A New Evangelism: the Common-wealth of the Creator
Article by John Anderson
Fires, floods and fear: humanity is becoming frightened by global heating. The second of St Paul’s famous trinity of Christian virtues in 1 Corinthians 13:13 is ‘hope’. We reject despair because it is faithless and loveless. We cherish hope. As the climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe has said about climate change, “What we need to fix this is rational hope”.
So what hopes do we have to offer to fearful humans?
We exalt a creator God. God’s creative spirit imbues the universe with hope. Our tiny part of it, God’s blue planet, is burgeoning with life. An oak tree produces thousands of acorns. Human sperm contains millions of living organisms. All life, from bacteria to birds, evolves, bursting with God’s creation. It is the common wealth of God. This cornucopia of creativity means that all lifeforms must die; without death there can be no more life. Otherwise there will be no space on earth. Our first hope therefore is that we understand the balance of life and death in creation.
Humans have tried to become gods on earth: half of us now live in cities in which the rest of God’s creation becomes less visible. The human footprint has stamped on much of the creation of God: there are 50% fewer animals on the planet today than in 1970. David Attenborough’s ‘Extinction’ programme on television has brought this home to a vast audience. Our creation-centred gospel, however, advocates a commonwealth of creatures living lightly on the earth. Our cities are becoming greener by cherishing green spaces, planting trees and growing plants vertically as has been done in Cuba. Our city churches and their graveyards are becoming nature reserves. Churches are changing to renewable electricity sources so that the baleful emissions from the carbon fuels burned to produce electricity are reduced. Almost every city in the world has a church in it. Orthodox churches have long championed the green gospel. The eyes of Christians are on eternity, not the usual temporary bricks and mortar of cities. Our buildings last for centuries. Our new or refurbished buildings, such as those at Stratford Methodist Church, are constructed to be as nearly carbon neutral as possible. We sing, pray and act for our Creator God. We denounce the crumbling concrete gods of earth.
So how is this the new evangelism? The Great Commission of Jesus and Mark 16:15 is clear: “proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” Until recently, evangelical preaching from our pulpits exhorted us as individuals to follow Christ and be saved. Our Christ was too small. The good news is for the whole of creation. That cannot mean that we, just one God-created being on earth, destroy the others. Rowan Williams puts it thus: “We need to re-gain a sense that our relationship to the earth is about communion not consumption.” The root meaning of ‘consumption’ is ‘destruction’, as its traditional use for the dreaded disease of TB so graphically illustrates. ‘Wealth’ in its original meaning meant ‘welfare’: in a common-wealth all creation sings together for the glory of God. Common welfare is enhanced.
Throughout the world, for Christian and non-Christian alike, the essentials of the divine Commonwealth are being increasingly valued. Millions march to save life as we know it; they sometimes say they’re marching to save the planet: this is misconceived since the planet will survive. God has designed it so that the anthropogenic will always be counter-balanced by the biogenic. Millions are saying, “What can we do to reduce global heating?” This reminds us of the young ruler’s request to Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke18:18). He is told in Luke 18:23, “distribute the money to the poor”. The Christian answer to our present rich overdevelopment is similar: seek the welfare of all, not wealth for us who live in the rich world. As Peter Boyde of the Eden Project said, we seek “a world without want that doesn’t cost the earth.” We are not advocating lifestyle changes but survival strategies. Christians are beginning to lead the way in combating global heating. Those outside the church see our actions, and understand that we take a view of eternity, not the next election. For the first time for centuries many of the aims of the church cohere with the most far-sighted understandings of those around us. What an opportunity for evangelism!
John D Anderson. Member of Baildon Methodist Church, Bradford.