Many mission agencies have recently become aware of their environmental impact, and in particular of how Climate Change is hurting those in developing countries hardest and first. Travelling around the world on short-term mission trips burns enormous amounts of CO2, and some organisations are seeking to both minimise unnecessary flights and offset those they still make. A Rocha’s Climate Stewards initiative is one way of doing this - a Christian scheme that is independently audited to show that it absorbs the carbon it claims to, works with local communities in developing countries and improves native biodiversity (www.climatestewards.net).
However, we need to go deeper. Being ‘green’ isn’t just the latest bandwagon for mission agencies to jump on, changing a few tokenistic light bulbs and offsetting a few flights. We need to ask some much harder questions: what has the environmental crisis got to do with Christian mission? Is it a distraction from core Gospel business, or is it a chance to look again at what biblical mission really is?
To some the answer’s obvious: if the earth’s getting overheated, Jesus must be coming back soon, so Climate Change simply means we need to evangelise the world more quickly. Mission is all about soul-winning. This earth doesn’t matter … we’re going to get a new heaven and new earth anyway, aren’t we? The American Christian writer, Cal Thomas, takes this view in saying that “Jesus’ teaching has nothing to do with global warming or the environment” and that the task of Christians is simply to “prepare themselves and others for the world to come”.
Yeah but … (as they say) … Is that really what the Bible teaches? Does this really fit with God’s mission in his world? In other words, does the Bible really limit mission to evangelism … or even to human beings?
Obviously there isn’t space for a full biblical response here - my book Planetwise (IVP, Feb. 2008) tries to give that. Here, let me just suggest an alternative approach. If mission is about being sent by God into God’s world to take part in God’s mission, perhaps we need to start with God rather than with us, and try – as far as we are capable – to see mission through God’s eyes before working out our part in it.
God begins his mission on this planet by creating it … and populating it not just with humans but with an infinite variety of other creatures too. Think about those other creatures for a moment: in Genesis 1 God declares them ‘very good’ even before he’s made people to appreciate them … hence their goodness is about their value to God, not their usefulness to us. In the New Testament, Paul makes this explicit in saying God has made all things for Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:16). Elsewhere, when people are tempted to get too big for their boots, God is quick to use animals to give back a sense of perspective. Balaam ignores God’s word so God uses a donkey to speak to him (now who’s the donkey?). Job complains about his suffering and God gives him a guided tour of creation (a prehistoric ‘Life on Earth’ going one better than David Attenborough – commentary by the Maker). During the tour God points out that there are plenty of places and creatures he’s made and cares for that live where no human has ever been … and asks Job who he thinks looks after them (Job 38:25-27). God is tackling that deepest of sins – putting ourselves at the centre of the universe – and God makes it clear to Job that creation is first and foremost for God, not for people.
God’s mission to the whole creation carries on throughout the biblical narrative – rescuing species of every kind from the flood ‘so that their kind might continue upon the earth’ (Genesis 7:3) and establishing a covenant with the earth itself (Genesis 9:13). It is not just a creating mission but a sustaining and ultimately a saving mission. Romans 8 promises freedom for the whole creation and Colossians 1:19-20 rejoices in ‘all things’ in heaven and earth being reconciled to God through Christ.
The First Great Commission
Going back to the role of humanity ... humans are from the start clearly both part of creation and called apart to a special mission within it. On the one hand we’re very like all the other animals. Genesis 2 describes us as ‘made from the dust of the earth’ and Adam simply means ‘earthling’ (‘slightly soiled’ if you want to be blunt!). We don’t even get a day to ourselves, but share it with all the other mammals.Yet, on the other hand, there is something uniquely special about people – we are made in God’s image.
Being made in God’s image has often been seen as relating to our human nature (conscience, creativity, rationality), but perhaps we need to see it as more about our human calling – it’s our first great commission! Biblically, our commission as part of God’s much bigger mission begins not with Matthew 28:19 (‘Go and make disciples …’) but with Genesis 1:26-28 (‘rule over’ the earth and its creatures; ‘fill the earth and subdue it’). The whole weight of scripture makes it clear that ruling and subduing are not about exploiting and abusing for our own selfish ends, but about ‘working and taking care of’ or ‘serving and preserving’ (Genesis 2:15). The earth is the Lord’s – not ours – and we reflect his image – and fulfil our mission - by looking after it in a godly way, with care, respect and delight.
Implications for Mission Today
Returning to where we started, today many mission agencies are waking up to environmental issues. At A Rocha (www.arocha.org), as an international Christian environmental movement, we’re now working in partnership with a whole range of mission agencies including BMS World Mission, CMS, Crosslinks, Interserve and Tearfund.
In all these relationships we are trying to help with the practical issues: how to reduce carbon footprints, how to help preserve biodiversity as well as tackling poverty. Yet, we’re also asking the deeper questions. Do our aims as mission agencies reflect the full scope of God’s mission to his world – and our calling within that? Are we reflecting the commission of Genesis 1:26-28 as well as that of Matthew 28:19-20? Is creation-care so embedded in our worldview that it is part of every project we do, whether the focus is evangelism, disaster relief or Christian education?
The exciting thing that we’ve stumbled upon at A Rocha, and others are discovering too, is that creation-care is in no way a distraction from evangelistic mission. Rather, the opposite is true. When people see Christians caring for the earth and their fellow humans in practical ways there’s a new openness to the person and the work of Jesus. As we care for creation in Christ’s name, we find that Jesus, the ‘image of the invisible God’ in whom ‘all things hold together’ (Col. 1:15-17) is exalted and revealed ever more clearly.
 Cal Thomas “The Agenda Driven Life”, Washington Times, 15th February 2006.