A recent Gallup poll confirmed the continued erosion of Christianity’s privileged place in Western culture: church affiliation and participation in the United States dipped below 50% for the first time since Gallup began tracking it 80 years ago. The Church is no longer a center of social and civic life, and local churches cannot simply open their doors and expect people to show up. This gives us a great opportunity to reassess the Church’s understanding and practice of mission.
This work is well underway; the word “missional” has become popular in Christian language, showing up in book titles, sermons, and conferences. Growing numbers of theologians and pastors are encouraging people of faith to change their understanding of mission from the specialized work of missionaries in distant lands to the work of local churches right where they are; every believer is a missionary, every place a mission field.
I think this rise of “missional consciousness” is a helpful development, as long as we are clear about what we mean by mission. In a previous post, we noted that followers of Jesus, and the communities to which they belong, tend to emphasize parts of the biblical story, to the detriment of understanding the whole. The same is true of mission.
As we consider what it might mean to be part of God’s mission in an age of ecological and ecclesial (church) crisis, it will help to see where some current missional models fall short.
Save the Individual, Damn the Rest
Dwight Moody, the famous 20th century evangelist, is representative of Christians who emphasize the personal dimension of mission, what Protestants often call evangelism, or “saving souls.” Moody once summarized his calling this way:
I look upon this world as a wrecked vessel. God has given me a lifeboat and said, 'Moody, save all you can.’
This understanding of mission sees our primary task - in some churches it is the only task - as helping people understand their need for forgiveness so that they can invite Jesus into their lives, be at peace with God in the midst of a fallen world, and go to heaven when they die. This is an oversimplification, but not by much.
There is much about this aspect of mission to admire and embrace. Millions have come to know the grace and love of God because of the evangelistic impulse of Christians through the ages. I recently spoke with a childhood friend who has become a Christian as an adult. The transformation in his life is remarkable; hearing him speak of the forgiveness he has received, the peace he feels, and the wonder at how God is working in his life has been energizing to my own faith. He is a living example of 1 Corinthians 5:17: “If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come.”
But this approach often identifies non-Christian individuals, communities, and cultures as completely depraved, and the non-human world as unimportant raw material for human use and consumption. My friend's church has no vision beyond bringing people to faith and helping them grow in their personal relationship with God. It is a very individualistic approach that sees the world, like Moody, as a “wrecked vessel.” There is no awareness that God might want to bring healing and peace to communities. There is no sense that the world God made is fundamentally good and part of God’s redemptive plan, which means there is no vision for anything beyond the human sphere. My friend’s faith is limited to practices that help him feel close to God and strategies to help his friends and family come to believe as he has. There is more to mission than this.
End Injustice, Save Society
Despite those churches narrowly focused on evangelism, most followers of Jesus have understood that works of compassion and mercy are at the heart of biblical mission. Christians have cared for the sick, clothed the naked, visited those in prison, and fed the hungry. And there have been people along the way who have helped us to see that this social dimension of mission must include the pursuit of justice, which addresses not just the needs of people but the conditions and practices that create and perpetuate those needs. In the United States, we have figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., who helped us see the centrality of justice, and rooted his vision in the language of new creation.
The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends...It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It is the love of God working in the lives of men. This is the love that may well be the salvation of our civilization.
This echoes the vision of Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” King lived and died for this vision of beloved community, one in which racial, gender, and economic injustice is overcome by the reconciling love of God at work in the systems of society and the everyday lives of people. Those who have embraced this vision understand that Jesus died not just to reconcile us to God, but to one another as well (see Eph. 2:14-18). It is a mission that is rooted in a broad understanding of forgiveness and reconciliation that calls followers of Jesus to actively work for justice in their communities, interpersonally and in the systems we create that perpetuate inequality.
In the last 60 years, however, we have come to see that this mission is not broad enough, both in terms of what our faith and our planet requires. I have often thought that if King had not been killed, he would have broadened his definition of the beloved community to include our non-human neighbors. I believe he would have realized that the “salvation of our civilization” is dependent on our ability to incorporate environmental care and justice into our sense of mission. This is the vision we need today, what I am calling “ecological mission.”
Ecological Mission: Cultivating Life in the New Creation
Mission is oriented toward a goal, a vision of the future as it could and should be. For the personal evangelist, it is a world of forgiven people reconciled with God through Jesus. For the social reformer, it is a beloved community reconciled with one another. Both of these, as we have seen, are part of God’s work in the world but not the whole. Ecological disciples see that the reconciling mission of God includes all of creation. We are animated by a vision that sees all things restored and renewed. Note how the following passage from Isaiah 65 integrates the personal, social, and ecological dimensions of life in a vision of comprehensive reconciliation.
“See, I will create new heavens and a new earth.
The former things will not be remembered,
nor will they come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I will create,
for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight
and its people a joy.
I will rejoice over Jerusalem
and take delight in my people;
the sound of weeping and of crying
will be heard in it no more.
“Never again will there be in it
an infant who lives but a few days,
or an old man who does not live out his years;
the one who dies at a hundred
will be thought a mere child;
the one who fails to reach a hundred
will be considered accursed.
They will build houses and dwell in them;
they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
No longer will they build houses and others live in them,
or plant and others eat.
For as the days of a tree,
so will be the days of my people;
my chosen ones will long enjoy
the work of their hands.
They will not labor in vain,
nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune;
for they will be a people blessed by the Lord,
they and their descendants with them.
Before they call I will answer;
while they are still speaking I will hear.
The wolf and the lamb will feed together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox,
and dust will be the serpent’s food.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,”
says the Lord. (See also Romans 8:21; Col 1:19-20; Eph. 1:9-10)
This is what ecological disciples long for, pray for, and work for. Our mission is to be agents of reconciliation, recognizing the interconnected and interdependent world we live in and partnering with God to cultivate peace within people, communities, and creation.
It is an exciting, and potentially overwhelming, mission. Where do we begin?
Learn from Other Traditions
The best way to further our understanding of ecological mission work is to learn from those who already practice it. For instance, I have learned from Celtic, Anabaptist, and Franciscan Christian traditions, as well as Native American followers of Jesus. I have also found Eastern Orthodox theology very helpful; I am currently reading Living in Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology by Elizabeth Theokritoff, a very gifted and accessible theologian. She has connected me to a stream of Christianity that calls us to recover the beautiful and comprehensive vision at the heart of our faith:
If the large-scale destruction of God’s creation came only with a narrowing of the Christian vision and the growing fragmentation of the Christian world, this suggests that the fullness of the Christian vision might well be able to point us to a better path.
If you want to explore one of these traditions, feel free to email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) for resource recommendations.
Learn from Others’ Examples
It is hard to integrate the personal, social, and ecological dimensions of mission in a world that prefers fragmentation, but there are great examples out there that can inspire and instruct us. Paradise Parking Lot Community Garden is an oasis of reconciliation in the Kent, WA community.
Formed as a partnership between refugees, immigrants, World Relief, Hillside Church of the Nazarene, and various public companies and agencies, the garden brings together people from 20+ countries to improve access to nutritious food, build community, foster economic independence, and practice environmental stewardship. The garden also brings people into the church and introduces them to the story of Jesus.
You do not have to do something so big. Start with where you are and what you are passionate about, and then see how you can add other dimensions. If you enjoy telling people about Jesus, make sure to include the social and ecological aspects of his life and work. If you are committed to social reform, try to see and address the ecological dimension to your issue. Try not to do it alone - we are created for community, and that includes whatever mission work we are drawn to. Celebrate any signs of renewal and reconciliation that you see, no matter how small.
Remember Whose Mission It Is
Above all, remember that this is God’s work from first to last, already accomplished in Christ. We are responsible for our actions but not responsible for the outcome. It is a grace-filled privilege to help cultivate God’s work of new creation. You know you're on the right path when it feels less like work and more like a pathway to joy.
With you on the Way,
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