How should the emerging church respond to the prospect of 'large-scale ecosystem collapse'?
The latest WWF biannual Living Planet Report warns of ‘large-scale ecosystem collapse’ by 2050 because the earth can no longer keep up with the demands that are being placed upon it. What should the response of the church be to this? And what, if anything, should be distinctive about the response of the emerging church?
It seems to me that the theological basis of a constructive response to the environmental crisis lies in the understanding of the ‘church’ as an expression of authentic humanity. The church is essentially the product of God calling into existence a new creation in the midst of a world perpetually marred by idolatry, arrogance, injustice and violence. The paradigm derives from Abraham, whose calling was a reiteration of the original creational blessing on humankind and the mandate to be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth (Gen. 12:2-3, 7; 17:1; 28:3-4; cf. 1:28); but it modulates throughout the biblical narrative, through the New Testament story of suffering, renewal, and vindication, culminating in John’s final galvanizing vision of a new heavens and a new earth.
As new creation, as authentic humanity, as a creational microcosm, as a world-within-a-world, the church is defined by three modes of being in relationship:
1. The church is the place of God’s presence: the creative God is central, as one who is worshipped, who is holy and just, who is made angry by human rebellion, by the corruption of the created world, who opposes the pretensions and wickedness of the nations, who redeems a people. For Israel this presence was represented essentially by the temple; for the church it is mediated through the Spirit.
2. The church is called to social righteousness: an authentic humanity demonstrates in itself justice, fairness, compassion, love, forgiveness, etc. For Israel this righteousness was defined and monitored by the law; for the church it is grounded in forgiveness and the writing of the law on the people’s hearts; it is an expression of the fact that God reigns over his people - we are not subject to other powers, whether cultural, political or spiritual; we are free to be slaves of righteousness.
3. The church embodies in itself a relation to the created environment: just as Israel inherited the goodness of the promised land, so the church as the renewed family of Abraham has inherited in dispersed fashion the world (Rom. 4:13). I would suggest that this is where we must begin to construct a credible theological and missional response to the world’s increasing alarm over the state of the environment.
The people of God is only ever a creational microcosm imperfectly. So although we are called in the first place to be that new humanity - to be God-centred, to be righteous, to live well on the earth - we never escape from our failings and ineffectiveness. In our inadequacy, however, we can also be a sign of something better than what we are: we point beyond ourselves to the God who redeems and will make all things new.
So my question is this: How can the church effectively demonstrate what it means to be new creation in its dispersed relation to the earth? How do we live as a world-within-a-world, a people amongst peoples, in respect of the third mode of being? And how do we imaginatively leverage that imperfect existence so as to be a visible, public sign of authentic humanity that challenges, inspires, gives hope?
Let me put this rather more provocatively. Let me suggest that the Spirit of God is calling his people to an awakening of the prophetic imagination in community so that the story of the creative God can be told well - with integrity and power - during the coming crisis of the environment.
See also ‘Human footprint too big for nature’ on the WWF website.