How Do You Talk About Faith with Secular Colleagues? (STEAM Grant Faith/Science Series)

students in lab photo

ESN is currently creating a Faith/Science curriculum for young adult small groups. We’ve partnered with InterVarsity graduate student discussion groups to identify faith/science questions that are important to emerging scholars, and we’re commissioning thoughtful Christians in science or theology/philosophy to explore those questions in this series at the ESN blog. We will then publish these posts as a booklet curriculum for campus groups. You can find previous posts in the series and related posts here

This project was made possible through the support of an award from the Science and Theology for Emerging Adult Ministries project at Fuller Theological Seminary. The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fuller or the STEAM project.


Most Christians are aware of the Great Commission, as described at the end of the Gospel of Matthew. This call to “go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature” is daunting, and can easily give rise to the temptation that the mandate is only for those who are specifically appointed to do so. Such a view is supported by the stereotypes many have about those in academia. Some are at best unflattering, like the absent minded professor, and at worst pathological, like the mad scientist. On the other hand, our ability to focus on problems and solve them creatively positions us as uniquely for evangelism as it does for research. Rather than providing excuses for ourselves, our eccentricities equip us to serve God if we only recognize them for the blessings that they are.

I am a physicist who conducts nuclear fusion energy research in the Plasma Physics Laboratory at Princeton University. For folks like me, inspirational messages from “evangelism experts,” I’m afraid, don’t seem to help. Some years ago, I remember one such speaker explaining that sharing the Gospel is no different from talking to your colleagues about your hobbies at the water cooler. There is indeed a water cooler in my hall. However, I make a beeline to it when I want a drink and go back again to my office, and never linger there.

What I should be doing instead was brought home when I was giving a tour to physics students from a local college (physics classes often visit our laboratory). What struck me was that in addition to the physics professor, his sister came along. She told me she was an artist, and she became fascinated with what scientists did after seeing the film Apollo 13. There was a scene where a box of what looked like junk was dumped in front of a bunch of engineers at “Mission Control.” They were told that this was all the Apollo 13 astronauts had on their spacecraft, and they had to use the parts to come up with a fix for their air filtration system.

While dramatic, I didn’t think it was particularly unusual. Many of us often do a lot of jury-rigging in the lab, albeit under far less dire circumstances. To my guest, however, this was extraordinary. It was a revelation to her that scientists and engineers can actually demonstrate creativity! Such was not the exclusive purview of the artist, and it was why she wanted to join her brother and his students on their field trip.

If the Great Commission is indeed for all believers, the incident motivates us to ask first who we are before what we can do. The relevant question then becomes not how good we are at striking up conversations at the water cooler. Rather, it is how creative you are, as affirmed by the artist with the scientist brother. If “generic” ideas on how to share your faith are not for you, God has given you the ability to figure out creative alternatives. As He does not make mistakes, He expects you to meet this challenge based on the kind of person He has created you to be.

Let us begin within your “comfort zone.” For many Christians, this is the local church, as well it should be. I apologize if I offend any pastors who might be reading this, but the goal of every mature believer should not be to serve on the governing body of their church, though of course some will be called to do so. I am obviously not advocating a complete dissociation with any church activities.

Instead, I recommend that you examine how you are doing them. Are you serving the body of Christ in a lockstep fashion that you would never tolerate professionally, or are you exercising your God-given creativity?

For example, there were economically disadvantaged minority young people who lived within walking distance of Rutgers, a major research university in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Few, however, were ever on campus. I was attending a church nearby, and we thought we’d try a class for high school students in our summer Vacation Bible School (VBS). We got several to participate, and I started each day with a Bible study on Genesis on the theme that God has “created us to be creative.” I then took the students to a different place on campus each day. We went to the art gallery, the geology museum, and some engineering laboratories where some Christian friends were teaching.

At the end of the program, several students who never aspired to go to college before asked what they had to do to prepare for it. Many churches have Vacation Bible Schools, so this in itself was not usual. What made it singular was the synergy between the aggressive recruitment by our church’s VBS organizers of youngsters who were not regular churchgoers, and my interest in a worthwhile program for them. Only I in the congregation had the academic connections to pull it off, and I used them.

The VBS experience provided a “natural” opportunity to reach out beyond the comfort zone of my church to the world of my secular colleagues. A frequent topic of conversation in many colleges and universities is community outreach, particularly to “underrepresented” minorities. It was straightforward to bring into such discussions what I did with my VBS class. The faith connection was obvious, and provided the chance the witness to those who were interested in the motivations behind them.

Activities like the VBS class show that you care for your community. If you’re early in your career, even those evaluating you might find it hard to object as long as you’re keeping up with your “day job.” If we recognize God’s gift of creativity, we can indeed go “into the world and preach the Gospel to every living creature” in the unique way He has destined for each of us.


Discussion Questions

  1. What do you find exciting about your work?
  2. How do you see God in what you do?
  3. How might you creatively integrate the two (what you find exciting and how you see God in your work) in your conversations with colleagues?

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Robert Kaita

Bob Kaita, recently retired from the Plasma Physics Laboratory and the Graduate Program of the Department of Astrophysical Sciences at Princeton University. Bob investigated techniques for heating plasmas to high temperatures, and developed instrumentation for measuring them. He also explored materials that could be used in future fusion reactors. His work is described in nearly four hundred and fifty papers. Bob is a fellow of the American Physics Society, and a recipient of the Kaul Prize for Excellence in Plasma Physics Research and Technology Development. He has supervised the research of many high school, undergraduate, and graduate students, including serving as the thesis advisor to fourteen Princeton doctoral students. Bob is a fellow and past president of the American Scientific Affiliation, and has served as the faculty advisor for the Princeton Graduate Christian Fellowship.

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One Comment

  • jadam@odu.edu'
    JOHN ADAM commented on September 20, 2018 Reply

    1.What do you find exciting about your work?

    Teaching mathematical science/Applied mathematics from ‘Nature’s ‘Book’ in a Secular Environment. I’m very interested in the topic of “Patterns in Nature” (see book list at https://fs.wp.odu.edu/jadam/). In fact I give talks on those same topics (at the appropriate levels) quite regularly to lay and professional audiences quite frequently.

    This frequently morphs into the remaining questions above since nearly everyone – scientist or lay person – is interested in nature at some level or other!

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