What if the church were to save the planet?

A few weeks ago, someone asked me “regarding climate change, how would you like to see the church act differently?” Not a question I’m used to, unfortunately. Whatever words came out of my mouth were hardly an answer I felt satisfied with.

(A number of the things I post here are originally based off questions that I initially struggle to answer, but after mulling about it for a day or week or month or so I finally have a response I can excited about. But since by that time the conversation has been over for a day or week or month or so it’s usually too late to bring the point back up and so I figure I’ll just tell the whole world wide web. So, yeah, this is one of those posts.)

From Genesis 1 & 2, it is pretty clear that there is a biblical mandate to care for the planet. God created a whole lot of stuff, and saw that it was good. He then created humankind “in his image,” which means a lot of things but certainly implies that from the perspective of another mammal, bird, fish or perhaps even a plant, that those tall, mostly hairless, two-legged things walking around should resemble in action the Creator that gave them existence, cared for them, and saw that they were good.

Instead, humanity has destroyed the living things of the planet and overwhelmingly neglected their needs. Instead of seeing the created world as “good because God said so” it has been treated as a bank of natural resources that are “valuable to fulfill my own wants.” And the church has been largely complicit in this affair, preaching a theology of domination rather than a theology of stewardship, although that has thankfully been changing back for the better in recent years.

But why climate change? Is it not enough that this or that local church recycles and has a community garden in the backyard?

One reason could be because the church sees care for the poor as part of its mission. The ability to adapt to climate change (or any sort of change for that matter) is a privilege of those endowed with some savings or at least a decent credit rating. Many humanitarian aid organizations, secular and faith-based, are already realizing that they need to respond to climate issues. My hunch is that groups like World Vision and Bread for the World are no more than three years away from highly visible climate campaigns.

But instead of focusing on duty, I want to talk about potential. Because I think the church can afford to be ambitious. The church might actually be humanity’s best chance at overcoming the climate change crisis, simultaneously saving the planet while living more into a vision of redeemed humanity.

Let me explain.

The church is a global force.

Unlike most environmental issues (i.e., air pollution, deforestation, and invasive species), global warming is, well, a global force. It is not limited to specific localities of cause and effect, but instead has the ubiquitous power to change the entire world order. It takes a global force to counteract a global force.

While we talk a lot about living in a “globalized” world, the list of truly global forces is actually quite small. The Internet. Capitalism. The United Nations. None of these have made satisfactory progress towards halting climate change, and at least one of them has been a contributing culprit.

With 2.2 billion adherents, however, the church is a global force in its own right. No other religious group comes close in terms of size and geographic spread, and that number is essentially tied with the number of worldwide internet users. Setting aside theological considerations and speaking in strict sociological terms: if there is any group worldwide with the muscle to mobilize effectively around issues of climate, my money is on the church.

Bonus points to the first person to call which Chicago-based church this is, presently concealed by the all-too-rapidly melting Arctic ice cap.

The church has the power to change hearts and renew minds. 

Sometimes climate activists look against the hard, economic data and, despaired by the calculations, throw their hands up in the air in defeat.

Economic projections are usually based on expectations of human wants versus resource scarcity. While there is not much the church can feasibly do about scarcity, it certainly has and continues to be influential in shaping our desires. Whether hosting drug addiction treatment programs or inspiring charity in the human heart, we know of the church as a space for cultivating sensitivity to a higher yearning.

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:2.

As an oft-tossed around proverb amongst my close friends goes, “you just gotta want it.” For where there is a want, there is a will; where there is a will, there is a way.

The church has the voice to pastor in an era defined by climate change. 

Environmentalism has a tendency to take on spiritual overtones (sentiments like “feeling one with nature,” for example). As global warming increasingly moves from hypothetical model to experienced reality, I would not be surprised if the response by the general public was of a zealous, religious, almost-panicked scale.

Think about it. An abstract, formless phenomenon has the power to change things around the entire world, rewarding humanity for obeying some sort of code, and punishing humanity when it does not, adding the promise-threat of impending apocalypse. This same category applies to “global warming” equally as it does to our Judeo-Christian concept of “God.”

The obvious problem is that “global warming” is limited in its ability to meet the human being in a holistic manner. Climate change’s ensuing call for action may wake us up in the morning, but it will not give us peace when we go to bed at night.

In this context, the church has an opportunity to proclaim a greater story; a story of love, yearning, sacrifice, redemption, forgiveness. The gospel story, if you will.

This is an opportunity for the church to be an effective witness. But it needs to position itself now in order to capitalize on this chance, by swiftly responding to the reality of global warming by demonstrating a sense of duty (yes, this is our responsibility), a confession of guilt (yes, we have screwed up), and an act of faith (yes, we can change this). If the church ignores the crisis of climate now, the church will deserve to be ignored in the midst of a crisis of meaning.

What does this look like? Maybe it starts with finding groups that can carpool to church. Pastors are always trying to create small groups within their congregations anyways. But ultimately what it will require is a confidence to engage in systemic change that comes from prophetic vision, holding accountable not just congregations but the leaders of politics and industry. And efforts are already underway, and it is super easy to get involved.

So, in response to the question I was asked a couple weeks ago – I would love it if the church, instead of being reluctantly dragged into faith-based coalitions against global warming, took more leadership on the issue and showed that it had some confidence in itself. If, in 2050, the church can say, instead of “we did our part” say “we did it!”, that would be just incredible. We just gotta want it.

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What if the church were to save the planet?

9 thoughts on “What if the church were to save the planet?

  1. A wise man, whom I’ve never met, once said on Facebook about this very post: “Good to start with Genesis 1 and 2. Unfortunately Genesis 3 comes next. Especially verses 17-19.”

    To which I felt compelled to add: “For sure, I agree that Genesis 3 comes next. There is little reason to believe we, as humans, by our own willpower can bring about a utopian (ecotopian?) world-cosmos that is still not somehow hostile to us. My blog post was just that, a (rather wordy) blog post meant to inspire vision and not a dissertation to cover all possible ground, so in respect of people’s attention spans I did not go into nuance (that’s what people with feedback like yours helps with!). That all said, Genesis 4 comes after Genesis 3, and the sin that took place in the garden of Eden does not excuse further sin, like Cain’s murder of Abel, the punishment for which (4:11-12) was worse than even the punishment given to his father in 3:17-19. My personal belief is that apathy towards issues of rapid climate change, as both an insult to God’s will for us and to the well-being of our neighbors, result in living into a Genesis 4 reality, and I cannot in good conscience accept that.”

    Praise is neat, but I really love it when dialogue is sparked. Being taken seriously is much more validating than a shower of nice words. If you haven’t before, feel free to share your insights using the comment box!

  2. Kaleb,

    I’m the ornery engineer who commented on facebook. A bit of background might be helpful. I come to the climate issue from the energy industry and have spent several years working to integrate renewables (mainly wind) into the grid. Over that time I’ve done a lot of reflecting on what God is doing in this arena, not the least because renewables are championed as a “solution” for dealing with climate change. So in that sense I welcome the opportunity for dialogue, as I am also putting together a puzzle (love your bio comment “trying to figure out how to best live, work, run, and create in this strange, beautiful, broken, and interconnected world.”)

    Have spent much of today contemplating how to distill my thoughts into a single sentence, so here goes: the trouble isn’t ‘Is’, it’s ‘Ought’. The science may well be clear about what IS happening, but it is not at all clear what OUGHT to be done about it. Original Sin makes the Ought issue very, very messy, especially given that the creation is also caught up in the mess (a la Romans 8:22). The issue is further compounded when ‘Is’ and ‘Ought’ exist in separate arenas of study. In this case (and using a medical analogy), the diagnosis is a climate science issue, but the prescriptions are constrained by the laws of energy science which, by the way, are far more well-established. Unfortunately, climate activists rarely seem to understand this, and they make the common intellectual mistake of assuming that their expertise in one area qualifies them as an authority in another (academics are particularly vulnerable to this). The push for renewables is a prime example of this. It is commonly argued that we must transition to renewables from fossil fuels not only because of climate change but also because these fuels are finite (and to your point, the case for us as stewards of God’s creation must be made as well). Here’s the point that is missed: do you truly understand why we burn fossil fuels? Do you understand the multiple nuances of fuel sources and the unavoidable tradeoffs that come with choosing one over another? The concept of tradeoffs is fundamental to formulating energy policy, and anybody that doesn’t understand that should not be trusted (tipoff when somebody doesn’t know what they’re talking about is when they keep using the word ‘solutions’ in a policy discussion). I would further argue that Christians have a natural advantage here, because (and here we come full circle) the doctrine of Original Sin makes the concept of tradeoffs easier to grasp. This was the reason for nudge to Genesis 3.

    This is enough for now. Look forward to more.

    1. Randy – again, thanks for pushing my thoughts a bit further. I cannot help but appreciate the commentary from someone in the energy industry.

      At a personal level, I was really happy that you brought up “trade-offs.” Unlike the typical “climate activist,” who majored in something like Environmental Science I graduated with a Global Studies degree with a concentration in political economy. One common definition of economics is that it is a science studying the distribution of scarce resources over unlimited wants. Every economic decision is made with an “opportunity cost,” similar to what you mean by a “trade-off.”

      One of your frustrations is that climate activists mistakenly assume expertise in one area means that they are experts in other areas (or, another way of saying this, that one’s academic course of study is a more “true” way of seeing the world than another). For various reasons, I am moving myself to be more in line with climate activists, one of those being that (although I wouldn’t consider myself an economist in any standard sense of the term) I have a different language for talking about the same things (she says “arctic sea ice” and I say “global public good.”)

      That said, “economics” as we currently understand it does not make much sense in a Genesis 1-2 world of abundance. And I think you might be onto something good when you say Genesis 3 gives us some clues that make “trade-offs” or “opportunity costs” easier to grasp. I still hold to the (more sociological than theological) point I made in the blog that the church has the power to shape our desires, but, as I also briefly admit in the blog, “there is not much the church can feasibly do about scarcity.” I still see a lot of potential for positive change, but not without a number of challenges and not decoupled from the number of other considerations of human well-being/God’s will that we need to take into account.

      Finally – I also think wind turbines look really neat. Thanks for your work integrating them into the grid.

  3. One other thing. Jeremiah is apropos here: “This is what the Lord says: ‘Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice, and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,’ declares the Lord.” (Jer 9:23-24)

  4. Kaleb,

    I must confess I’m less interested in the sociological angle than I am in discerning how God is working in the arena of climate and energy. In this regard I’m heavily influenced by the Experiencing God material written by Henry Blackaby and Claude King back in the 90s: God is always at work around us and it is our task to respond to how He calls us to be involved in that work. Part of that task for me right now is to seek out other believers (such as those as YECA) who are asking the same questions and earnestly seeking Him. Thus the Jeremiah quote.

    1. Fair enough. My hope is that talking about perceived opportunities can be an aid to those trying to discern God’s will. Not that the two are equivalents for each other (far from it!), but rather to challenge the self-imposed limits on our imagination to what God can do through the church. Of course, what the church “can” do and what God’s “will” is are intensely different questions, but I hope they are related enough to be helpful to you or anyone else discerning God’s will for their lives or the life of their church.

  5. I agree with you. It is through dialogue (fellowship is a better word) like this that we align ourselves with the Holy Spirit (also not neglecting the essential ingredient of prayer). It is important to understand that this is a dynamic process which we have to cultivate every day (take up your cross daily, right?). Also, we need not be afraid of disagreements because we know that He will eventually lead us to unity in Him.

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