The Green Way: How the church is defining its role on the journey to sustainability

Credit: cc by SisterMaryEris

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature – the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”
Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

He loves righteousness and justice;
    the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord.

Psalm 33:5

There is an issue many Christians today are pondering. In the Nicene creed we affirm that God is “maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen” and this earthly home sustains us and gives us joy. So how is it that our existence is blotting out the sustainability of the rest of the creation?

Specifically, the real and present danger of climate change has inspired a number of books and essays by Christian thinkers on the topic of sustainability.

David Orr, a professor of environmental studies at Oberlin College and a well-known environmentalist, told a group of denominational church leaders and pastors last year in Cleveland at a meeting of the Ecumenical Roundtable on Faith, Science and Technology, “This journey of sustainability can’t be a checklist. In part it needs to be a celebration of life.”

But what does that mean on a practical level? There are many theologians, professors, scientists and lay people who are thinking deeply on this issue. What follows are just a few examples of some solutions they have come up with as the world still comes to terms with the reality of climate change and the realization that even if we could stop carbon emissions today we are just now seeing the effects of the carbon produced at the height of the gas-guzzling culture of the 1970s.

Orr in his book, Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse, writes that Hurricane Katrina’s growth from a Class 1 storm to a Category 5 event was quite possibly because of the warming effects of carbon released in the late 1970s. Still, he views now as the time when a change in human behavior can have an impact for the greater good on this planet and indeed save many lives.

A recent study from scientists in the UK published in The Lancet, concluded that food scarcity caused by climate change could cause 500,000 deaths by 2050. The scientists used a model to simulate the effects of future climate change on global food production and consumption. Researchers assumed, according to a report in The Washington Post, that the global air temperature by 2050 would be two degrees higher than it was between 1986 and 2005.

If climate change were not occurring, the scientists predicted that global food availability would actually increase by 10.3% by 2050. But if climate change were to occur, global food availability would actually be 3.2% lower than the estimate with no temperature increase.

Dire statistics such as these point to the need for urgent action from faith communities. Leading up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris last year, the Vatican made headlines with Pope Francis’ Encyclical letter on “Care for Our Common Home.” There were a number of events at Catholic universities where students, professors and theologians gathered to discuss the contents of the letter fully.

The letter’s title “Laudato si” is taken from a canticle from Saint Francis that is translated as “Praise be to you, my Lord.” The letter is clear of humanity’s role in climate change. Pope Francis writes: “We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.”

He expressed a desire to begin a dialogue with all people about the future of our common home.

In response, Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) Elizabeth Eaton joined with Pope Francis in calling on world leaders to embrace common responsibility. The ELCA urged leaders to support an ambitious agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, encourage the development of low-carbon technologies, and to support the ability of countries to cope with the effects of a changing climate and to build resiliency for a sustainable future.

Bishop Eaton writes, “We serve in concert with God’s creative and renewing power, understanding that we have the resources and responsibility to act together for the common good, especially for those who are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.”

Much of this work has been done online, as pastors, scholars and laity create and disseminate resources on how the church can act for the common good. Much of the work begins with education. And our ELCA seminaries across the US are front in center in educating future pastors and leaders about eco-justice.

God created Earth Day

Credit: cc by beelissa

As previously covered in Covalence, the Zygon Center for Religion and Science in Chicago broadened the discussion of ecology from a theological viewpoint as part of its spring seminar.

Dr. Richard Perry, director of the urban ministry program at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, and Dr. Gayle Woloschak, associate director of the Zygon Center, are co-chairs for the sessions in the Future of Creation 2016 seminar. The theme is “Foundations for a Just and Sustainable World” and the course runs through May 2. Topics include: renewable energy, Pope Francis’ encyclical, human beings and creation, and environmental justice.

“We believe that community coalitions — between scientists and people of faith, between scholars of religion and leaders of religious communities — are necessary to forge a just and sustainable world,” the seminar organizers wrote.

The seminar sessions are open to the public and are structured for attendees to learn, reflect and act in response to today’s and tomorrow’s environmental crises — informed by contemporary scientific insights, guided by critical religious perspectives and trained in practical public strategies. The second to last session at the end of April is an interfaith panel with a focus on Earth Day.

In Pittsburgh, preaching is the focus of a new ecologically minded class. Teaching preaching courses at Gettysburg Seminary occasionally since 2007, Rev. Dr. Angela Zimmann is once again teaching seminarians how to put together a compelling message. This time the emphasis is on “Green Preaching: Ecology and Proclamation” and she has attracted a good number of students eager to fulfill a preaching elective in their coursework while considering issues such as fracking and climate change.

An upcoming class session will feature an introduction to faith and science from Lutheran Alliance for Faith, Science and Technology steering committee member Ida Hakkarinen.

A “hopeful and resurrection-focused” course, Zimmann seeks to introduce “future preachers to green homiletical theory and practice.” Students were told in the course description that time spent immersed in creation will be an integral component of the class that is being taught for the first time this semester.

ELCA pastors, scholars and laity who are concerned about the ecological crises facing humanity and the Earth are uniting in another very public way leading into a special worldwide event.

The Eco-Justice Reformation 2017 Working Group is urging the ELCA and ministries within the church to embrace a holistic transformation. As the Lutheran church prepares for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, this group is looking at how congregations can celebrate an Eco-Reformation mindset. This movement grows out of a long history of Lutheran concern (the 1993 social statement Caring for Creation: Vision, Hope, and Justice, and other pre-ELCA Lutheran documents) and involvement (1997 formation of “LENS” — Lutheran Earthkeeping Network of the Synods).

Recently, a group of scholars, teachers, and pastors affiliated with the Eco-Justice Reformation working group wrote an open letter to Bishop Eaton supporting her public commitment to address climate change and other environmental issues and offering help in bringing about an eco-justice reforming movement in the church. Copies were sent to each ELCA bishop and to the members of the ELCA Executive Planning Team for the Observance of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation in 2017. Leading the effort are professors, ministers, church staff and laity who are involved in eco-justice work.

“Today carbon dioxide concentrations are about double than what they were in Luther’s time. And scientists tell us that this has dangerous consequences for our world,” said Barbara Rossing, professor of New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, in a video posted on the group’s website.

Resources for congregations, pastors and laity who are interested in caring for creation are sprinkled throughout numerous web pages put together by another group called Lutherans Restoring Creation. Worship materials, educational resources, preaching resources, a speakers’ bureau, theological reflections, bulletin inserts and more are available online free of charge.

One of the more interesting resources on the website is on the current lectionary. The Care for Creation Commentary covers Advent, Christmas, Epiphany and Lenten seasons and is up-to-date drawing on multiple authors. The purpose of the commentary is to provide a foundational resource for preachers and congregations seeking to incorporate care for creation into their worship and congregational life.

Other resources offered up by the Lutherans Restoring Creation organization include a look at ecological Christianity from the lens of Luther’s Small Catechism. Also being made available is a four week study for adult classes, college or seminary classrooms that takes up the theme of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

Another well-known group is a multi-denominational effort called Creation Justice Ministries. Dating back to 1970, this group’s aim is to equip congregations with liturgical resources and educational material. From theological notes for sermon preparation to hymn and song selections, this group’s website offers numerous free resources.

The focus at Creation Justice Ministries for this Earth Day Sunday on or around April 22 is “Care for God’s Creatures.” The group also has substantive educational materials on past Earth Day themes including last year’s theme of “Faith, Food and Climate Change.”

While it is easy for congregations to overlook Earth Day or the consequences of climate change on any given Sunday, it seems that is getting even easier to find thoughtful theological resources for Sunday Schools, adult education, youth group activities, and sermons to celebrate the eco-Reformation mindset year round.

This information comes at a time when many of us reading the news of the effects of climate change or of politicians’ struggle to act on behalf of the planet. We may feel overwhelmed with the immensity of our shared responsibility for the degradation of the environment.

As Rachel Carson wrote in her classic 1962 book, Silent Spring, “In nature nothing exists alone.” Thankfully the same can be said of our faith communities in that we are not alone in our concern for creation and much can be accomplished when we join together to educate others and ourselves. The reminder that we are not alone in this endeavor is key as God is present even as we struggle to come to grips with the harrowing statistics of a planet in peril.

Five ways to celebrate care for creation in your congregation

1. Develop a creature-counting ministry, and become citizen scientists

Scientists need help understanding what is happening to God’s creatures. Species observation is a ministry you can offer as an individual or as a faith community (
Create habitat at church and at home.

2. Build a bat house

The Organization for Bat Conservation offers instructions on how to install bat habitat on church and home property. Plant a garden to feed pollinators. The National Wildlife Federation’s Sacred Grounds Program offers instructions and technical support to plant important food and habitat for bees, butterflies and more. (

3. Create Stations of the Cross with a climate change theme

This art project can be an invitation for individuals and communities to engage in creative contemplation for the salvation of the Earth. Drawings combine images of those creatures on the brink of extinction due to our exploitation of the Earth with drawings of hands.  The hands tell the story of the Passion through gestures (

4. Remember Earth Day!

On the Sunday closest to April 22, celebrate Earth Day with special liturgies, prayers and sermons. It might be a good time to start a social ministry organization devoted to promoting creation care. (

5. Engage our youth!

There are many resources for youth activities all over the web. Confirmation classes can write down their reflections, just as one Pennsylvania class did in creating haikus about the Holy Spirit as creator of life. Or young people may help educate congregations on something as simple as trash. Lutherans Restoring Creation and the Lutheran Community Foundation worked together to provide an exhibit about Trash at the National Youth Gathering, which may be viewed online. (

Susan Barreto

Susan Barreto

Susan is an author with a long-time interest in religion and science. She currently edits Covalence, the Lutheran Alliance for Faith, Science and Technology’s online magazine. She has written articles in The Lutheran and the Zygon Center for Religion and Science newsletter. Susan is a board member for the Center for Advanced Study of Religion and Science, the supporting organization for the Zygon Center and the Zygon Journal. She also co-wrote Our Bodies Are Selves with Dr. Philip Hefner and Dr. Ann Pederson.

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