November 14, 2014 / Austin McNair

#ChurchTrending: Glass in the Playground

I’m not a great “environmentalist.”

Prop me up next to your standard young American and I would still probably fall somewhere in the middle of the pack when it comes to daily practices of green living. I recycle, turn off the lights when I leave the house, and do the usual things we should all be doing as good citizens. Yet, all of this has begun to change as I have started to recognize that my environmental practices need to be transformed from civic duties to spiritual ones.

This transformation began last year when I was walking through my neighborhood. As I turned the corner behind my apartment building, some shimmery glimpses of light began bouncing back towards me from an unexpected place – the ground of the small playground where the neighborhood children play. Someone had broken glass on the playground and it became my spiritual (not only civic) responsibility to clean it up. So I gathered some friends from my church community and we cleaned up the area.

The Out of Touch Church

Since the broken glass clean up, I’ve continued to think about how the church views and responds to other kinds of environmental issues. After all, what my community was able to do by picking up the glass (a small act) made a tangible difference in the neighborhood we are working so hard to bless. However, despite a growing cultural undercurrent positioned towards the care and restoration of the earth, the church has displayed a fairly indifferent attitude on the subject.

In 2009, the Barna Group published a small study called “Evangelicals Go ‘Green’ with Caution.” After writing that, “Three-quarters of self-identified Christians (78%) agree they would like to see their fellow Christians take a more active role in caring for God’s creation in a way that is both informed and biblical,” David Kinnamann writes that around 64% of active churchgoers claim that their church has never spoken about the subject.

That is a huge cultural disconnect.

In reasoning why there might be such a large gap in interest between church leadership and the congregation, Kinnamann writes the following:

“There is a void in Christian leadership on environmental issues, as well as an inability to articulate clearly and confidently a biblical understanding of creation care. Since climate change is controversial, many churches have simply avoided dealing with the subject, ceding the conversation to other voices. It may not be an easy arena to venture into, but the Christian community is ready for balanced, thoughtful, non-partisan and engaged leadership on this crucial issue.”

Has much changed since this study was published? Our culture continues to trend more and more towards the idea that major environmental change is needed but church has remained largely impartial.

Kinnamann’s intuitive conclusion as to why the church has remained silent on environmental issues is important for us to digest. At a time when the church could be positioned to become a prophetic voice against unjust use of resources, unfair treatment of the poor, and unhealthy lifestyle choices, we have been sidelined by fear or perhaps even our theology.

78% of would like to see fellow Christians take a more active role in caring for God’s creation. #EarthDay Share on X

On one hand, environmental issues are hard to talk about for some leaders because partisanship, which makes up this nation’s political landscape, has turned climate change into a liberal cause and a conservative punching bag. Leaders do not want to bring up the issues because they fear they will drive people away with a seemingly political stance. On the other hand, perhaps some churches’ indifference towards climate change is being informed (if even slightly) by a rapture eschatology which provides a predisposition to not care about what happens to this world. After all, if Jesus is going to just come and take all the Christians away to heaven, then who cares how we use the earth in the meantime?

Whichever way you want to look at it, the church’s engagement in environmental issues has been stifled by climate change.

God’s Mission to Restore

Let’s look even deeper than the global warming piece though. Caring for the environment is bigger and often times more practical when we look at it beyond the scope of climate change (even though we shouldn’t whimsically dismiss that issue).

Have you heard that the world has lost half of its wildlife in the past 40 years? Or about how the average American man, weighing 175 pounds, produces his weight in trash every three months? Furthermore, most of that trash gets buried near the poorer neighborhoods.

These shocking statistics provide incisive commentary on the state of what our culture prioritizes. The issues they raise can challenge us in the practical areas of our lives – our wallets, diet, time, etc… These statistics show us that the regular rhythm of humanity today is consume, consume, consume, without regard for those in less fortunate than us.

Can you imagine for a moment what a certain first century prophet who regularly invited his followers to sell their possessions and give to the poor would think of such a heavy culture of consumption?

In many ways, environmental issues are inseparable from God’s mission to redeem, restore, and renew this world. They go hand in hand with the narrative dying to ourselves so that God has more room to work through us. Analyzing the current environmental landscape forces us to look critically at how we are using our own resources and recognize what kind of impact we are leaving on the greater ecosystem.

With our supreme call to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves, awakening the church to environmental issues wouldn’t just challenge our character and lifestyle choices, it would draw us deeper into the mission God has called us on together.

Environmental issues are inseparable from God’s mission to restore & renew this world. Share on X

Becoming a Greener Church

Faithfully embodying what it means to be a Christian in our current cultural context means engaging environmental issues. The environmental decisions that we as a church make on organizational and personal levels tie into God’s ultimate call for us to be a people of blessing.

So what will it take to become a church that prioritizes green issues? For starters, we can reinforce some of the simple practices I mentioned above: recycling, conserving water and electricity, not using plastic bags, and organizing local trash pick-ups. Yet, we do this through the lens of love for God and our neighborhood, not just civic duty.

After these, the issues get more complicated. We are eating too much meat, we are buying products made in unregulated sweatshops, and we are putting most of our trash and dirty factories in lower-income neighborhoods. Approaching these kinds of issues as church communities will take leaders who are willing to do research and slowly develop practical steps for those they lead.

For me, it took glass in the playground to open my eyes to the environment around me. The glass that my community was able to clean up is how all Christians ought to approach environmental issues. God has given us a beautiful Earth to inhabit and care for as well as a calling to be a blessing to all nations. While creation care may not be at the top of our priority list, we should be ready to stop in our tracks, deeply reflect, and ultimately take whatever action is necessary to make our local and global environments a cleaner, more sustainable, and more beautiful places to live.

We should be ready to stop, reflect, & act to make our environment a more beautiful place. Share on X

[Image by davetoaster, CC via Flickr]