In all my years of ministry, I never saw this coming. Caring for the environment was a value I rediscovered through a series of conversations and hours spent seeking God about what my response as a Christian leader should be to growing environmental problems. My conviction grew that the church must be diligent to tend the garden God has given us. I brought this value to our leadership team and then challenged our church to care for creation merely because it was a biblical value. But I never expected what ensued.
In bringing the value of caring for the environment to our church, what I did expect was a backlash. I thought they might throw me out of the pulpit and accuse me of becoming too liberal. I expected other evangelical churches to cast a suspicious eye upon what we were doing. But I wouldn’t have guessed in a hundred years what resulted from our church embracing the value of caring for creation.
Since leading our church to care for the environment in our community, suddenly doors have opened to me I never dreamed would be opened. Conservation and environmental organizations have asked me to sit on their boards as well as speak at their conferences on the biblical perspective of environmental stewardship. By embracing a value shared by many unbelievers, I have been allowed to have intelligent and productive conversations with people outside of the church. I’ve made friends with people who always viewed me as an enemy simply because I was an evangelical Christian. And I’ve had honest conversations with people about why conservative Christians have so struggled to embrace this value.
How I arrived at this place full of opportunity to be a follower of Jesus outside the church might be considered even more unexpected.
IT’S ALL GOING TO BURN ANYWAY
I was an ecology major at the end of the 1960s during the height of the environmental movement, but eventually began a career as a school teacher. My wife Nancy and I spent the first 14 years of our marriage without electricity because we lived in an older home on our family ranch in southern California. We truly lived off the land; we grew some of our own food and always valued the natural balance of our surroundings. Because of that lifestyle, our two kids grew up knowing the worth of nature. But later in life when I became a Christian, somehow I disconnected from all of these values and affections. I never stopped loving nature, but it was set aside because environmental stewardship had no value in the church. The evangelical church in the 1970s was rife with a theology known as dispensationalism , which implied—and explicitly stated at times— that “Jesus is returning and the earth is going to burn up anyway, so go ahead and use it up.” During that time, Christians who had once cherished and protected the environment lost this ideal. It didn’t seem to have a place in the Kingdom of God.
Since 1989, I have led a church in Boise, Idaho, a place surrounded by God’s beautiful creation on every side. Outdoor recreation is a high value here. People hike, ski downhill and cross-country, mountain bike, fish, and hunt. A few years ago during a wedding reception at our church, I was cornered by a woman who asked me, “Are you the pastor of this church?” I confessed that I was and braced for whatever criticism her tone implied was coming. “This wedding reception should be a crime,” she stated matter-of-factly. “I’ve never seen so many items going to waste instead of going into recycling bins.” I was embarrassed by the stinging truth: Our church generated an unbelievable amount of trash and I had never given it a thought. As the leader of this church, I was responsible even for the trash. Because I had not led our church in this area, we had no church-wide recycling program.
God had already been at work in my heart about the issue of environmental stewardship, but this incident began to push me toward taking action. While the pressing question was, “How can I make caring for the environment a value in my church?” the more troubling question for me personally was, “How did this once strong value in my life all but disappear?” Since my environmental education had been outside the church, I decided to do some research in Scripture about this topic. And the Bible did have something to teach me.
GOD VALUES CREATION
As the Bible opens, the author of Genesis chronicles God’s magnificent creations—man, woman, plants, trees, animals, sun, moon, stars, land, sky. With the creation of Adam, the scene shifts to the new garden, where the fall of humanity eventually occurs and introduces sin into the world. Suddenly, the garden was defiled. But as we read ahead—all the way to the end in the last book in Scripture, Revelation—we see the way God brings us back to a restored garden. The Bible begins in a garden and concludes in a restored garden.1 Shouldn’t this make us sit up and take note that there’s something important about a garden, something that tells us God values the relationship between His people and the rest of His creation?
Loving care of the earth is the biblical responsibility of God’s people. One of God’s first commands to mankind was to “tend His garden.”He exhorts Adam and Eve to be caretakers of the gift of creation. And then, after the great flood, God made a covenant, not just with Noah, but between Himself, the earth and humanity. We refer to it as the Covenant of the Rainbow:
I have placed my rainbow in the clouds. It is the sign of my permanent promise to you and to all the earth. When I send clouds over the earth, the rainbow will be seen in the clouds, and I will remember my covenant with you and with everything that lives. Never again will there be a flood that will destroy all life.
All of God’s creation is important to him, down to the last sparrow and blade of grass. So important that he made a permanent promise to it. But why? Paul tells us in Romans that all of humanity knows there is a God because God has revealed Himself, and His very nature, through creation.4 God directed this assurance, this undeniable proof, to people who are struggling with the most basic spiritual issue: The very existence of a loving Creator. If one of the ways God reveals Himself to people is through His creation, doesn’t it stand to reason that we should share in His high value of caring for the environment?
ENVIRONMENTAL STEWARDSHIP DEFINED
In order to become good stewards of the environment, we need to define environmental stewardship. Environmental stewardship is the idea that we should care for, manage, and nurture the creation we have been given. In our desire to take a biblical perspective on environmental stewardship, four ideas guide our thinking and actions on this stewardship: resource and provision, accountability, blessings, and passing it down.
Resource and Provision
The first thing we must understand is that environmental stewardship views nature as a resource and provision. More extreme environmentalists tend to contradict this idea because they don’t have a biblical worldview. God has given us His creation not to abuse or to worship, but to use.
The fruit of the land sustains human existence. It’s a way God shows care for us through what he has created. Our day-to-day choices— how we manage the land with our crops, how we treat animals, and how we take care of our natural resources such as water and air is important because they are part of God’s great plan of providing for his creation.
There must be a balance between the use and protection of the creation. God has given us the responsibility for life on all sides. One thing that stands out to me while reading through the Old Testament, especially when the children of Israel were in the wilderness, is that God called Moses to be a game warden of sorts and protect the balance of creation. God calls people to be responsible in terms of game loss and make sure the harvesting of animals is done in a responsible way. An animal that becomes endangered because of human abuse is unacceptable. We must be accountable for the way we handle the delicate balance of nature.
An environmental stewardship view looks at God’s creation as a blessing—something sacred. Whenever we see the splendor of God’s creation, we stand in awe, mouth agape at the beauty in a sunset or the creativity in a mountain range or the pure serenity surrounding a pond hidden away in the woods. It’s in these moments that we realize how sacred these places are. God’s creation is a sanctuary—a place where plants, animals, and people should be able to live together in harmony. And we should treat creation with such regard, showing reverence toward the One who created it by making sure others have the opportunity to experience the unspoiled wonders as we have.
Passing it Down
Stewardship is a value to be passed from generation to generation, emphasizing the great importance of caring for God’s creation. Most of the values we adopt from our parents are “caught,” actions and behavior we observe and absorb. What our parents say to us is important, but what they do leaves an indelible mark on who we are as we grow up and mature.
MISLED BY FEAR
Since the components of environmental stewardship seem simple enough and make sense, why has the church in the Western world today refused to embrace these simple values? I believe many Christian leaders have been fearful of what might happen if we advocate something that has been decisively tagged as a value that belongs to those who oppose many Christian values. In our fear, we have been unfaithful to our responsibility to be good stewards of God’s creation.
Because of my desire to stay bi-partisan, I stayed away from the issue altogether for many years, viewing environmental conservation as a political hot button. In the political landscape of the United States, environmentalism is connected with a liberal perspective on the world. I did not want to attach myself to the many other things “liberals” supported. Since I shared many of the ideals of “conservatives,” I viewed the environment as one issue that I could let slide. That began to change when I realized I couldn’t let political affiliation dissuade my higher allegiance to God’s Kingdom. And part of my charge as a member of His Kingdom is to be a good steward of God’s creation.
In recent election years, this issue struck close to home when we had political discussions with our grown children. As a result of the way they were raised by us, they have a strong love for nature. While I found choosing a political candidate to vote for relatively simple, they were conflicted. On one hand, they sided with candidates who stood for human rights and the right for all people to live, including the unborn. But on the other hand, they also strongly agreed with those who were dedicated to protecting the environment from destruction for the purpose of economic gain. And while most evangelical Christians in the United States would probably deem human life more important than plant and animal life (and rightly so), God still values both people and nature. This tension was keenly felt by both of our children and raised the question: “Why do we have to choose? Why can’t the Body of Christ be for both?” After all, God is for both.
In one sense, it’s hard to blame Christians who experienced the environmental movement of the 1960s. We saw hypocrisy in the “earth first” approach and it seemed meaningless. The whole “mother earth” theology took no one to God—and this had the effect of polarizing us from our neighbors who expressed any kind of ecological concern, blinding us from theologically sound and practically balanced approaches. However, it’s getting more and more difficult to ignore the signs that the earth is under siege by gross human mismanagement. We can’t afford to let those who care for creation for the wrong reasons stop us from caring for creation for the right reasons.
Over and over again, evil has a way of stealing things out of God’s camp, values that the church is called to champion. As a result of the Western church’s apathy toward the environment, much of the world perceives the church as championing a way of life that is destructive to the planet. One environmentalist remarked in obvious irony: “It’s interesting that conservatives are the least likely to support conservation.” I believe it’s time Christians begin to rediscover the values we have lost and be on the leading edge of promoting environmental stewardship with practical instruction on how to implement these ideals in our daily lives.
Implementing environmental stewardship in my own thought and life as well as in the life of my church required a plan. Just like any new vision and direction, we needed a strategic process. Here are the highlights of our strategy that are transforming our church culture as well as influencing our community.
When we recognize something as God’s leading, we can’t drag our feet about it. We must begin devising a plan to arrive at the destination God is calling us to.
Living in Idaho, there are many people within our church who are involved in environmental conservation efforts, some through government agencies and others through non-profit organizations. So, I devised a think-tank of sorts, gathering people together and asking them how we could raise this value in our church and give practical ways for the people to get involved. In a matter of weeks, I think I uncovered all our closet environmentalists and asked them to get involved with this planning and strategy. There are people who are consummate lovers of creation in every church. Getting these people on the ground floor of developing an environmental ministry in your community is vital to your success. If you’re one of these people, begin looking for like-minded leaders who desire to see this value elevated and begin planning.
Culture does not change overnight. By gradually introducing ways to care for the environment your church and community will begin to understand and adopt the value of environmental stewardship.
As our church staff began to talk about this issue, we realized that we had a vast number of opportunities to make small changes. One of the first things we did was simple enough—we added recycling bins for aluminum cans in our building. Then we added recycling bins for other products such as plastic bottles. From our office standpoint, we realized a simple way to make a statement about our shifting values was to print our bulletin on post-consumer recycled paper. It was something small that we could do that spoke volumes about our values and the direction we were heading as a church.
At first, there may be some push back by people who don’t understand the value or why a church would be involved with something so seemingly out of character with its “traditional” values. However, as people begin to warm to the idea that caring for the earth is a basic biblical value, the environmental ministry in your church will grow. As this value became more and more vivid, we shifted gears, adding more layers of depth to environmental stewardship. Instead of simply recycling aluminum cans, we began to implement other practical applications of conservation and stewardship. Through ideas our think tank developed, we rolled out opportunities to hit the backwoods trails and pull noxious weeds in the wilderness areas. People could also participate by hiking trails with a GPS navigational device to help the U.S. Forest Service check the accuracy of their topographical maps.
As in any cultural shift of this magnitude, education plays a vital role. We’re talking about undoing misconceptions some people have held about the environment for their entire lives. If stewardship is a value that is upheld from the pulpit in your church, encourage those teaching on the subject to share the importance of environmental stewardship just like they would stewardship of our finances. It is also important to provide people with a deeper understanding of not only why they should care for the earth but how.
Our church’s leadership team developed a four-week course that outlines why Christians should care for the earth as well as how they can do it. Many people do not know that there are different types of recyclable plastics, categorized through a numeric system. People need to know what to recycle and the impact recycling can have on reducing waste. There are practical things people should know about recycling that will help them be well-informed as well as be knowledgeable when passing this information along to others.
Share this Value
Once you begin to see what type of impact caring for creation will have not only in your own life but also on the life of your church, don’t shy away from sharing this with other communities of faith around your area. Just like when you partner together with others in any Spirit-led venture, God seems to multiply your efforts in exponential ways.
We reach more people and accomplish more work when we partner with other people instead of trying to blaze our own trail. Invite friends and families as well as other churches to participate in environmental clean-ups or other activities that call people to take individual action with a corporate body. For example, you may choose to join others in your community on Earth Day, caring for the environment side by side with those who think that Christians don’t care about the earth. Look for opportunities in your community to reach out through means of environmental stewardship.
Our church found initiatives taking place in the community and joined in. We realized that we didn’t need to make this value “Christian” by developing it ourselves—environmental stewardship is already a Christian value. So, why not join what is already happening in our community? When we did this, we became the leading supplier of volunteers to a number of different initiatives. Suddenly, we developed a reputation for being a church that cared about its community and were asked to participate in other projects as well, some of which weren’t directly related to the environment.
Continue the Vision
After a full year of teaching on this value, promoting this value, and giving people in our church the opportunity to participate on many different levels in raising this value in their own lives and in their community, we recast the vision. Through a documentary our staff developed, we were able to tell the story all over again about what it means to care for creation, what it looks like, and how people can help. For people who were new to our church, they were able to see with greater detail how important this value was for us and see new opportunities for them to implement it in their own lives.
God loves to celebrate. It is part of his DNA that he has written into the heart of every man, woman, and child. People love to celebrate. We should celebrate God’s creation on a regular basis, upholding the beauty that is uniquely marked with his fingerprints. Holding a meeting one Sunday outside in a park or hosting a picnic outdoors for the sheer purpose of getting people outside to enjoy God’s beautiful creation is a great way to do this.
PASSING IT DOWN IN BOISE
As our church began to explore what it means to be good stewards of the environment, two men from the Parks Department brought me a shocking statistic: in the past 10 years in the state of Idaho, there was one-third less exploration of the state’s wilderness area. At the same time, there was a one-third increase in the state’s population. This puzzled me. How could Idaho, which has the largest wilderness areas in the continental United States, experience such a decline with an inverse boom in the population? It didn’t make sense.
Then, the reality hit me that fathers have quit taking their children hunting, fishing and hiking. More kids were sitting in front of the television playing video games on the weekend. And the families who were getting out weren’t doing so in the traditional sense—they were going in vehicles or machines where they couldn’t possibly hear nature and were probably going too fast to appreciate it. I know that what people don’t see, they can’t appreciate. And what they don’t appreciate they won’t value. People weren’t getting into the mountains.
One of our strategies was to get the people in our church outside the city limits where they could see the stars at night and the beauty of their surroundings. Many of them had not seen it because of their lifestyle. I realized in order for the environment to become a value in the church, it had to be experienced individually and passed on generationally. At our church, heritage is an important element in our ministry philosophy. We want people to understand that following Jesus isn’t something you simply do—it’s part of who you are. And when it becomes part of who you are, it’s something you naturally desire to pass down to the generation behind you.
As our church began to weave heritage into the fabric of our faith, realizing that this value was of great importance to living out what it means to be a follower of Jesus, we presented many opportunities for people to get involved. And one of the ways that enabled parents to pass stewardship values down to their kids was through organized camping trips, where many parents took their children into the woods with other families for wilderness cleanup and restoration projects. Kids were seeing first-hand ecological values being lived out by their parents. When we model how to steward what God has given us, our children will catch the lifestyle and it will become part of who they are.
CREATION CARE AS SOCIAL JUSTICE
Why is it that when disaster strikes, the church is one of the first responders? Why do the poor turn to the church for help? The reason is simple: acts of compassion and mercy display the heart of God. This is especially true in the area of social injustice. Our desire to see justice take place is intrinsically linked to our relationship with God. He is a just God—and as participants in the Kingdom of God, we are to demonstrate acts of social justice, being an advocate for those who don’t have a voice and aiding the helpless.
How does going into a village in Rwanda and drilling a well spread the love of Christ? It is a practical demonstration of the heart of God. We don’t want these people to die, and they will if they don’t have clean water. Caring for people in developing countries through environmental education and provision of tools to continue to have a clean water supply is a way to practically show them God’s love. Teaching people how to manage their land so they don’t misuse it and extract all the nutrients out of it is also a way that helps us care for God’s creation and demonstrate God’s love. If they have food and proper nourishment, the people in developing countries will live longer and not die from so many malnourishment-related diseases.
In looking at the way we approach ministering to others through the lens of the Kingdom of God, we should follow Jesus’ lead. He did not simply say, “Be warm and be filled”, rather, he fed people. The demonstration of the Kingdom took place when the apostles cared for the widows and the orphans. Those acts of love and kindness spoke just as loudly as the signs and wonders that also demonstrated the heart of God. As followers of Jesus, we should be willing to help people in a practical way just as easily as we would pray for them and ask God to change them supernaturally.
Discipleship is a verb, measured not so much by what we say but by what we do. In proclaiming the Good News to others and demonstrating the love of Christ in a practical way, we must fulfill the Great Commission by making disciples, teaching others in very practical ways how to follow Jesus. As we begin to connect with people’s hearts through sharing our love for God’s creation, we will begin to have the opportunity to show people how to love the Creator. We model for others how a follower of Jesus pursues wholeness in relationship with God and other people. And we also model how we are to care for and steward what God has given us—whether it be our relationships, our money, our time, or our environment.
When we are presented with an idea such as changing people’s views on the environment when they have been shaded by political overtones for decades, it can seem overwhelming. And when that happens, we have two choices: We could become paralyzed and do nothing. Or we can roll up our sleeves and get to work. We can take a step forward, believing that God is leading us.
There are many people who talk about caring for the environment but are actually doing very little about it—so-called “environmentalists” included. I don’t think you can proclaim something without doing something about it. The church has garnered a reputation for such inconsistent behavior, and we must begin to reverse that trend. This is not a topic that can simply be talked about. We must act.
While the world is debating what is causing global warming, poor countries are dealing with the indisputable evidence that their world is changing. For example, Bangladesh is already changing its agricultural system to a method that is more accommodating to salt water. Due to its severe poverty, Bangladesh can’t afford the type of preventative measures being used in low lying areas throughout Europe and in New Orleans. “It is poor countries that are suffering the brunt of climate change,” Saleemul Huq, the climate change program director for the International Institute for Environment and Development, recently told Time magazine,6 “But it is the rich countries’ greenhouse gas emissions that caused this problem in the first place.” The debate on what’s causing global warming has its place, but the church has more at stake than a simple debate of who’s right and wrong about global warming. There are people who are suffering because of the environmental decline. Literally thousands upon thousands of poor people could be displaced—and that’s a problem that the church must address.
OUR FUTURE IN MIND
In implementing the value of environmental stewardship into our lives, we naturally shift from thinking about the here and now to thinking about the future. As a member of the Baby Boomer generation, I have seen firsthand how people in my generation have made shifts from shortsighted thinking to serious reflection on the future with the addition of each generation to their own families. When people have their first child, this tends to initiate a sudden transformation in the way they view the world around them. New parents begin to ask some challenging questions: Will the world be safe for my kids? Will my children have all the same opportunities that I did? Will they be able to succeed? Will they have all the same freedoms I have? Will they be able to enjoy life the way I did?
As we have seen the earth abused and misused, those same questions are being asked about the environment, sometimes with much regret by the same people who unknowingly failed to think about the future of the earth. It’s why Jesus did what He did; he came to earth to live and die for the sake of mankind—and indeed, the entire cosmos—for eternity. Failure to adopt this future-driven element in our thinking—and subsequently, our actions—may result in a missed opportunity to experience a revolution in our own hearts as well as in the world around us.
One powerful example of a leader in the Bible who failed to think about the future was King Hezekiah. In Second Kings chapter 20, we find him confronted by the prophet Isaiah, who informs the king that some of his descendants are going to be exiled to Babylon. And Hezekiah’s short-sighted reaction was this: “At least there will be peace and security during my lifetime” (vs. 19). He was more concerned about his current popularity than his eventual legacy.
Our dream is to see churches across the country and around the world join us in this noble effort. We know there are many churches that have already been doing this work, but we want to connect likeminded and like-hearted partners. If enough churches join together, I believe environmental stewardship will be re-established as a normal value of Christianity. If this happens we would surely begin to see changes in our world. Polluted water would be cleaned up, helping 80 percent of the world’s diuretic disease to decline. Soil would be rejuvenated and starvation in the developing countries would begin to turn around. Church missions programs would develop discipleship programs made up of thousands of young people who could form agencies much like the Peace Corps but no longer secular. These new agencies would go into the world not only with proclamation of the Gospel, but with physical demonstration of care, compassion and mercy. Young people today are crying out to see the church embrace programs of social justice that provide something tangible to participate in.
Together, the body of Christ could do what no other single independent organization could possibly hope to accomplish. With God’s blessing and the power of His Holy Spirit, the Church could join hands in the 21st Century and be the very first truly effective international workforce of environmental stewardship around this globe.
The moment is right for the church to reverse its wrongs in the area of environmental stewardship. By abandoning our short-sighted thinking and returning long-term vision to the church, Christians can change things. It won’t be easy. Many people from both liberal and conservative camps alike are likely to cast a suspicious eye on such a sudden reversal of position. But if the statistics are true and one-third of the world is comprised of Christians, what would happen if one-third of the world became serious about upholding the value of environmental stewardship? This would make a difference. This would change the world. Now that would be unexpected.
EPILOGUE: WHAT I’VE LEARNED
After more than two years of walking this value out with our church, I could almost write another book just on the things I’ve learned in the process. It has been an incredible education for me about not only the issue of the environment but also our culture.
For example, I’ve learned there is a secular world that is not hostile toward the church but is encouraged to see Christianity embracing cultural shaping issues. Before embarking on bringing this value to our church, I would have suggested that a number of people outside the church would never lend me their ears. But now it is happening with increasing frequency simply because we have found common ground on which to care for humanity.
I’ve also learned there is an unbelievable opportunity for a demonstration of the love of God to go out into a suffering humanity across the globe through environmental stewardship. After experiencing this firsthand, I believe it should be part of every missions program. The church has never had a problem with Christians going out and taking the Gospel accompanied with medical help into developing nations. But to me it now seems more logical to go and help rectify the things that are causing the diseases in the first place.
As a result, we’ve rethought our missions philosophy in the church and are now developing bases in Africa and Asia to help with water purification and sanitation, soil reclamation, reforestation, and other environmental concerns that are causing the poor to become poorer and helpless. We’ve discovered that governments are welcoming us with open arms as we discover solutions to these environmental problems.
I’ve also learned that Christians are just waiting for Christian leaders to say something about this and give them the green light to care about creation. I gave the people in our church a license to do this. It is the responsibility of Christian leaders to release Christians for this work and set up pathways for them to take action.
Every environmentalist will agree with me that environmental stewardship is a moral issue. It’s immoral to destroy God’s creation. When we can show that this morality is solidly placed in biblical values, it challenges people. It can be the turning point in changing their perspective. If biblical values are the key to the reformation of the environment, maybe biblical values have something to say about the rest of life as well.
Many environmentalists have been fighting for years for reformation and haven’t seen any progress. But I believe the environment really is a means to changing our culture. These environmentalists have tried hard but have been unable to change people’s thinking. But we’re doing it in Boise, Idaho—and we’re changing the culture because we have become relevant by connecting with something the world cares about dearly. When people see the church successfully championing this issue, it will awaken the world.