Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Not Church-Goers
distributed 5/16/03 - ©2003

"Our members don't tend to be church-goers," Tara told me. It wasn't an unfriendly comment, just factual.

Tara is a staff member of a non-profit citizen's group that is "dedicated to protecting and enhancing the natural environment and quality of life" in western Colorado. I'm on the staff of an agency that works with churches to encourage action toward social justice and environmental sustainability.

We ended up having a very pleasant conversation. We have many interests, values and causes that we hold in common. But we're not likely to work together much, because her members don't tend to be church-goers, and church-goers are the people that I tend to work with.

That conversation led me to wonder: Why don't most of the good, caring, committed folk who belong to her citizen's group go to church? (On the flip side, maybe Tara has wondered why the area's good church folk don't join her group.) Several possibilities have run through my mind.

  1. The environmentalists don't come to church because they are lost souls, ignorant about what is really important. The church needs to save them from the error of their ways. We need to convert them to a whole new set of values, commitments and friends.

  2. Those activist folk are a lost cause, beyond the reasonable reach of the church. There is no common ground between the two groups. We might as well write them off, and concentrate our energy on the church-friendly people that we can get to conveniently.

  3. The churches and the environmentalists really stand for pretty much the same things. We just need to improve our marketing so that the environmentalists understand what we've been saying all along. Then they will want to flock to the churches.

  4. Those folk are pretty sensible, and seem to make reasonable choices in most of their lives. Maybe they don't go to church because they haven't found a church that talks to them honestly and passionately about the things that they believe are important. Maybe none of the churches in the community have had anything to say -- any words of hope and wisdom -- that would be good news to the environmental activists.
I didn't get a chance to talk to any of the church leaders in that community. So I don't really know what message the churches in that town are preaching.

But from what I did hear, I get a sense that both the churches and the environmentalists are pretty well settled into option #2. Each sees the other side as a lost cause, and the divide down the middle of the community is deep and wide. The old-time residents, tied to the coal mining economy, are the church-goers. The environmentalist newcomers (who are "spiritual, but not religious") stay away from the churches. Theology and mission are not the only considerations here. Sociology, economics and politics help shape the divide between churched and un-churched.

+     +     +     +     +

Six hours and sixty miles later, I settled in for a stimulating weekend with the leaders of a congregation. They had invited me to meet with them as they explore how to become an intentionally "green" church. It was exciting to see these people claim that new direction -- both as a matter of faithful ministry, and as a path toward their congregation's long-term health.

We spent Saturday evening and Sunday morning exploring theology, values, programs and strategies. In 18 hours, we started to see some of the insights and convictions that can break down the divides that Tara and I see all too often. In various ways, we touched on, wrestled with, and learned from each of the four possibilities that I named above.

Three basic affirmations about the relationship between the church and the un-churched activists stick with me as I reflect on those conversations.

  1. We can learn from them.   If the church is going to be faithful and relevant to anyone, it needs to address the issues and concerns that are being raised by the community activists. Whether or not it leads anyone joins the church, we need to pay attention to, and become involved in, those critical issues.

  2. We have something to offer to them.   The church has a deeply rooted, profoundly faithful message that can bring hope, healing, focus and commitment to all those who are engaged in the issues of their communities. Our Christian faith and ethics connect us to powers and wisdom beyond our limited personal experiences. God's challenging love and grace do make a difference in our lives and our communities. The biblical vision of shalom centers all of our relationships and actions. The church has Good News to share.

  3. We can prosper in relationship.   Bridging the divide that splits many communities will be good for all involved. It will build trust and foster cooperation. It will forge new coalitions working for healthy and sustainable ways of life.
And there's a practical consideration for the churches. There's a good chance that churches who claim this opportunity -- who pay attention to the issues, speak deeply from their faith, and reach out with confession and compassion -- will discover new members joining their flock.

When -- as a matter of faith -- we become deeply involved in our local communities and the world, our congregations will prosper and grow.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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