Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Faithful, Relevant and Effective
distributed 1/10/20 - ©2020

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Jerry Rees and Sallie Veenstra of Leawood, Kansas. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

Eco-Justice Ministries works with churches. (The word "ministries" in our name should be a good clue about that.) Through the last 20 years, we have worked often and closely with interfaith colleagues, and with secular environmental groups, but the heart and core of our work is with Christian churches.

There are both special opportunities and remarkable challenges when pushing an eco-justice perspectives in a Christian context. Doing faith-based environmental action is a very different project than the education and advocacy done in other settings.

Our agency's mission statement has provided good guidance for us, and the phrasing of that statement has three essential criteria that people in local congregations can use to shape and evaluate the programs of their church. The mission statement reads:

Eco-Justice Ministries is an independent, ecumenical agency that helps churches answer the call to care for all of God's creation, and develop ministries that are faithful, relevant and effective in working toward social justice and environmental sustainability.

The three words that I want to highlight for churches are "faithful, relevant and effective."

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Several years ago, I was the guest preacher at a large church with a well-deserved reputation for its environmental awareness, energy stewardship, and community involvement. I started my sermon with a series of questions, asking for a show of hands from those who agreed.

In short form, my three questions asked, "how many of you came to church this morning to hear (a) a presentation about global climate change, (b) a talk about the benefits of renewable energy, or (c) a discussion of federal and state policies about oil and gas production?" A few people raised their hands for the first response. By the time I got to government policies, I think only two people said yes.

So a few minutes later, I asked another question -- phrased in somewhat open terms for this Unitarian group. "How many of you come here on Sunday mornings to reconnect with a sense of community among like-minded people, to be reminded about what is really important in life, to be reassured that love and justice are important? Or maybe to be challenged and stretched by bigger ideas of the world, and more complicated notions of how we fit into it?" Every hand in the congregation went up for that one.

When we're doing eco-justice work with churches, we need to remember that those congregations exist to be the church, to be a community of faith. Their purpose, in Christian terms, is to praise God, to proclaim the gospel, and to nurture the community of faith. If we want the eco-justice witness of churches to be deep, genuine and persistent, then we need to make sure that their environmental work is profoundly faithful, and tied to those central purposes of the church.

There's another question that I raise frequently when I'm meeting with church folk. "What does it mean to 'be the church' in a world with great ecological and social justice crises?"

The presumption here is that it isn't sufficient to be generically faithful, "to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love" as a classic hymn puts it. A faithful church also must be relevant, proclaiming good news that makes sense in addressing the bad news of today's world.

The scriptures that are central to Christian churches were written 2,000 to 3,000 years ago. They're the journals of faith for a pre-modern, largely agrarian community struggling to survive in the arid lands of the middle east. The Bible talks about the everyday life and the critical public issues of those times. The prophets and the apostles were all intensely relevant for their moment in space and time.

On some levels, the old scriptures are less directly relevant for our time. The Bible never mentions global warming, species extinction, single-use plastics, or persistent toxic chemicals. The Good Book doesn't imagine metropolitan areas with 10 million people, intercontinental air travel, or the always-connected world of cell phones and the internet.

The perpetual challenge for churches is to take the ethical and spiritual insights that we've received from the biblical, historic witness of the Christian faith, and connect them with the realities of the modern world. A relevant faith has to acknowledge the scientific insights of modern cosmology and the ecologically connected Earth. Relevant theology needs to face up to a humanity that no longer is powerless in the face of huge natural forces, but which now overwhelms nature.

We're not being relevant if the core theology of our churches took shape in the 1950s -- or the 1500s. Pastors, educators and engaged laity need to be informed by the current work of theologians and ethicists. Sermons and prayers on Sunday morning need to face up to the issues in today's news with faithful messages of shalom, justice, grace, transformation, community and sufficiency.

There are lots of resources for relevant worship and ministry. To name just two large documents written to the global church, I'll point to the encyclical from Pope Francis, "Laudato Si', and a powerful study document from the World Council of Churches, Together Towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes."

We're making good progress if we can identify congregations that are both faithful and relevant. But the third factor of effective also is necessary.

One of my pet peeves is the all-too-common church that brings environmental awareness and relevant ethical discernment into their worship ... just once a year on the Sunday closest to Earth Day. If that's the only time a congregation talks about climate justice or the fragility of God's creation, then the environmental message isn't going to make a difference in the congregation or the community. To be effective, the theological message of eco-justice has to be persistent and pervasive.

To be effective, the eco-justice advocacy of congregations has to go beyond a listing of actions that we can take as individuals to be good stewards of creation. To be effective in battling the crises of our time, churches have to engage political and economic power, and we need to challenge worldviews and ideologies. Legislative advocacy and financial divestment have to be part of an effective church's environmental toolkit.

Effectiveness has to pay attention to measurable results. Has the church cut its energy use significantly? Are members acting on the moral guidance voiced in church? Do legislators pay attention when the church sends a delegation to lobby for a bill?

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Faithful, relevant and effective -- all three are necessary elements of a church working for social justice and environmental sustainability.

Take a look at what is being done in your congregation or faith community. Is the eco-justice message connected to the core theology and ethics of the church? Is the eco-justice awareness profoundly relevant to the realities of today's hurting world? Is the action and witness of the church effective in nurturing the beliefs of members, in shaping the values of the larger community, and in reducing impacts on the physical world?

Christian churches can be powerful agents for change and healing in today's world, but only when they bring together all three aspects with commitments to be faithful, relevant and effective.


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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