Climate change: Church must reclaim its role to make 'a little heaven down here'

People take part in a Fridays for Future protest outside the Austrian Economic Chamber, in Vienna, Austria, May 14, 2021.[Reuters]

If you remove the Garden of Eden from the Bible’s creation narrative, the church’s message would be significantly altered–it may even collapse. This garden is critical to the church’s existence.

Even when critics challenge the concreteness of the garden account, the church guards the garden fiercely. Maybe the critics of the Garden of Eden would be disarmed if the church actively translated its protection of the Garden-in-the-Book to the preservation of the drying-up-brooks everywhere. Few entities have a reason to be on the frontline of the climate-change conversation more than Bible-believers and their institutions. Their very existence is hinged on it.

But we may be expecting too much from the church given its failure to create a significant presence in numerous conversations that beg for a spirituality-centered approach. The church must admit that it needs to re-learn the community-involvement alphabet. Critically, this re-learning must take a contemporary accent. The words of the Bible may have been translated from the original King James version, but the mind of the church still sees the world in thee-thou codes. The tragedy is that the church will keep speaking a lost language understood only by itself. A church that cannot make itself understood will eventually lose its essence.

Lost livelihoods

The church-hospital-school model was never meant to be what the church must always do. To be stuck in this model is a mark of short-sightedness. Glaringly, the church should have long embraced new frontiers. The church can never escape its Master’s charge to “give them something to eat”. Relevance rests on its ability to discern people’s needs then imagine and execute lasting solutions. What is a tithe-dependent church’s answer to the question of unemployment? The church can no longer wait for members to bring money to support its work. It is time for some backward integration. The church must concern itself with lost livelihoods and engage in reviving them at source–helping dig new wells where previous ones have dried up.

What is the church’s answer to the menace that is drug addiction? If the church does not engage this question seriously, it will end up preaching to people too ‘high’ to appreciate the gospel of heaven. And then there is the threatening issue of climate change. The promise of a secure afterlife sometimes makes the church neglect our earthly home. What happened to “making a little heaven down here?” Prof Kivutha Kibwana, when giving a commentary on the involvement of the church in development, insightfully pointed out how the church has established many universities. While research should always be a prime benefit of a university, Prof Kibwana regretfully observed that this multitude of universities have not yielded research beneficial to their founding institution–the church. This is a thought that the church must take seriously. What evidence does a university-owning church produce to support the value of the university in building its capacity to engage contemporary issues? As part of justification for their existence, Christian universities must be seen to embolden the church’s impact by churning out research that informs the church’s community improvement.

new knowledge

While the sustainability question is critical, founding a university with the hope that it will become a cash cow is wrongly motivated. Such a motive dims the true value of an institution of higher learning, which is to generate new knowledge. It is ironical that churches that own universities are themselves degenerating under the rustiness of out-paced mission models. To found a university is to subscribe to new knowledge that the founding church does not only dispense but actually applies. The Christian university is the church’s laboratory. It is unfortunate that these universities end up choking religious studies, retaining them on ‘mercy’ basis in favour of secular programmes that are better money-makers for the institution.

Back to climate change. The pulpit should creatively integrate climate matters in its preaching. But while speaking out is a laudable step, an advanced solutionist approach is more desirable. While other actors in the field seek the most effective solutions to the climate question, the church seeks godly solutions. This seemingly thin distinction forms the uniqueness of the church’s contribution. Before seeking other seers to clarify the climate vision, the church must first grant its own interpretation. That way, she moves into partnership with a unique contribution. Additionally, the process of refining her contribution graduates the church from the realm of an idea-consumer to that of idea-generator.

Lofty models

The climate question can predictably be handled in a symposium. But the paralysis of ‘symposiumism’ is that it offers a stage for lofty ideas that must be accompanied by complex proposals as a show of intelligence. Simple is not considered ‘symposiumic’ enough. A key contribution of the church is to break down lofty models into friendly versions for the benefit of its grassroots constituency. The environment preservation question is a laboratory question and needs formulations discerned through research and experiments. This calls for the church to correct the error of turning its best thinkers into exclusive preachers. Preaching is in the pulpit; thinking is in the laboratory. When thinkers become exclusive preachers, we have a pulpit that is not backed by lab work.

Sadly, the church has regularly come across not as simple but simplistic. This has happened because, over time, the church has narrowed down the understanding of salvation to mean saving souls from hell. It has neglected the perspective of salvation as saving communities from hellish systems and practices. Forming abundant communities demands more than speech; it requires multiple solutions. Solutions with the label made-in-church are rare and far apart. It is time to reverse this scarcity, and climate change is a good revival point.