Christian Organizations and the Environment – Some Preliminary Observations

[A revised version of the piece is available on the Mennonite Creation Care website.]

It’s spring here in eastern Ontario. The low-lying spots where we went skating just a few weeks ago are now stopover sites for migrating ducks. The fencerows and backyard shrubs host the birds that booked the earliest flights out of the south. While the birds were away and while the snow and ice accumulated, I spent time considering the natural world from a different perspective.

Over the past few months I have engaged in conversations with leaders from a number of Christian networks here in Canada: denominations and related humanitarian organizations. I’ve been trying to gain a better understanding of why some Christian groups engage in creation care initiatives and others do not. I am particularly interested in organizations that were not specifically created to do environmental work. While I value groups like A Rocha and Mennonite Creation Care Network, I’m intrigued by the possible impact of organizations with a constituency not self-selected for environmental commitment. I haven’t yet had a chance to fully analyze my findings, but, while the birds settle in, I can share a few preliminary observations.

First, my hunch that churches are important spaces in this conversation was confirmed. Denominational leaders report needing to use care when describing their involvement in environmental initiatives. Though this creates challenges for them, it also points to the fact that church networks contain individuals and congregations with a variety of perspectives on the ecological crisis. If we’re interested in shifting public opinion on these matters, this diversity is a good thing. Similarly, the most conscientious leaders were aware that some of their constituents depend directly on income from resource extraction or are severely impacted by a tax on carbon pollution. As we discern a way forward, churches remain a valuable venue for learning and change.

Second, I learned that faith-based humanitarian organizations are in a good position to help their constituents see important connections.  Supporters of these agencies expect to hear about the challenges faced by the world’s poor. This creates an important space, where trust and compassion are paramount, for hearing about the impact of climate change. These kinds of stories help to link the impact of the highly consumptive lives of those us in rich countries with the vulnerability of subsistence farmers.

Third, I heard that political divisions are a real problem. There is no philosophical reason why environmental conservation should appeal more to those with progressive political views than to those with conservative views. However, the stark left-right divide in the United States and Canada has sucked this issue into the vortex of partisan stupidity. Church networks and faith-based organizations with politically diverse constituencies are therefore cautious about appearing partisan in their advocacy for policies that address climate change in serious ways. Churches that fail to resist political partisanship contribute to the problem.  

Finally, and related to all the above: theology matters. While some denominational constituencies seem content to go along with the popular wisdom of whichever political silo they occupy, many are open to arguments based in the Bible. At its best, the Christian tradition consistently reminds us that we must be open to repentance and conversion. This is a basic component of the grammar of the faith. I spoke with several remarkable leaders who have worked within the received theology of their denominational networks to demonstrate the importance of creation care. The leaders who appear to be most successful don’t idiosyncratically import the latest philosophical or political ideas. Rather, they show how core theological tenants already accepted by their constituents relate to caring for the earth. In different contexts, leaders have effectively shown how this mandate can flow from a diverse set of theological themes, including stewardship, justice, peace, discipleship, the doctrine of creation, worship, or the priestly role of human beings. Themes like these are anchored in different parts of the Bible, but communities that value scripture are generally open to being convinced by one of them.

As spring more fully unfurls, I’ll have a chance to think more systematically about these conversations. In the interim, though, I think the points above are worth consideration. Our ability to positively or negatively impact the landscapes in which we live is compounded by the human collectives that shape us and extend our influence. Our churches and the organizations we support would benefit from hearing our conviction that caring for the earth must be part of what we do together. 

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