SAVE THE EARTH?:
Stewardship of creation
finds growing support
___By Amy Andrews
___Associated Baptist Press
___Secular society, for the better part of three decades, has been calling widespread attention to the deforestation of the earth and the pollution of rivers. And from the public-school classroom to the Cub Scout den, many children and youth have gotten the message. They recycle, and urge others to. They notice when someone litters, and their high-school service club volunteers to clean it up. They spend time thinking about their future and that of the planet on which they must live.
___But only recently--as these environmentally aware youth have come of age in the church --has that message begun to infiltrate Christianity and churches. More--but not many--pastors occasionally allude to the environment in sermons. Evangelical colleges have formed chapters of the Christian Environmental Association. Those who have been working quietly on environmental issues for years now are in the spotlight.
___Christians, armed with a renewed belief that protecting God's creation is a biblical mandate, are beginning to reclaim the issue's theological roots.
___The question now is, how far will it go?
___Tony Campolo, a sociologist at Eastern College in Pennsylvania, says environmentalism long has been rooted in theology, but the general Christian populace has not been interested.
___ From Methodism's founder, John Wesley, to Christian thinker C. S. Lewis, theologians have written extensively about the environment. Then, in the early 1970s as American society saw a revival of environmental awareness, other Christians addressed the subject from a theological perspective. But all received little support for their ideas.
___Cal DeWitt found himself lonely in his work when he mixed his Christian ethics and environmental beliefs in 1979 and started the Au Sable Institute for Environmental Studies. From the woods of Michigan, the organization works with Christian colleges and universities to offer environmental study programs to students. (Au Sable is French for "on the sand," and also is the name of a nearby river and state forest.)
___DeWitt, now 63, always has been mindful of the earth, from starting a backyard zoo at age 3 to always walking on trails in the wilderness now. "It came out of growing up in a Christian family where we were continually taught about the integration of our faith with knowledge of the world and knowledge of society," he says. He considers himself not an environmentalist but a doer of God's will and says his serious study of Scripture compels him to act.
___"I've had a peculiar situation over the years, on the secular side being criticized because I believed in the Bible and thought the Bible was God's word and believed we should live accordingly," DeWitt says. "That didn't endear me to most environmentalists. And then what happened on the other side was people who said, 'Oh, you take care of creation, you must be New Age.'"
___About a decade ago, the Christian Environmental Association began, lessening DeWitt's loneliness, and within the past five years, a spate of other religious organizations has become active environmentally, from parachurch groups such as InterVarsity Christian Fellowship to denominations across the theological spectrum.
___A small turning point came in 1993. The Evangelical Environmental Network formed and became an active member of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, which allies evangelical, charismatic and Orthodox Christians with mainline Protestants, Catholics and Jews who traditionally have been seen as having more of an environmental ethos.
___More than 400 evangelical Christians have signed the "Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation," a statement on earth stewardship released in 1993 by the network, and the network since has been active in saving the Endangered Species Act and taking stands on other issues.
___"We do get criticism for being earth worshipers, being New Age, also being Democrats," says Stan LeQuire, director of the Evangelical Environmental Network. "What we say is, 'No, we're just trying to be biblical and calling Christians back to honoring the lordship of Christ over all creation. This is his earth, as Psalm 24:1 says, and we need to ask him how to live in it."
___Members of the network believe human sin touches creation as much as it does marriage, government and other aspects of life, and as they work to solve problems in those areas they too can work to solve environmental problems.
___"We want to call Christians to turn back the effects of human sin on creation and say, 'Look, this is sinful and we need to be living godly lives,'" says LeQuire, a former American Baptist pastor. "I do think in time there will be less and less opposition to this as people think about this biblically. We're concerned that too many of our critics respond to us politically and economically and not biblically, and that is very distressing to us."
___Evangelical Christians once saw the pro-life movement as an area best left to the Catholic community, but today, pro-life beliefs are almost a calling card for evangelical
Christians, LeQuire says. Civil rights weren't embraced quickly either. Once Christians reflect on the environment, too, they will see that "this is one of our many callings," LeQuire says. "We are at the leading edge of that (calling) right now, at the forefront, and we're serving as a lightning rod."
|"We want to call Christians to turn back the effects of human sin on creation and say, 'Look, this is sinful and we need to be living godly lives.'"
___That's fine with DeWitt, who says he remains hopeful about the movement's future and isn't at all bothered by the institutional church's foot-dragging. "The beautiful thing about the church generally is that it doesn't get blown around by every wind of doctrine," he says.
___ "I'm not bothered at all by the institutional church coming to these issues slowly, because that's what in the very, very long run keeps the church solid."
___Campolo is less patient with the institutional church and less optimistic Christians will take a leading role in caring for creation.
___ "I see a small group of evangelicals on college campuses emerging with a sensitivity to the issue and a commitment to do something about it," he says. "I see references that are positive toward environmentalism beginning to emerge in the messages of some of our key Christian leaders."
___ But those leaders typically are not preaching on the subject with passion or calling people to become involved in an intensive way, Campolo says. Still others won't touch the subject for fear of having their ministry negated by charges that they're "New Age."
___It's fears of being labeled, and environmentalists' inability to put a human face on environmental crises, that prevents evangelicals from becoming more involved in caring for God's world, Campolo says.
___ The Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission has been talking about environmental ethics and producing materials related to it for church use for more than 20 years. "Today I would say the majority of Southern Baptist churches are aware of environmental issues but have not made caring for the environment a high priority," says Barrett Duke, director of denominational relations for the commission, which conducted a study in late 1997 to gauge Baptists' work in environmental ethics.
___Most aren't even doing the simple things to reduce waste and energy use, the survey found, though Duke thinks that is likely to change in the future as young Christians--who have learned about the environment from school and culture--begin to lead churches.
___The Lower Greenville Baptist Community in Dallas stands out from traditional Baptist life in many ways, including on environmental issues.
___ The community, founded in 1993 by Mark Thames and supported by Dallas Baptist Association, ministers within the city's alternative community, which is very "eco-conscious" and firmly committed to environmental efforts.
___Community members (who don't use the term "church" because many in the alternative community are turned off by the word) go camping two weekends each year and hold occasional outdoor worship services.
___ The camping trips especially have been an effective outreach, and members seem to be at the leading edge of the Christian environmental movement, integrating theology and life.
___They see the environment as a personal issue, Thames says, and they care most about what they can do themselves.
___Local environmental issues typically are what have rallied most Christians, and that is the case in Tennessee. In the Pigeon Forge area, charismatic Christians are working to preserve the beauty of the Appalachian Mountains and protect endangered eagles. Al Cecere, a charismatic Christian, founded the National Foundation to Protect America's Eagles in 1985 after seeing a newspaper photo of two dozen eagles that had been shot to death in North Dakota. About the same time, he committed his life to Christ and only realized later how God helped him put his faith and work together. Cecere and his staff show birds and talk about birds at the nearby Dollywood theme park, motorcycle rallies and NASCAR events. Their message is a secular one overall, but occasionally Cecere alludes to his faith. "This project helped me grow as a Christian, but now I believe it was my calling. As you grow and learn, you become a believer that this was God's plan."
___Some 120 miles away in Chattanooga, members of the environmental-stewardship committee at First Baptist Church recycle, audit their energy use, occasionally incorporate environmental themes into worship services, and meet with environmentalists at other area churches. "We feel like the Genesis account of having dominion over the earth has been misinterpreted, and it really means stewardship management and being responsible," says member Bill Allen. "We believe that the salvation of the earth is part of God's redemptive plan." The committee, which is a rarity in Southern Baptist life, isn't very active right now, Allen says.
___Elizabeth Barnes, a professor of theology and ethics at Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond, Va., hopes that is the case. "Even in my own seminary, I seem not to be able to get most students interested in it," she says. "I'm afraid that even the church is dead with our (culture's) materialism and consumerism."
___She still tries, though, and instructs her theology students to become aware of God's handiwork by participating in "creation ministry." She says her students often are skeptical of her assignments to look intentionally for God's hand in nature and that they wonder what it has to do with theology--until they complete the project. Some students go caving, while others pick up trash alongside the James River. All the while, Barnes is hoping that they'll take what they learn into the churches and seminaries one day.
___Pastors of post-modern congregations see the need to increase their own awareness of environmental issues because it's important to their members' faith, says the Evangelical Environmental Network's Illyn. "From the pastor's perspective, (caring for the environment) makes him real and genuine, and it makes the church more genuine as it tries to relate to the community, society," Illyn says.
___He and DeWitt say they think that Christianity is on the verge of a revival with the environmental movement, but LeQuire says there are challenges ahead: to continue working within God's will, to not buy into a secular environmental agenda, and to take the debate to the next level.
___"What the Bible teaches is far more radical and demanding than anything the secular environmentalists are telling us," LeQuire says. Greed and materialism are part of the problem, and the Bible has far more to say about money than almost any other topic. "We're going to have to consider that as Christians. If we're really going to tackle environmental issues, we're also going to have to tackle lifestyle issues." Jesus battled that 2000 years ago, and now materialism is draining our families, our nation, and creation itself. "We're at a critical point where the words of Jesus are more relevant than they've ever been. And you don't hear environmentalists talking about money. They're talking about hugging trees."
___Campolo says he believes culture, not the church, will still carry the yoke of environmental ethics for the next 25 or 30 years and that he's concerned about the response that environmentally aware, committed Christian youth will get from the church on this issue.
___"Our failure to speak with power and conviction will in the end be one more reason for people to write off the church," he says. And while that may be bleak for the church, it's not for the world. "The God that we know and love did not come to save the church but to save the world. God will solve it with or without the church."
See related stories:
How to get involved in caring for creation
Religious environmental groups increase
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