Is Christianity becoming a more environmentally sensitive faith? In 2016, a scholar named Bron Taylor, along with colleagues Gretel Van Wieren and Bernard Daley Zaleha, published a paper in the journal, Conservation Biology suggesting there is no evidence that the world’s religions are becoming greener. Earlier this year, a Nigerian scholar named George Nche published a paper that surveyed more than 100 empirical studies and came to a similar conclusion. There is scant, if any, empirical evidence to suggest that religions in general, or Christianity specifically, are becoming greener.
Faith could make a difference
I find this terribly frustrating, and particularly so because communities of faith have great potential to make a difference in environmental matters. In some parts of the world, faith communities have large property holdings, significant endowments and genuine political sway. They could make a difference. Even in places where that isn’t the case, faith communities still influence the way their members see the world and navigate the everyday stuff of life. And then there’s this: the geography of faith matches the geography of our environmental crisis. Religious communities transcend national boundaries and connect continents. They have members upstream and down.
Yet for all this potential, many scholars are not convinced that progress is being made.
It is important to note that not everyone is so pessimistic. After all, measuring this stuff is difficult. The relationship of faith and environmental ethics is quite complex. For instance, Amy Smith and Robin Veldman have documented how members of the same evangelical denomination hold very different convictions about care for creation depending on whether those members live in Brazil or in the U.S. There is no simple link between the official theology of a community and its environmental practice.
It’s also true that there are quite a few new, or relatively new, faith-based environmental organizations. In that sense, this is a growing movement. Joanne Moyer, a key voice in the Mennonite Creation Care Network, has developed a profile of this reality in Canada. Many denominations and faith leaders have also issued statements about the importance of the ecosystems in which we live and the great biophysical systems that support them. These are good, if limited, developments.
As a pastor, I know that measurable progress isn’t everything. Oftentimes, being part of a church feels like being in a pharmacy. We deal more with chronic aches and pains than with grand plans and large-scale change. Yet even with this pastoral conditioning, I admit to being disheartened by the findings of Taylor, Nche and other researchers. I’m grateful for all those who have worked for decades trying to create recognizable change, but I would like to see more. My hope is for a clear, unmistakable witness to God’s love for the world.
Things that might help
There are a few things that I think would help. First, we need to do a better job helping people within our churches understand the connections between the health of the environment and human flourishing. Christians of all stripes know that God loves people. They should also know that the destruction of creation harms those whom God loves. Schools certainly work at this, but churches can too.
Second, we need to make sure pastors grasp the biblical vision for creation care. There are many channels for the formation of people’s faith and values, but trusted and wise pastors are a source that shouldn’t be overlooked. If pastors think that creation care is a niche concern or if they don’t see it as part of every Christian’s calling, then it’s hard to imagine creation care will find an abiding place in our churches.
Finally, mission and relief organizations need to add creation care initiatives to their portfolio of programs. These organizations both shape and show the values of their constituents. The choices they make about which projects they take on and which stories they tell are more significant than we might think.
A lot of what communities of faith do will not and cannot be measured. But some things can be. My hope is that the next round of studies by social scientists will show concrete evidence of change. My hope is that more of our Christian sisters and brothers will make it clear that the gospel is, as we read in Mark 16:15, for the “whole creation.”