some of the courage to study the difficult subjects where we are going to be challenged and it is going to be difficult to be a Christian, but that is perhaps what our calling is in this day and age.
MP: Finally, in relation to creationism in the UK in general, are there any other encouragements or signs of hope for a reversal of the current decline?
SL: Leaders are key in this and I think we are seeing a new generation of leaders, including some who do understand, who ‘get it’ on creation. How much they’re going to be ready to make an issue of that or speak out I’m not sure. But I think there are some changes amongst the leadership.
There are also changes in our wider culture that we would tend to see as negative, but they actually give us more of an opportunity to show how relevant and important creation thinking is to contemporary issues such as transgenderism and human identity. You cannot address those as Christians without dealing with creation and I think that gives us an opportunity to show why this really does matter.
Our biggest challenge in many ways is to get creationism no longer seen as a side issue for a few people that are just fanatical about it, but to see it as mainstream Christianity. You can’t talk about the Incarnation for example, without integrating it with your understanding of creation. That’s where sometimes creationists have not actually been the most helpful. We’ve tended to focus a lot on a few verses or proof texts and lacked the more theological approach that’s needed. We often think science is the weakness in creationism, whereas in many ways I think it’s more the theology. There’s a lot of theological work to do for creationists to show why this is mainstream, historic Christianity. We are not the oddballs! We’re just saying what the church has always said.
An encouraging example was my involvement in a men’s conference earlier this year, where I was invited to be part of a panel answering questions. What encouraged me about that was that they saw someone with some expertise in creation had something to say to these other issues. You don’t just get a creationist in when you want to talk about creationism, but actually it’s helpful for other issues too. I think we need to see a lot more of that: to be a creationist is just a normal part of what we are as Christians.
MP: Of course you do also get other regular opportunities to speak on origins issues to trainee pastors and the ministers of the next generation. Thank you Stephen. We do trust that this conversation will be helpful for others to know how to pray for us in our ministry as we stand together with others for God’s truth in creation and the gospel of Christ.
Stephen is also the author of Adam or Death: Which Came First? Why the order matters for the gospel, science and apologetics and you can find out more about the work of Biblical Creation Trust at biblicalcreationtrust.org
Matthew Pickhaver is Associate Lecturer and Communications Manager at Biblical Creation Trust.