Tri Robinson pastors Vineyard Boise Church in Boise, Idaho, a growing fellowship of more than 3,000 members. He also hunts, fishes, and maintains a ranch outside of town. He voted for George W. Bush—twice—and is a creationist, pro-life, and against same-sex marriage. But this "Red State" evangelical Christian isn't just red—he's also green.
Reconciling the two, however, has taken Robinson years. Before he was a Christian, caring for the environment came naturally. A science teacher for 10 years, he and his wife, Nancy, spent the first 14 years of their marriage without electricity in an older home on the family ranch in California. They grew some of their own food and truly appreciated the value of nature.
Then Robinson became a Christian and entered the ministry during a time when many Christians translated the theology that Jesus was coming back soon as a green light to use up the earth. So he set aside his devotion to nature.
But during the last 15 years, the conviction to care for God's creation grew in Robinson's spirit, until he decided to bring the issue to his congregation. He spent six months formulating his message, all the while battling fears he'd be perceived as liberal or extreme.
"I was scared to death about delivering that message," says Robinson. "I hoped that the Lord really had spoken to me about it."
His congregation's response shocked Robinson. "Tears filled my eyes when I received a standing ovation at every service and a $10,000 start-up special offering," he recalls. "In 25 years of preaching, it was the first time I'd ever received a standing ovation. I realized Christians are just waiting for leaders to talk about the elephant in the room."
Where once there was a gaping hole in the conversational landscape, Christian voices are ringing out across the country.
"I remember that on Earth Day 1990, my local church didn't mention it at all," says Albert Hsu, associate editor of InterVarsity Press and author of The Suburban Christian. "My pastor later told me it wasn't a Christian thing to care about. That was a wake-up call. I think a lot of this goes back to Gnosticism, when people thought the physical world was evil. Those ideas can lead to bad stewardship. Certain denominations believe this world will be destroyed in the end times so we needn't bother caring for it. But God declared this world good and calls us to take care of it."
Robinson points out that caring for the environment was God's idea before it made the agenda of any political party. "In Genesis chapter 9, the covenant was made, and with it came our responsibility for the creation," he says. "I believe that if anything is going to change, it has to come through biblical truth. Servanthood and stewardship should be our thing. If we're truly evangelicals, we need to act on this."
In February 2006, 86 evangelical leaders added their names to the statement "Climate Change: An Evangelical Call to Action," released by the Evangelical Climate Initiative. The document claims that a climate change resulting from global warming is real and will hit the poor the hardest, and that Christians are morally obligated to act now. Among the signatories are the presidents of Christian relief organizations, universities, and associations, and nationally known pastors like Rick Warren and Jack Hayford.
Twelve years earlier, in 1994, the Evangelical Environmental Network garnered 500 signatories with its "An Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation."
Even so, says Hsu, with so many American Christians living in the "land of plenty," it's difficult to keep the environment at the forefront of one's mind. "Suburbia is a consumer culture," he says. "If we need something, we buy it and use it, instead of finding alternatives. One of the problems in suburbia is that it's a place of abundance where we don't see the scarcity and limitation of resources."
Richard Cizik, vice president of government relations for the National Association of Evangelicals, was converted to the cause of creation care in 2002 by a Christian scientist speaking on climate change in Oxford, England. Since that time, he has been an outspoken advocate for stewardship—not for the earth in and of itself, but for its impact on the people it sustains. His unique position as a major evangelical leader who has "gone green" has caught the attention of national media like Newsweek and ABC News.
"This is about people," says Cizik. "People are eternal."
And people are suffering. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), diarrhoeal disease is responsible for the deaths of 1.8 million people each year. It's estimated that 88 percent of that is attributable to unsafe water supply, sanitation, and hygiene, and is mostly concentrated on children in developing countries. WHO also estimates that 3 million people are killed worldwide annually by outdoor air pollution from vehicles and industrial emissions, 1.6 million indoors through using solid fuel. Again, most of these deaths happen in poor countries. Many argue that climate change is also responsible for the devastating hurricanes and tsunamis in recent years.
"We Christians have no problem taking mercy and medical aid to suffering nations, so why not focus on improving the environmental conditions that are causing this suffering in the first place?" says Robinson. "We're marrying environmental mission with missions ministry at our church, including well-digging, reforestation, conservation in the third world, training young people. This is not a social gospel; it's a holistic gospel."
But many prominent evangelical leaders aren't sold. They question the science behind global warming, and accuse Christians like Cizik of buying into a liberal agenda. (Former Vice President Al Gore's current role as a high-profile spokesman for environmental issues—his film An Inconvenient Truth won an Academy Award—likely hasn't helped matters.)
The debate heated up even more in March when Focus on the Family chairman James Dobson and two dozen other conservative leaders sent a letter to the National Association of Evangelicals board demanding the ouster of Cizik from the group because of his "relentless campaign" against global warming. The leaders registered their concern that Cizik and others threaten the unity of the evangelical movement by promoting the scientifically unsubstantiated message of climate change and shifting the emphasis away from "the great moral issues of our time"—abortion, same-sex marriage, and sexual purity. The letter continues: "If [Cizik] cannot be trusted to articulate the views of American evangelicals on environmental issues, then we respectfully suggest that he be encouraged to resign his position with the NAE."
Leith Anderson, the Minnesota pastor currently serving as the NAE's interim president, said the organization would stand behind Cizik. But the controversy continues.
While the environment has been a politically charged subject for decades, Cizik hopes that politics won't stand in the way of action. "Sometimes to be biblically consistent, you have to be politically inconsistent," he says. "A lot of us have to look beyond party labels to scriptural admonition. Isn't there something at stake here that we might happen to agree with Democrats on? This is not about politics; fundamentally, it's about obedience to God."
Patricia Fagg is coordinator of Great Lakes community programs for the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies, which provides university-level courses as well as educational activities for children and adults in northern Michigan, the Pacific Northwest, South Florida, and South India. "In Eugene Peterson's The Message, he translated
Mike Erre, pastor of teaching and family ministries at the 4,000-member Rock Harbor Church in Costa Mesa, California, and author of The Jesus of Suburbia, is convinced that on the issue of the environment, Christians should be in agreement. "It's the creation mandate found in Genesis," he says. "Fill the earth and subdue it, although subdue does not mean to exploit. It means to care-take, to serve. To use, certainly, but God very clearly gives human beings stewardship over the earth. Followers of Jesus should be leading the way for care and concern for the environment."
Once the applause died after Robinson's initial message on caring for the environment, his congregation rolled up their sleeves and got to work. They obtained recycle bins, printed bulletins on recycled paper, collected old cell phones for recycling, and conducted four seminars on leaving the world a better place: in your home, in the community, in the wilderness, and in the state. They contacted government agencies to learn how best to serve them through volunteer service projects. Now, their ministry in this area is a model for churches across the country. Robinson's book, Saving God's Green Earth, was released in 2006 by Ampelon Publishing.
The movement of environmental stewardship from a biblical mindset is spreading not only through local churches, but through Christian universities as well. In fact, 34 of the 86 signatories of the 2006 Climate Change statement were presidents of member campuses of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities. Far from just paying lip service to the cause, many of these campuses have built "green" facilities, use wind energy for part of their power, implement full-scale recycling programs, are active in restoration projects, and more.
Dr. Paul Rothrock teaches environmental science at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, the alma mater of Stephen Johnson, current administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Taylor instituted a master's program in environmental science in 2005.
"My experience is that those in the environmental community are good people and we can and should be working with them, should see them as fellow human beings," says Rothrock. "This is an excellent bridge for finding commonalities, and for having opportunities to share the gospel. Creation care is part of our Christian mandate to be stewards. It's a justice issue—in that the poor are greatly impacted by environmental quality. It's also a family issue, because I'm leaving this earth to future generations."
In 25 years of full-time Christian ministry, Tri Robinson has never experienced such momentum from a congregation as he has with the development of his environmental ministry, Let's Tend the Garden. Feeling as though he has awakened a sleeping giant, he says, "I don't even claim to be an environmentalist. I just try to be biblically obedient."
- Some Christian leaders believe environmental issues are too liberal. Do you agree? Can evangelical Christians care about the environment without compromising their conservative values?
Genesis 1:28. What does it mean to "subdue" the earth? What is our responsibility as stewards of creation?
- Have environmental issues ever been discussed at your church? If so, what has been your congregation's response?
An increasing number of patients suffering from asthma, cancer, and other chronic diseases convinced Christian physician and preacher J. Matthew Sleeth that mistreatment of the earth and its resources is placing its inhabitants in serious trouble. In his book Serve God, Save the Planet, Sleeth shares his family's journey to a less materialistic, more environmentally conscious lifestyle. Here are 10 practical actions he recommends adding to your earth-care to-do list:
- Turn off the faucet while shaving, brushing teeth, and washing hands.
- Pre-cycle by buying minimally packaged goods and choosing reusable over disposable.
- Buy only "tree free" toilet paper, paper towels, and tissues made from recycled paper.
- Bike, walk, carpool, or use public transportation instead of driving.
- Change at least five light bulbs to compact fluorescents.
- Install low-flow showerheads.
- Caulk and weather strip around windows and doors to plug air leaks.
- Use no pesticides or chemicals on your lawn or garden.
- Pick one endangered species and do something to help save it.
- Pray for people whose forests and habitats have been destroyed by material consumption.
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