Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Looking for Labels
distributed 1/16/04 - ©2004

We live in a complex world. As we try to make practical sense out of the confusion, various kinds of labels play a vital and helpful role.

The categories of Republican - Democrat - Green - Libertarian give us a general handle on political parties.

Atkins - South Beach - Grapefuit - Weight Watchers. It is far easier to name the diet that you follow than to describe to your host what you can eat, and what you can't.

Episcopal - Baptist - Presbyterian - Unitarian. Those labels give us a way to look at the diversity of denominational perspectives. Other terms like Traditional, Contemporary and Taizé describe different types of worship styles.

I'm beating this rather obvious drum because I have become aware of an urgent need for some new labels. Those of us who are working to bring an eco-justice perspective into the life and ministry of churches need some convenient code-words to express what we're looking for, and to describe what we're hoping people will move away from.

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The need for such a linguistic short-hand was driven home for me in some work that I've been doing recently.

The United Church of Christ is conducting a national survey about worship practices among the congregations in the denomination. Pastors, musicians and lay leaders will be asked to fill out extensive questionnaires about the style and content of their services.

I was invited to participate in several steps of the survey design, to help ensure that eco-justice concerns would be included among the many topics being addressed. In the first stage of the design process, it wasn't hard to suggest specific worship practices that help or hinder eco-justice perspectives. Do you hold an Earth Day service or do a blessing of the animals? What types of concerns are named in prayers and sermons? How is the lectionary used? What hymnal and other music resources are used? Are there live plants in the sanctuary?

When a draft of the final questionnaires was circulated for comment, though, the absence of recognized labels became painfully obvious to me. The survey format required that lots of broad considerations and open-ended questions had to be narrowed down into clearly-defined choices. And those choices usually depend on easily-grasped labels.

We can expect that the folk who will be filling in the forms understand the questions about "how often do you used inclusive or expansive language referring to humanity," or to God? But would they even know what is being talked about if they are asked how often they use inclusive or expansive language in referring to all of creation?

I don't think there will be a question that asks, "Do your worship services focus on an individual's personal relationship with God, or do they focus on God's relationship with the entire creation?" Those terms don't fit into the mental maps of most church leaders.

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A book on marketing that I've found insightful and helpful talks about the need for coherent labels. The author says that, with a new product category, there is a need to "name it and frame it. Potential customers cannot buy what the cannot name, nor can they seek out a product unless they know what category to look under."

Can pastors and other worship leaders "name and frame" an eco-justice approach to worship? What terms should folk include in an Internet search for worship resources? When someone moves to a new community, can they say, "I'm looking for a church that has a ____ style?"

Through the next several months, I'm going to be trying to draft a list of broad criteria for worship that takes seriously the theological, ethical and relational commitments of eco-justice. And in publicizing that list, it will be helpful to suggest one or two labels that refer coherently to worship that includes eco-justice practices and perspectives.

I need your help in that project!

What language do you use or have you heard that makes some collective sense out of this approach? Are we talking about "green worship"? Within mainstream Christianity, at least, "Earth centered" worship is not the goal, but does "Earth-aware" say it? And what would you suggest as some of the criteria of worship that gets it right? What practices and perspectives lead worship into helpful directions?

Drop me a note with your suggestions and experiences!

A final reminder to our United Church of Christ constituency:

The worship surveys will be mailed out to all UCC churches within a few days. As you fill in those forms, I urge you to keep "all of God's creation" in mind as you describe the practices and resources used in your congregation. (If you're not on the church staff, ask your minister if you can fill in one of the surveys, or provide some input.) The results of this study will shape the worship programs and resources of the UCC for at least a decade. Even as we struggle to find concise new labels, let's be sure that an eco-justice perspective is heard as important in the life of congregations.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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