Clothesline in Winter

Clothesline in Winter

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Courage to Preach

We don’t have to kill prophets anymore.  We can always just fire them.  Or we can motor on down the road to the church whose pastor doesn’t offend us. Or at a bare minimum, we can shoot off an email giving our preacher the full benefit of our opinions.

It takes courage to be a preacher. More courage than most church members can imagine.
Perhaps that’s why we don’t often hear sermons about the great moral issues of our time.  It took courage for English preachers to stand with William Wilberforce, when so many of their parishioners were making money from the African slave trade. And more recently, it took courage for preachers to stand with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, or Nelson Mandela, when many of those sitting in the pews were driven by opposing cultural passions or economic interests.

Today, a growing chorus of evangelical leaders is encouraging preachers to speak up regarding creation care, especially in light of the threat of global climate change.  But it takes courage to preach.  You don’t take on the world’s most powerful industry without paying a steep price.

And so, you haven’t heard a sermon on creation care recently, have you? And if you have, you probably haven’t heard from the pulpit about the about the danger posed by human-caused climate change – to the poor, the vulnerable and to future generations. But it’s not because global religious leaders aren’t challenging churches to speak up.  They are.

Here’s a short list of major declarations urging Christians to speak out on creation care:
  • Evangelical Declaration on Care of Creation (1994, Evangelical Environmental Network, adopted by many Christian denominations and leaders)[i]
  • Oxford Declaration on Global Warming (2002; issued by 70 leading climate scientists, policy-makers and Christian leaders from across 6 continents)[ii]
  • Micah Declaration on Creation Stewardship and Climate Change (2009, The Micah Network, representing churches in 83 countries)[iii]
  • Climate Change: An Environmental Call to Action (2006, Evangelical Climate Initiative, signed by more than 330 presidents of Christian colleges and service agencies, authors and pastors)[iv]
  • African Church Leaders’ Statement on Climate Change & Water (2008, issued by All-Africa Council of Churches)[v]
  • Christians and Climate Change (Australian Evangelical Alliance, affiliated with World Evangelical Alliance)[vi]
  • Christian Reformed Church Creation Stewardship Report (2012, denomination of more than 1,000 congregations in the U.S. and Canada)[vii]
  • National Association of Evangelicals; Loving the Least of These (2011, representing 45,000 local U.S. churches in 40 denominations)[viii]
  • Cape Town Commitment; Lausanne Global Conversation (2010, Lausanne founded by Billy Graham, John Stott and others to direct global evangelization, with delegates representing more than 190 countries)[ix]
  • Prominent mainline Christian declarations, including the Vatican[x], the World Council of Churches[xi], and the Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church[xii].
Each of these declarations has its own unique voice. The Lausanne Cape Town Commitment addresses world evangelization, and incorporates creation care as a core element of Christian mercy and witness in the world, calling on all Christians to repent of complicity in exploitation of the creation:

“We lament over the widespread abuse and destruction of the earth’s resources, including its bio-diversity. Probably the most serious and urgent challenge faced by the physical world now is the threat of climate change. This will disproportionately affect those in poorer countries, for it is there that climate extremes will be most severe and where there is little capability to adapt to them. World poverty and climate change need to be addressed together and with equal urgency.”[xiii]

The Micah Declaration and the National Association of Evangelicals highlight justice to the world’s poor, who are most vulnerable to drought, disease and flooding from climate disruptions.

“If the things we have been reading are true, that we are called to love God and to love our neighbor, that our climate is changing, and this change will affect the poor most of all,” writes the NEA, “then we, the evangelical family, have no choice but to act on this problem.”[xiv]

The African Church Leaders and the Australian Evangelical Alliance bring the unique perspectives of Christians in those regions: with the African sensitivity to the suffering of the developing world because of the actions of the industrialized North; and the Australians seeking repentance as one of the leading per capita greenhouse gas emitters.

And the Christian Reformed Church brings a scholarly tradition and rigorous review of science and theology, leaving no stone unturned in reaching their assessment:

“Human-induced climate change is a moral, ethical, and religious issue… [and] poses a significant threat to future generations, the poor, and the vulnerable. Future generations will inherit climate change, driven by emissions of today….  Poor societies will have fewer options and resources than wealthier societies to adapt to these changes….  Urgent action is required to address climate change.”

Add to these declarations the voices of the Vatican, the Orthodox Church and numerous protestant churches affiliated with the World Council of Churches, and it would seem that every church on every corner would be talking about caring for our Father’s creation, and for the poor who are most vulnerable to its misuse.

But it’s not that easy for preachers. There are people in the pews with other ideas. Their favorite politicians tell some of them that climate change is a hoax. Oil and coal companies advertise nonstop on their cable news channels. They fear that solutions will be costly. And they even have one religious declaration developed by a free-market advocacy group. Among other things, it states: “There is no convincing scientific evidence that human contribution to greenhouse gases is causing dangerous global warming.”[xv] (This assertion is rebutted by 97-98% of climate scientists[xvi].)

You’d think that the debate would be a mismatch. On the one hand, you’ve got thousands of global leaders as disparate as the Pope, the worldwide Lausanne evangelistic movement, the Orthodox Patriarch, and the U.S. National Association of Evangelicals issuing dozens of declarations urging Christians to act on climate change. On the other, you have a think tank denying human contributions to the problem. In fact, the Christian Reformed Church even rebuts the think tank’s claim to represent evangelicals: “Considering the limited number of authors and their lack of religious credentials, it is somewhat disingenuous to label these as evangelical documents.”[xvii]

But given the polarized state of cultural and political conversation in America today, this one voice is enough to persuade many churches that creation care is controversial, dangerous, and a catalyst for disunity in the church. And with the flood of oil money in today’s politics and airwaves, the man in the pew is likely to have strong – if misinformed – opinions. 
Faced with this, we can understand the temptation of preachers everywhere to kick the can down the road, and remain silent.  But when God calls a person to the ministry, he doesn’t offer the option of silence.  Bonhoeffer's colleague, Martin Niemöller, warns us of this in haunting verse:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me--and there was no one left to speak for me.
Perhaps this week, you will pray for your pastor. Preaching is a tougher job than you or I can imagine.  A word of kindness and encouragement will do a world of good. Because a preacher needs courage. And the future for your children and grandchildren almost certainly hangs in the balance.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

End Notes:

[i] Evangelical Environmental Network; On the Care of Creation;
[ii] Climate Forum 2002; Oxford, England;
[iv] Climate Change; An Evangelical Call to Action;
[vi] CHRISTIANS AND CLIMATE CHANGE: A statement from the Australian Evangelical Alliance;
[vii] Creation Stewardship Task Force Report, Christian Reformed Church;
[viii] National Association of Evangelicals;
[ix] Cape Town Commitment, Lausanne Global Conversation - Part 2, Section IIB, 6;
[x] Statements by Pope Benedict and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops;
[xi] World Council of Churches website lists denominational declarations on creation care and climate change too numerous to list here;
[xii] The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, 9/01/2006;
[xiii] Cape Town Commitment Call to Action, The Lausanne Movement, Sec. II.B.6;
[xiv] Loving the Least of These, NAE, p. 37;
[xvi] Expert credibility in climate change; Proceedings of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences of the United States;
[xvii] Creation Stewardship Task Force, Christian Reformed Church, 2012, p. 108;

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