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Faith and Research

Discovery and application meet at the intersection of the scientific method and spirituality.

Janel Shoun-Smith | 615-966-7078 | 

Worship at a Lipscomb chapel

At Lipscomb, faith is not kept within a silo, and research is not excluded from questions of spirituality. While faith may not fall within quantitative measurements, its impact on society, individual people and their daily lives in the world can be measured, analyzed and explored.  

During the 2023-2024 school year, faculty from various colleges took on questions of spirituality through the scientific method, working to discover new ways to apply faith-based living and interacting in business, science, higher education, within church congregations and within the Academy.

The intersection of faith and science
Dr. Josh Owens

Josh Owens

Dr. Josh A. Owens (BS, ’16), assistant professor and undergraduate research coordinator in the biology department, was awarded a grant from the Lilly Network of Church-Related Colleges and Universities grant in 2023 to lead a three-university initiative to address the perception among GenZ students that Christianity is inherently at odds with scientific principles.

The grant supports the efforts of Owens, Dr. John Lewis (A, ’00), the Lipscomb McClure Professor of Faith and Science, and Josh Reeves, director of the Samford Center for Science and Religion, to create a May 2024 workshop with faculty participants from the sciences, theology and administration from Lipscomb, Samford and Belmont Universities.

The primary goal of the workshop is to produce a survey to analyze their students’ views on faith and science. A sociologist will finalize the survey design and upon receiving results, the faculty will design curriculum modules that will aid courses to better discuss the relationship of science and Christian faith and biblical truth.

John Lewis

John Lewis

“As college professors and administrators at faith-based institutions, we are committed to helping our students learn how to remain rooted in their faith while pursuing high-level academics,” said Owens. “We want to remove any perceived stumbling blocks for students who are capable of making an impact in a scientific field but fear they must abandon their faith in order to engage in relevant academic discussions.”

As a Lipscomb alumnus raised with conservative Christian values, this research is personal for Owens. As a student, he grappled with what was presented as inconsistencies between his Christian faith and scientific understanding and had his faith challenged during graduate school as being “intellectually weak.” He is haunted by the fact that many individuals do not believe that you can be both a Christian and a scientist.

The survey, expected to be distributed in freshman biology and STEM courses at the universities this coming fall, is intended to be a tool to discover the source of that attitude among current students, said Lewis. Is it teachers, youth ministers or their home life shaping this view among youth, asks Lewis. It’s an open question in need of research, he said. “We must figure out where that conflict is coming from, and then we can plan workshops for the target audience,” he said.

Focus Group of faculty working on survey

The May 2024 workshop with faculty participants from the sciences, theology and administration from Lipscomb, Samford and Belmont Universities..

This will be one of few studies that has been conducted in the Southeast region of the U.S., said Lewis, who teaches a capstone course for seniors where he focuses on the intersection of faith and science.

“A lot of students come to college having not directly experienced the conflict of faith and science in church. In church it is ignored, so it’s an undercurrent. They are getting the notion from somewhere but cannot pinpoint where exactly.,” he said.

Interested in partnering with research regarding the intersection of faith and science? Contact josh.owens [at] lipscomb.edu (subject: Interested%20in%20faith%20and%20science%20research) (Josh Owens) or john.lewis [at] lipscomb.edu (subject: Interested%20in%20Faith%20and%20Science%20Research) (John Lewis).

The intersection of faith and higher education
Trace Hebert

Trace Hebert

When it comes to visioning for the future and understanding how the typical student may change in the future, America’s 12 regionally accredited Church of Christ universities have been utilizing quantitative data from Lipscomb’s Associate Provost for Research and Graduate Studies Dr. Trace Hebert since 2011.

That’s the year that Hebert began providing the presidents of these institutions (Church of Christ-affiliated universities with traditional residential campuses), annual data on the faith backgrounds of students in each institution’s freshman class. The annual enrollment reports began at a time when the university presidents were concerned about slipping enrollments among traditional-age students with a Church of Christ heritage. They needed hard data, and the data proved their concerns justified.

Hebert’s 2023 report showed a continuation of a steady decline, from 4,411 Church of Christ affiliated freshmen enrolled for the first time in the year 2000 to 1,489 affiliated freshmen enrolled in 2023, a decrease of 66.2%.

At the same time, thanks to non-traditional programs such as online, graduate and adult education programs as well as students from backgrounds other than the Churches of Christ, total enrollment of students from any and all backgrounds has increased by 1,859 students since 2011.

The university presidents use the data in reports to their governing boards, and Christian K-12 schools across the nation have also used the data in their governing processes and decision-making, said Hebert. He has also been invited to speak to university boards on the results and trends.

“This data has been strategically helpful to the institutions to see that they are not going to be able to rely on the traditional Church of Christ students to maintain their enrollments in the future,” said Hebert. “That realization has been critical to them. They understand that they must diversify, while still recruiting students interested in Christian higher education, even if those students are from other faith backgrounds.

“Fifty years ago, the Church of Christ population was robust enough, and these institutions were small enough, that the population could maintain them with a high percentage of the population being from the Churches of Christ.

“That’s no longer our reality. Not only is the Church of Christ population, and 18-year-olds within that population, shrinking, but our institutions have grown,” he said.

Hebert’s data has been published a number of times in the past in the Journal of Faith and the Academy, and he has been called on by the Christian Chronicle to discuss his research.

Interested in partnering with research regarding the intersection of faith and higher education? Contact trace.hebert [at] lipscomb.edu (subject: Interested%20in%20Research%20on%20Faith%20and%20Higher%20Ed) (Trace Hebert).

Wlamir Xavier teaching
The intersection of faith and business

Dr. Wlamir Xavier was first a scholar before he became a Christian. So today, as a Lipscomb professor of finance, he enjoys bringing his scholarly approach to issues of faith, especially issues within his chosen field of expertise – business strategy.

So when he learned about the Bill Pollard Faith & Business Research Fellowship at a conference where he presented on faith-based entrepreneurship, he applied and was selected as one of only three scholars worldwide for the 2023 cohort of the fellowship, sponsored by the Seattle Pacific University Center of Faith & Business. The fellowship included a one-week residency in Seattle, use of the faith and work library at the university and a cohort-based research collaboration on a project addressing business and faith interaction.

Xavier’s fellowship research is exploring how, if at all, the abandonment of Christian principles and purpose by ServiceMaster’s top executives and board members may have affected the company’s eventual decline. The fellowship’s namesake, William Pollard, is a former chairman and CEO of ServiceMaster, who ran the Fortune 500 company to great success and has written numerous works on leadership, service and ethics.

“ServiceMaster was founded almost 100 years ago on strong faith-based values. The company’s main value was to ‘Honor God and His creation’,” said Xavier. “For decades, all the executives were developed within the company, so the faith-based culture was very strong.”

But as the company got bigger and the ownership structure changed, the interests of investors became the priority and the company took a turn in the 1990s. In 1999, the first CEO who had not been previously embedded within the company culture was appointed, and Xavier’s hypothesis is that event began an evolution that led to the decline of the company.

The Pollard fellowship study is a continuation of his studies into Bible and theology since becoming a Christian. In 2020 he earned a Bible and theology graduate certificate and then began work on his third doctorate, this one in Christian higher education studies.

His research into the evolution of ServiceMaster will help fuel his dissertation topic on how Christian universities establish, assess and provide resources for their faith-based goals, he said. He will be looking for links between the operation and performance of the Christian institutions and their faith-based goals. 

Interested in partnering with research regarding the intersection of faith and business? Contact Wlamir Xavier.

The intersection of faith and the congregation

Carlus - Headshot

While scholarly work in spiritual issues can take place in any sphere of life, questions relating to today’s church congregations are particularly important at this point in history, said Dr. Carlus Gupton (BA ’82), director of Lipscomb’s Doctor of Ministry program.

Church leaders are today facing ever greater cultural, economic, emotional and strategic challenges, and many of the common models for governance of organizations lack theological direction and spiritual vitality, he said.

Lipscomb’s Doctor of Ministry teaches strategic congregational leadership, grounded in deep spiritual formation, for those already practicing such leadership and those who feel they will benefit from the concepts in their chosen profession. With that focus in mind, each of Lipscomb’s doctoral graduates focus their dissertations on an area of research to solve a problem, enhance their day-to-day work or help renew the mission of those in their chosen sphere of life.

Examples of research from the past two years include:

  • A study of what methods benefit spiritual health of those in prison, the spiritual life of college students during the pandemic;
  • The formative impact of a leaders’ retreat among campus ministers in Africa;
  • The effectiveness of using visual art in spiritual formation; how shared spiritual practices in families contributes to youth’s spiritual formation;
  • The effectiveness of a spiritual vocation course at Lipscomb for nursing students; and
  • Ways that ministers can overcome burnout.

Dr. Jon Micah Richardson (DMin ’22), a family discipleship minister at Hendersonville Church of Christ, carried out a research project called, “Exploring the Receptivity to, and the Formative Impact of, Spirit-empowered Rhythms in the Life of an Eldership.”

During his ministry career so far, Richardson had noticed that many Church of Christ elderships have a focus on the administrative work of the congregation, and thus tend to inadvertently neglect their own spiritual practices as a group. “My research focused on introducing them to practices they could engage in personally and communally that would open them up to the work of the Holy Spirit within their lives as elders.” said Richardson.

His own eldership at Hendersonville agreed to be his research subjects. Richardson designed a daily and weekly spiritual formation guide with weekly themes and articles to stimulate curiosity. Working through the guide took 15 to 30 minutes each day, and then the elders came together for a communal spiritual activity once a week.

The exercises culminated in an on-site retreat where the elders discussed what was important to them as an eldership now, having completed the six weeks of spiritual activities, and what they now wanted to focus on. 

“I spent a lot of hours with our elders with these practices, and one of the things that was special about that was that our relationships changed and grew, and my care and concern for them grew,” said Richardson. “The project used the training and coaching skills that I already had and showed me areas where I need to get better. It reaffirmed my passion for the local church and my love for our elders as well. I want churches to be healthy, and spiritual health is so important to that.”

Learn more about Lipscomb's Doctor of Ministry program.

The intersection of faith and the Academy

For the past 16 years, Lipscomb has served as the primary host for the Christian Scholars’ Conference (CSC), an annual interdisciplinary gathering intended to facilitate interaction and discussion of theological issues amongst all academic disciplines.

Featuring sessions in the arts, the sciences, business, sociology and the humanities, as well as theological areas, the conference was attended in June 2024 by hundreds of scholars to explore the theme “Hope Amidst Crises: Challenges, Opportunities and Collaborations.”

Reflecting an awareness of global crises while projecting a hopeful vision, the conference addressed contemporary societal concerns through a slate of nationally recognized experts and scholars as keynote speakers and featured lecturers:

CSC Speakers -- Wright, Lanier and French
  • Dr. N.T. Wright, senior research fellow at Wycliffe Hall, University of Oxford;
  • Dr. Mark Lanier, founder of the Lanier Law Firm, one of the top civil trial lawyers in America and a Lipscomb University trustee;
  • Dr. David French (BA ’91), New York Times columnist, former litigator, author and distinguished visiting professor of public policy at Lipscomb;
CSC Speakers - Brandt, Styles, Cohick
  • Dr. Jonathan Brant, dean for research and culture at Wycliffe Hall, University of Oxford;
  • Charlie Styles, CEO of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics;
  • Dr. Lynn H. Cohick, distinguished professor of New Testament and director of the Houston Theological Seminary at Houston Christian University.
CSC Speakers -- Love McCaulley, Walton
  • Dr. Esau McCaulley, author and associate professor of New Testament at Wheaton College;
  • Dr. Mark Love, professor of theology and ministry and director of the Master of Religious Education in missional leadership program at Rochester University;
  • Dr. John Walton, professor of Old Testament emeritus Wheaton College and Graduate School; and

These speakers, and more then 80 other speakers, conveners and coordinators, explored questions surrounding trust of America’s institutions and division in church and academia as a symptom of the today’s culture.

“This is a conversation on the minds of those in churches, universities and communities. Emphasizing the interdisciplinary possibilities of the conference, the 2024 CSC provided research and resources for facing contemporary challenges, but with special emphasis on the central place that collaboration holds in our efforts to meet those challenges,” said Dr. Jennifer Shewmaker, Lipscomb provost and chair of the CSC advisory committee.