Do something in the world: Youth ministry and ecology

April 18th, 2018

The celebration of Earth Day each spring gives Christians an opportunity to consider God's good creation and our stewardship of it. This year, Earth Day falls on Sunday, April 22nd. This article was first published in Circuit Rider and appeared on Ministry Matters on November 13, 2015. 

Youth ministry is an opportunity for a church to exhibit its true character. In some cases, the church is afraid to let young people live out their passions in the midst of the life of the congregation. In others, anxiety-driven youth ministries build a Christian cocoon for comfortable, unthinking faith that avoids tough experiences and hard questions. But there are bright spots: faith communities that invite young people to bring every aspect of their lives, their fears, and their doubts into the community’s wrestling in faith. Youth ministry that chooses to engage young people in troubling questions and big challenges witnesses to the possibility of a lifelong journey in faith.

A significant challenge facing all of us—especially young people and the generations yet to be born—is the fact that we live on a finite planet with limited resources. Humans have overreached the beautifully balanced systems that sustain us. Our appetites have outstripped our resources. These ecological challenges include diminishing water quality, soil loss, deforestation, species extinction, ocean acidification, climate change, and other symptoms of unlimited ambition in a finite place. Recent governmental and international scientific reports have moved from speaking about slowing the effects of ecological devastation to what it might take for human beings and other species to adapt to a more challenging world.

An essential question rising out of this realization is, will we choose to limit our personal appetites in order to allow for all life to thrive? Learning to discipline our appetites is at the heart of the ancient virtues of the Christian faith. Western cultural expressions of Christianity have had difficulty manifesting or supporting the cultivation of these virtues. However, it’s time to call the church and its practice of ministry with youth to a sustainable foundation. The questions facing youth ministry include: How can we shape ministries with young people that help all creatures thrive? What beliefs, practices, and structures of discipleship sustain life? What beliefs, practices, and structures diminish the capacity for life to thrive?

Youth ministry can become a space where young people and the church join together to imagine how we can live out our faith in a harsher world. The first step is learning to reread sacred scripture through a lens that identifies our place in the world as God’s creatures in creation. Creation narratives have been used to support the idea that we were created to exploit God’s good gift, as if creation’s goodness is defined by what we use and not by God’s initiative. Human beings have a special place in stewarding God’s creation. The good world into which we are created is the context for our thriving relationships with our fellow creatures. In our reading of Genesis 1:1–2:3, stewardship is revealed as responsibility and nurture, not dominance and exploitation.

The second step is relearning—or possibly learning for the first time—the vocabulary that names the world we inhabit. Encourage young people (and everyone) to go outside and learn the names of the plants, animals, and minerals where you live. What types or species are the indicators of a healthy ecosystem in this place? Once they’ve learned the names of species common to their local context, they should begin to learn those in their region, and then the names of life in the greater world. The creation texts start human vocation by naming all the life that God has created; learning the diversity of life surrounding us is a step back into this vocation.

The third step is for the church and young people to partner together in reimagining our communities. After relearning the diversity of creatures existing around us, we can begin to rethink what it might mean to live in right community with each other and our fellow creatures.

Wangari Maathi, founder of the Green Belt movement and recipient of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, tells a parable of the Quechuan people to illustrate the urgency of the environmental crisis.1 The forest has been set on fire, and all of the animals flee. The hummingbird, in despair that her home and the home of all the animals gathered is being destroyed, tries to rally a response to fight the fire. She is rebuffed, and the animals sit watching the fire, despairing that all is lost. The hummingbird flies to a nearby stream and takes a drop of water in her beak. She flies to the fire and spits the drop of water on an ember. The other­ animals call out to her, “You’re wasting your time; why do you bother?” The hummingbird persists, time and time again, taking a drop in her beak and returning to put it on the raging fire.

Now, here is where the story gets interesting. Like many folktales, it has multiple tellings and multiple endings. Sometimes the hummingbird persists while the animals with much a larger capacity for fighting the fire sit by and watch, continuing to tell the hummingbird that she is wasting her time. In other versions, the example of the hummingbird inspires or shames the rest of the animals into action.

Maathi’s parable offers little hope for easy solutions, but it does offer a vision for cultivating hope in the midst of overwhelming challenge. The next moves are small ones, little moves against

Ecological imagination opens up opportunities for the church to become a community worthy of our young people. The church can become a place of imagination that begins with careful attention to the world around us. In time, this attention will spark deeper curiosity, compassion, and a desire to cultivate ways of living that seek sustainable abundance for all life. In thinking about God’s action in creating a world to sustain all life, we can reimagine how to live as a church and reinterpret sacred
texts and religious commitments through a desire to live into a world of abundance for all. In doing this, we confront the hard truths about our exploitation of our world, return to our texts, and
relearn our contexts in order to help our fellow creatures thrive.

When we cultivate community as a source of healing and wholeness, we can begin to imagine church as a central community modeling sustainable ethical grace. If the church chooses to ignore this challenge, young people will find other communities to live out their faith and their desire to live into God’s good world.

1. Wangari Maathi, 88th Commencement Speech, Connecticut College, 2006. The parable is also published in the children’s book authored by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas and Wangari Maathi, Flight of the Hummingbird (Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2008).

2. The phrase “little moves against destructiveness” is attributed to Pastor Trocmé of the village of Chambon in France. This phrase, which appeared in one of his sermons, was held out as a vision of the gospel in a time of challenge, allowing Chambon to be a place of refuge during Nazi occupation in WWII. See Philip P. Hallie, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979).

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