Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Refocus or Reformation?
distributed 8/3/18 - ©2018

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Mick and Renee Henry of Flagstaff, Arizona. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

I'm asking you to reply to today's Notes with a brief comment, or perhaps a nomination of a congregation or church leader providing exceptional eco-justice leadership. Read on to find out more!

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Last week, I suggested that the climate crisis is an opportunity for the church -- an opportunity for internal discernment and transformation, and an opportunity for broader witness and leadership. My reflections were shaped by the new book, "Climate Church, Climate World" by my friend and colleague, Rev. Dr. Jim Antal.

One reader wrote back to ask more about this opportunity, and "what would seem to be a reformation or refocus of the 'church' to take a greater leadership role in a climate solution." The phrasing of John's question prompts me to a follow-up on last week's Notes, because there's a huge difference between a reformation and a refocus, and I don't think "a greater leadership role" fully gets at what the church has to offer.

For more than a decade, Eco-Justice Ministries has recognized that churches might go about "greening" their ministries in three very different ways. We've labeled those "doing the basics," "leadership and activism," and "transformational ministry." Our analysis shows that these three approaches grow from different perceptions of how deep the world's eco-justice problems go. They ask very different questions about how churches might respond.

There's an extensive (and a bit outdated) section of our website that describes these three approaches. Briefly, they look like this:

DOING THE BASICS We look at this as the bare minimum for a church that claims to have environmental concerns. It involves "getting up to community standards" for energy conservation, recycling, and other environmental practices. (Unfortunately, lots of churches are not meeting even this minimal level.) A church will have some acknowledgement that we're called to be good stewards of God's creation. Often, basic economics will be a guide for what actions to take: replacing light bulbs and turning down the thermostat will save money. In this approach, the problems don't seem to be very bad or very deep. If we're just responsible consumers and good citizens, we're doing the right thing.

Doing the basics covers many necessary behaviors for churches, but this layer of engagement doesn't take the problems seriously enough. Environmentally, it only asks churches to do what any responsible business in the community would do. There's no reformation or refocus or serious faith challenge here.

LEADERSHIP AND ACTIVISM In quite a few churches, I think, there's a recognition that the eco-justice crisis has deeper roots. There are ways in which our political and economic and cultural systems aren't working well. Laws and regulations need to be changed to shift incentives and behaviors. For example, because our system doesn't put any price on the carbon emissions which drives climate change, something needs to be done to shift the economics about that pollution. We might advocate for a carbon tax, or for stronger fuel economy standards for cars, or for more renewable energy. In our current political situation, which is profoundly anti-environmental and climate crisis-denying, all of those policy actions are urgently needed.

Churches providing leadership will speak out, within their own setting and also in the broader community, about the need to address climate justice and other ecological concerns. Churches will take on a greater leadership role in political advocacy and public witness. They will work at resource conservation that goes way beyond the basics, such as installing solar panels. Leadership churches will refocus their ministries and their witness to address the urgent problems around us.

Leadership and activism expresses theological and ethical commitments, and it calls the church into forms of engagement that go far beyond the business as usual of ordinary businesses and agencies. Through the years, Eco-Justice Ministries often has looked to our strong colleagues of the Interfaith Power and Light network for guidance in these forms of action.

TRANSFORMATIONAL MINISTRY There are a few churches that are bold enough to say that the eco-justice crisis goes all the way to the core of our society. Changing laws is necessary, but we really need to change the economic system and our value system. We need a change of identity: from consumers to sustainers; from individuals to members of Earth community; from people exercising power over others to people sharing power within God's creation.

Dealing with such a deeply-rooted crisis provides the opportunity for churches to enter into a reformation of faith and ethics. We will struggle with prophetic critiques of our society, and be confessional in recognizing how we participate in flawed systems. We will draw deeply on faith traditions -- our own and other rich traditions as well -- to find better ways of defining the good life, and right relationships, and God's shalom. We will seek out transformational experiences of voluntary simplicity, and enter into deep listening to those who have lessons to teach us from indigenous cultures, or from those who have been excluded and victimized by the system.

Transformational ministry, to use religious language, is about conversion. It seeks a change of values, a reformulation of worldviews, a shift of identity. Worship in a transformational church will re-center us within the community of God's creation -- all people, future generations, and all the species and systems of Earth community. In public actions, there will be some political activism, but there may be more emphasis on resistance and public witness which names moral stances which may not have clear actions.

These three approaches are not a continuum. There's no assurance of an easy shifting from one stage to another. Saving money on the utility bill will not necessarily lead to political action on energy policies. Passionate activists may never re-label the problem as one calling for transformation. And those seeking personal and societal transformation, I've found, may not be all that diligent about doing some of the basics.

There are overlaps between the three approaches, and shared behaviors, but they grow from substantially different analyses of the problems we face. They call us to different kinds of action and response. Any one of the three approaches can be the starting point for a church's environmental witness.

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So here is my question to you, my request for a response. In terms of these three categories, where do you see your own congregation? Do you know of faith communities or religious leaders who are providing dramatic leadership, either for activism or transformation?

Each week, Eco-Justice Notes goes out to over 2,000 addresses. I don't know who most of you are, and I don't often hear back about whether the ideas I write about are making a difference in your faith community. I don't have a clear sense of how well or how deeply the churches in our constituency are engaging in the climate and eco-justice crises.

I don't know which of two biblical images speaks to the eco-justice witness of the church today. Can we see in the churches "a great cloud of witnesses" (Hebrews 12:1) who are motivated by faith in prominent leadership, vibrant activism, and deep transformation? Or do we see just a tiny remnant of the faithful (Isaiah 10:21-22) that has taken on the call to relevant ministry and witness, while most are doing nothing?

Please write me a short note ( Let me know what you see in your congregation, your denomination, your community. Do you see evidence of leadership or transformation? And if you know of specifics -- including yourself or your own congregation -- let me know of your nomination of an exemplary witness. I want to hear of the individuals and churches that are in the forefront of this good and important ministry.

I'm eager to hear from you, to know what you're seeing, and to know who you look to as the strongest models and examples. Please drop me a note.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
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