Reaching the world for Christ - through science

Denis Alexander 13 Mar 20

Some might be surprised by that title. Surely science is a rather separate kind of activity from faith? And isn’t the Christian’s mission to reach the whole world with the good news about Jesus very different from doing science?

Well, yes and no. Modern science has strong Christian roots. Many of the natural philosophers, as scientists were called in the early modern period, were people of deep Christian faith. The Royal Society emerged from the Oxford Philosophical Club, which was run by Bishop John Wilkins, Warden of Wadham College, Oxford. The 1663 charter of the Royal Society sounds like a Christian mission, declaring that its activities shall be devoted ‘to the glory of God the Creator, and the advantage of the human race’ and its officers were required to swear an oath on ‘the holy Gospels of God’. Bishop Thomas Sprat, the Society’s first historian, noted that the experimental study of nature was really a form of Christian worship.

So Christians of all people should feel at home in the scientific community. With reference to modern science itself, it’s only a slight exaggeration to say: “We started it”.  Doing science is part of a Christian’s worship, just as Thomas Sprat pointed out 350 years ago, for it involves increasing our understanding of the wonderful works of God in creation.  And if we can use such understanding for ‘the advantage of the human race’, then so much the better, with healthcare, vaccinations, clean water, genetics, novel crops and much else besides, all contributing to human flourishing around the world.

But how does all that fit with seeing people coming to a living faith in Christ and the planting of new churches?

Paul the Tentmaker

Paul’s profession as a tentmaker is usually taken as the model example showing us how to integrate our daily work with evangelism and church-planting. Of course Paul was a bit exceptional – to put it mildly! – but we can still learn some important lessons from the mission to which he was called by God.

Paul’s tentmaking gained him a natural link with those in Corinth whom he was seeking to reach with the Gospel, for Aquila and Priscilla were tentmakers as he was [Acts 18: 1-3]. In fact Paul ended up staying and working with them, and in that way they became Christians and active in pointing others to Christ [Acts 18: 26]. From that base all kinds of doors opened up to share the Gospel, especially in the local synagogue, and Paul ended up spending a year and a half in Corinth, before finally being forced to leave due to opposition.

Tentmaking was great for Paul because it was something that could be practiced as needed for his self-support. That was important for Paul since it ensured that he wouldn’t become a financial burden to the local church once it was established. As he wrote to them later: “we work hard with our own hands” [1 Cor. 4:12].

We also note that Paul always arranged to be part of a ministry team whenever possible. In the Acts 18 passage about Paul the tentmaker, Silas and Timothy soon came over from Macedonia to build up the team in Corinth, and once Paul had discipled Aquila and Priscilla, he took them off for ministry in Ephesus, where no doubt they also carried on their tentmaking profession [Acts 18: 18-19]. At one time they had a church meeting in their home [1 Cor. 16:19] and later on they made it to Rome, still as Paul’s fellow workers [Romans 16:3].  Tentmakers get around and may end up being called to different places at different times.

The idea of ‘calling’ is important in this discussion as we aim to apply what we learn from Paul’s example to the tentmaking challenges of our present day. Today some scientists who are Christians end up taking a job in science in some spiritually needy part of the world because it’s part of a collaborative research enterprise, or because they were invited to go and help in some specific project, or maybe as a short-term sabbatical commitment. All this is fine and opportunities will surely arise to share Christ as they would in any part of the world, but this does not quite reflect the kind of tentmaking ministry that engaged Paul. No doubt he made excellent, high quality tents that sold really well, but his main purpose in going to Corinth, or Ephesus, or wherever it might be, was to witness for Christ and plant churches.

So I think it’s useful to make a distinction between those scientists who are Christians who just happen to end up in a particular country but who have no longer-term aim to stay there to witness for Christ, and those who sense a real call to share the Gospel in a particular country, with the longer-term aim of digging into the language and culture. Theologically there is no difference between these two types of people – God just calls people to different things, but I would suggest that it is the latter category rather than the former who are closest to Paul’s type of tentmaking, so from now on when I use the term ‘tentmaker’ it is those people that I have in mind. They have been praying for that country for years, they have the prayerful support of their local church in going out, and they supply regular prayer fuel to their prayer partners. 

Tentmakers will also be like Paul in wishing to actively and verbally share their faith. Yes it’s wonderful to be living an honest and industrious Christian life as salt and light in the midst of a world that has little knowledge of Christ. But people also need to hear what Christ has done for them in order to come to a living faith [Rom. 10:14].

So for Christians who are currently students studying science, now is the time to start praying about how God might want to use your gifts for His glory overseas. If you have a heart for both science and for mission, then this article is for you!

The Practical Challenges of Being a Tentmaker

Let us say that you are a scientist who has been praying for some time for a particular part of the world and you now wish to move seriously in the direction of going there, what should you be doing and thinking about?

The importance of team-work
Going on your own to take up a science job in some spiritually challenging part of the world is not a great idea. So you need to be part of a team of tentmakers. These will be Christians with a similar sense of calling to a particular part of the world. How will you find them? There are plenty of organisations who can help and it’s a good idea to link up with one of them early on. When you move overseas you can retain that linkage to maintain accountability and enable access to pastoral care and support.

Finding a job
This is not always easy and much depends on your discipline and on how much your own disciplinary expertise is required in a certain country. If you are going out to join a team already there, that will immediately restrict your scope of enquiry. It’s a good strategy to spend some time in the country first on a short-term visit, to get a feel for the situation, plus to visit places where they might give you a job. In many parts of the world, it’s really the personal visit that counts. This also provides the opportunity to chat with long-term tentmakers in the country who can provide you with much wise advice.

In terms of qualifications, a Masters in science might open some doors in some places, but a PhD is more or less standard in a university science department pretty much anywhere in the world these days. Going out rather early in your career has the advantage that it’s easier to adapt to another culture when you’re younger, and the same with language learning, plus if you go out married with kids then adapting to a totally new environment is likely to be that much harder and more complicated. Having said that, young kids can of course provide a great way to meet people.

The challenge of language study
There are plenty of universities round the world in which the official language medium, in science at least, is English. But if you’re going to have much influence in local communities, then language study is rather important. The challenge is how to do this without causing a major break in your c/v. Early on in your scientific career, continuity is important and you can’t really afford to drop out of active science for longer than a year, if that, without becoming out-of-date with the techniques and the scientific literature, which can move along so fast. Language study is usually best done in the country that you’re heading for, so one approach is to go there 6 months ahead of your job starting, if you can, and do intensive full-time language study. Once you start your job, you then at least have a springboard for further progress and your daily working life can provide plenty of opportunities for practice.  

Being a witness as a Tentmaker
Your assumption might be that your daily work place could be a natural place in which you have opportunities to share your faith in Christ, just as it would be back home. But this depends a lot on the level of religious freedom that there is in your host country. Plus you have the situation, which is the same anywhere, where it is inappropriate for lecturers to talk about religion to their students, at least in the work context. And if the religious freedom level is very low, as is often the case, then active witnessing in your department can lead to a quick loss of job and exit from the country.

So wisdom is needed. It will take time and patience to dig in for the long haul. Social friends and neighbours outside of your immediate work environment might be those with whom you are eventually able to share Christ. Like Paul in Athens, who was staying with local well-known tentmakers because he shared their profession, you will have a natural identity that will provide you with a certain acceptability in society, one that can open doors to sharing the Good News.

Support from your Local Church
Just as you are sent out from your local church, so it will be your hope that your church will continue to support you in prayer over the years. But tentmakers can find they have some problems in this respect. For example, ‘missionaries’ have a clearly defined category status in most churches. But they might just feel that a ‘tentmaker’ is someone who happens to have found employment overseas, so not someone who needs their special prayerful support. In addition, you won’t want to use the word ‘missionary’ for what you do, for the simple reason that in some parts of the world the word means something like “a western imperialistic CIA agent sent to undermine our national unity”. OK, I am exaggerating a little, but you get the point!  So on one hand you’re trying to communicate your heart for mission to your local church - yet without your name or photo ending up on their ‘missionary map’ displayed at the back of the church - whilst on the other hand you certainly do need their prayerful support.

What to do? The best approach is to recruit a prayer group within your church at a personal level whilst you’re still with them who will meet regularly for prayer for you whilst overseas. At the same time you’ll have your wider circle of prayer partners from uni friends and elsewhere. Regular news communication is the key.

Conclusions

In all of this, science will continue to be the heart and soul of your daily life as you seek to glorify God by increasing our understanding of His wonderful works of creation. Doing science is a holy mission. The spiritual environment for the tentmaker may be tough and discouraging at times, but having a regular job will help lift your spirits and provide a framework for your daily life and witness.  Regular meetings with your local team will provide support and encouragement. Through it all people will be won for Christ and new student groups and churches will be planted. Indeed this is what’s happening around the world as scientists keep faithfully knitting their tents.