Environmentalism Within An Emerging Church Context

***NOTE: I apologize in advance for the rushed conclusion of this paper. I did not have the proper time to write the conclusion as I would have liked to. This is what I have. This is what I turned in. Give any critique you so desire. END NOTE***


Introduction

For many, when the term “environmentalism” is heard, a myriad of negative things come to mind. There seems to be a never-ending barrage of criticism over the issue of environmental stewardship within the broader Christian community. Christians will laugh at people who want to save the rain forests. They will make fun of people who decide to be vegetarians out of a conviction that eating animals is not ethical. Environmentalism is also, more times than not, associated with the New Age and various Paganisms.

Despite the criticism, and despite the “connections” with the New Age that exist with environmentalism, there is a growing trend among Christians to be more aware of the environment and the world around them. Christians are beginning to shed old ideologies and put on new ones. Christians are beginning to understand differently God’s words to humankind when He said, “…Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and subdue it. Rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every creature that crawls on the earth.”[1]

Whether the more conservative end of Christianity likes it or not, environmental awareness is here to stay within the Christian community, and for the more conservative branch of Christianity to understand the hows and whys of this growing movement, some study needs to be done on the subject. All Christians can grow from a more complete understanding of the environment and environmental stewardship. This study will center on how Environmentalism plays itself out within the context of the Emerging Church by examinging how the Emerging Church views creation, the Emerging Church’s discussion of the relationship between eschatology and creation, how action towards the environment and environmental causes are argued for among Emerging Church authors, and the ways that some “Emerging” congregation practice their environmentalism.

Defining the Emerging Church Movement
If we are going to be studying the Emerging Church, we need to have a working definition of what it is. This is a tough task, though, because the Emerging Church is fairly new and is not yet concretely defined. The Emerging Church Movement (ECM) is a broad and ever-changing movement. The leaders within the Movement do not even agree on what they believe or how that should be displayed to the broader Christian community. They agree only on certain essentials.

Opponents of ECM call it heresy. According to the Lighthouse Trails Research Project, an organization devoted to refuting “mystical” Christianity, “…[T]hey oppose the very foundation of Christianity and deny the essence of who Jesus Christ really is.”[2] On the other hand, sympathizers with the movement, and members of it, call it a continuation of the Reformation[3].

With so much controversy, how is one to define this movement? On a prominent ECM website states,

Emergent is a growing generative friendship among missional Christian leaders seeking to love our world in the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Our dream is to join in the activity of God in the world wherever we are able, so that God’s dreams for our world come true. In the process, the world can be healed and changed, and so can we.
In English, the word ’emergent’ is normally an adjective meaning coming into view, arising from, occurring unexpectedly, requiring immediate action (hence its relation to ’emergency’), characterized by evolutionary emergence, or crossing a boundary (as between water and air). All of these meanings resonate with the spirit and vision of emergent. In other languages, names for regional networks will be chosen with similarly evocative meanings.[4]

Or, to put this in more layman’s terms, ECM is a gathering of mission-minded church leaders coming together to do God’s work around the world, which includes environmental stewardship.

Creation

For most of our study of the ECM’s idea of Creation, we will be using Rob Bell’s book Velvet Elvis. While he is not the primary spokesman for ECM, he gives a very in-depth idea of creation, and it just happens to be the one which is held by the vast majority of ECM supporters and members.

Bell begins his section on Creation by stating that, “[Jesus is] reclaiming creation. He’s entering into it and restoring it and renewing God’s plans for the world.”[5] He then says, “To look at God’s restoration plans in greater depth, we need to go back to how God creates the world and what he thinks about it. The Bible starts with God making the ground and seas and calling them ‘good.” God makes land that produces vegetation and it is ‘good’. Over and over this word good is used to describe how God perceives what he has made. It is all ‘good’.”[6]

This is a very important paragraph because it shows both ECM’s view of creation and eschatology side by side. This immediately shows how closely connected these two ideas are in the mind of the ECM. In the present culture that Christianity has found itself in, to say that the end times and creation are connected is almost unheard of. But to Bell, and many in the ECM, they are connected. This idea will be looked at in a little more detail later.

Bell continues:

Notice what God does with his ‘good’ creation…God empowers the land to do something. He gives it the capacity to produce trees and shrubs and plants and bushes that produce fruit and seeds. God empowers creation to make more.

This happens again in Genesis 1:22 when God blesses the creatures of the water and sky…God gives fish the ability to make more.

An important distinction.


God empowers creation to make more and in doing so loads it with potential. It is going to grow and change and move and not be the same today as it was yesterday, and tomorrow it will move another day forward…[7]

And, according to Brian McLaren, another prominent ECM spokesperson, “…[W]e are looking to the Eastern Orthodox tradition and to emerging narrative theologies where creation is still seen as sacred, ‘good’, ‘very good,’ and, in fact, ongoing. When one is careful not to lose the enduring glory and continuity of creation, when one takes human sin seriously enough but no more seriously than one should, later elements in the Biblical narrative (election, redemption, revelation, salvation, eschatology) are themselves understood and integrated as glorious new unfoldings of continuing creation.”[8]

Apparently, the idea of an “ongoing” creation is not an idea that is original to the ECM. It comes from Eastern Orthodoxy. According to one Eastern Orthodox sermon, “In the priestly account of the creation, things exist only through a divine word, which raises them up and maintains them in their being.”[9] And if God is “maintain[ing] them in their being”, then, they must still be “good” and “very good”, which supports Bell’s next statement that “Creation is loaded with potential and possibility and promise.”[10] And, along the same line of thinking, G. K. Chesterton once stated,

“The essence of all pantheism, evolutionism, and modern cosmic religion is really in this proposition: that Nature is our mother. Unfortunately, if you regard Nature as a mother, you discover that she is a step-mother. The main point of Christianity [in talking about Creation is] this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate. This gives to the typically Christian pleasure in this earth a strange touch of lightness that is almost frivolity…Nature is not solemn to Francis of Assisi or to George Herbert. To St. Francis, Nature is a sister, and even a younger sister: a little, dancing sister, to be laughed at as well as loved.”[11]

Brian McLaren responds to this statement by Chesterton. He says, “Follow St. Francis and Chesterton, and you won’t sell your little sister; you will seek to enjoy her, cherish her, protect her, and encourage her to become all she can be.”[12]

Eschatology

This understanding of Creation bleeds directly into ECM’s position on Eschatology. According to Brian McLaren, “Our contemporary conservative eschatologies…strike me as desperate, escapist, and globally hopeless – eschatologies of abandonment. The world is going down the toilet, they say. There’s no hope. It’s all going to burn. So we should jump into the life rafts and paddle like mad away from the sinking ship. We should retreat to our Christian enclaves, listen to Christian radio, watch Christian TV, pray, study the Bible, tell drivers what we believe with bumper stickers in case of rapture, this vehicle will self-destruct, keep our contact with the world at a minimum, concentrate on our personal righteousness, and anticipate heaven, a supernatural life beyond history…[13]

In a generalized and exaggerated manner, this sums things up very well, but, what is McLaren referring to when he says “Our contemporary conservative eschatologies”? Tony Campolo explains.

“The most widely preached interpretation of the Second Coming today, and certainly the interpretation held in some form by most evangelical churches, is Dispensationalism. It is an eschatology that was formulated relatively recently, that is reflected in the footnotes of the Scofield Reference Bible, and that forms the plot line of the wildly popular Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins…The end times according to…Dispensationalism predict that there will come a moment when Christians will instantaneously and simultaneously disappear from the earth …This ‘rapture’ will be followed by seven years of suffering for those who are left behind …During [this time], 144,000 Jews will not only accept Jesus as their Messiah, but will publicly witness about him to the rest of the human race remaining on earth…”[14]

After this time of witnessing by the 144,000, Jesus will return to the earth, reign for 1,000 years in peace. Satan will then be released for one last time and, in the end, he will lose. Satan and his followers will then be banished to eternal damnation and Jesus Christ will reign victorious.

In seeming direct opposition to this position, however, is that held by ECM. Because of ECM’s higher regard for creation, they have a view of the end times that keeps creation as one of the focal points. The word “restoration” is key.

“Notice what Peter says in the book of Acts about the [end of the world]: ‘Heaven must receive [Jesus] until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.’ Big word Peter uses here: restore. To restore is to make things how they once were…And God isn’t just interested in reclaiming his original dream for creation; he wants to take it further…”[15]

Again, while Bell is not the spokesman for ECM, his views on creation and the end times are very much in line with what the rest of ECM holds to on this topic. Their eschatology is an eschatology of hope, whereas the “accepted” eschatological stances seem to be, “escapist” in nature. In more “conservative” understandings of the end times, the Second Coming seems to be a scary thing. Jesus is coming to attack and steal (attack as in attack evil and steal as in steal the Christians away). But, according to Tony Campolo and ECM, the Second Coming is a promise rather than a threat. The Second Coming is presented to us to give us hope that, in the end, God is going to come out the victor. “It is intended to be good news for all who have joined with God to struggle against the evils of this world…”[16]

What led to the creation of our current eschatologies, though? McLaren gives a good explanation of how this happened, and what happened as a result of their creation.

“Evangelical-dispensational ‘left-behind’ eschatology…makes perfect sense in the modern world.

“Understandably, Christians in the power centers of modernity…saw nothing ahead in the secular story of industrial modernity…nothing but spiritual decline and global destruction. Their only hope? A skyhook Second Coming, wrapping up the whole of creation like an empty candy wrapper and throwing it in the cosmic dumpster so God can finally bring our souls to heaven, beyond time, beyond messy matter, beyond this creation entirely. There is virtually no continuity between this creation and the new heavenly creation in this model; this creation is erased like a mistake, discarded like a non-recyclable milk carton…” For this eschatological stance to spread, it had to “reinterpret much written by the Old Testament prophets.” Many of the Prophetic visions of peace coming within the boundaries of human history “had to be pushed beyond history, either into a spiritualized heaven or a millennial middle ground – a post-historic time zone between history and eternity…”[17]

In light of ECM’s view of Creation, then, it makes perfect sense that their eschatology includes creation. ECM is enamoured with Jesus’ Kingdom of God language. “In this kingdom, Jesus said, sparrows matter. Lilies of the field matter. Yes, people matter even more, but it’s not a matter of either/or; it’s a matter of degree in a realm where everything that is good matters – where everything God made matters…”[18] “To those who strive to save the environment, the Second Coming is the promise and expectation that God will create a new heaven and a new earth, and that people will not hurt the earth anymore.”[19]

The Environment

Since ECM believes that creation is an ongoing process; since they hold firmly that God wants to restore creation to its original state and also move it beyond that, it is no surprise that ECM stands and loudly declares that it is our Christian duty to be good stewards of the environment. “Environmentalism should be a Christian concern,”[20] ECM cries. “All creation is waiting for the sons and daughters of God to rescue it from the painful suffering it has had to endure at the hands of those of us who have been neglectful and destructive…”[21]

Whether the Christian community realizes it or not, she has been hurting the environment and not giving it a second glance. ECM is out to change this, though. For ECM, environmentalism is not a New Age philosophy or an idea that is only available to pagans, but it is something that the Christian community should be having a hand in. They condemn driving SUV’s and Minivans due to their horrible gas mileage and say, “When we drive vehicles that do more than their fair share of polluting the air, we are not only destroying the future of our children and grandchildren but also destroying the lives of people we’ve never met in places we’ve never heard of.” [22] For ECM, environmental stewardship is a moral issue.

For ECM, environmental stewardship is directly tied to helping the poor and oppressed. According to McLaren, “Increased concern for the poor and oppressed leads to increased concern for all of creation.”[23] In essence, they see the two as inseperable. “When greed and consumerism are exposed, when arrogance and irreverence are unplugged, when hurry and selfishness are named and repented of, when the sacred-secular rift in our thinking is healed, the world and all it contains (widows, orphans, trees, soil) are revalued and made sacred again.”[24] In ECM’s mind, not caring for the environment is a sin on the level of greed and arrogance. One could even go so far as to say that bad treatment of the environment ranks up there in sinfulness with homosexuality or adultery.

They cite stunning statistics to wake the Christian community up from their slumber. Wilcox points out that most of the cars that Christians drive get horrible gas mileage. The average for SUV’s is 15.5 mpg city driving and 19.9 mpg on the highway. The minivan is not much better. It gets between 18.3 and 24.7 mpg.[25] Tony Campolo points out the fact that we have pumped so many chemicals into our food and air that it is no wonder there is such a high rate of cancer. He even points out that cancer is just one of the short-term effects. In the long run, he foresees whole continents being completely submerged under water due to global warming melting glaciers, areas that are temperate (where people live) will become increasingly tropical and the people will leave to find areas better suited for living, illnesses that we have not even heard of will crop up due to the increase in temperature, “our capacity to produce enough food for an expanding human family will diminish – and as always happens, the poor suffer most profoundly.”[26] This again makes apparent that ECM sees a connection between helping the poor and environmentalism, and makes environmentalism a moral issue.

ECM’s Response

Thus far it has been shown that ECM regards Creation as an ongoing process rather than a one time event in the beginning of human history, that ECM’s view of the end times includes creation in the redemptive purposes of Jesus, and that ECM sees environmentalism as a moral issue on par with helping the poor and repentance of sin. Now for the final argument: What is ECM doing in reaction to our current environmental state?

From careful study, it seems that the bulk of their work regarding environmentalism is done through books and writing awakening the broader Evangelical community to the need for environmental stewardship. Individual congregations do not seem to get involved, but individual people do. For example, Brian McLaren does field work in a Maryland wetland looking for endangered and rare species of animals and helping them keep track of their numbers and population and how what people do to the environment effects those animals.

ECM also advocates much for people petitioning their government leaders to do more to help stop deforestation and the like. Jim Wilcox points out six things that a Christian can do to help the environment. First, one could walk whenever it is possible. Second, use a bicycle. Third, become less independent and use mass transportation or carpool. Fourth, think in the long term when purchasing lawn equipment or recreational items. Fifth, “become actively opposed to industries that are guilty of deforestation, acid rain, nuclear waste, and other environmental abuses. Lastly, use alternative fuels and more fuel efficient vehicles when they are made more readily available.[27]

Conclusion

It appears as though ECM is on to something with their promotion of environmental stewardship, and it would do the greater Evangelical community well to climb on board. The author of the article once visited a Presbyterian church in Evansville. During one of the prayers, the pastor was praying and he thanked God for make environmental stewardship one of a Christian’s duties before it was even popular. God gave the responsibility of environmental stewardship when He placed man in the garden. Since this responsibility has never been removed from mankind’s shoulders, it stands to reason that God has called all Christians everywhere to be good stewards of the environment, and ECM makes this idea very clear. From their eschatology to their view of creation, one catches the scent of environmentalism.

This is one area on which the Emerging Church seems to get it right. And it is one area in which they bring us to a conclusion and give a logical response to their deconstruction.

 


 

[1] Genesis 1:28 HCSB

 

[2] “Emerging Spirituality Something New? Nat At All.” [online article]; accessed February 27, 2006; available from http://www.lighthousetrailsresearch.com/emergingspirituality.htm

 

[3] http://www.theooze.com/forums/index.cfm

 

[4] http://www.emergentvillage.com/Site/index.htm

 

[5] Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis (Grand Rapids: Z

ondervan, 2005), 157.

 

[6] Ibid., 157

 

[7] Ibid, 157-158

 

[8] Brian D. McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Z

ondervan, 2004), 265-266.

 

[9] Patriarch Ignatius IV of Antioch, “A Theology of Creation” [online article]; accessed March 17, 2006; available from http://www.stathanasius.org/teachings/patriarch1.html

 

[10] Bell, 158

 

[11] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: Image, Doubleday, 1959), 115-116.

 

[12] McLaren, 267

 

[13] Brian D. McLaren and Tony Campolo, Adventures in Missing the Point (Grand Rapids, MI: Z

ondervan, 2003), 71-72.

 

[14] McLaren and Campolo, 63-64

 

[15] Bell, 160-161

 

[16] McLaren and Campolo, 70

 

[17] McLaren, 267-268

 

[18] McLaren, 268-269

 

[19] McLaren and Campolo, 70

 

[20] McLaren and Campolo, 187

 

[21] Ibid.

 

[22] Jim Wilcox, What Would Jesus Drive…And Should You Care? (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 2004), 24.

 

[23] McLaren, 269

 

[24] Ibid.

 

[25] Wilcox, 22-23

 

[26] McLaren and Campolo, 188-189

 

[27] Wilcox, 26-28

 

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One thought on “Environmentalism Within An Emerging Church Context

  1. […] of college, I did a series of posts and wrote a paper on the Emerging Church.  In particular, I focused on environmentalism as being one of the only similarities among the various flavors of emergence (you’ll have to […]

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