Since the 1970's there’s been a reawakening within the evangelical Church to the socio-economic dimensions of the Gospel. Activities such as disaster relief, medical welfare, community building & empowerment, job & income creation, trauma-counselling, peace-building, tackling structural injustices, are all now affirmed as an integral aspect of seeking the Kingdom of God.
And over the last two decades, our understanding of the scope of God's mission has broadened further, with the rediscovery of God's love for all of creation. The biblical narrative from beginning to end gives an account of this, explicitly stating: the goodness of creation; that creation is created and sustained by the power of God's life-giving Spirit; of nature's agency in praising its Creator; that creation reveals the power and nature of God; of God's intention for the land be a place of life-giving abundance; that humanity, as caretakers, are to respect and nurture creation to fulfil its Creator's intent for it to teem with life; that God, in Christ, is reconciling all things.
This biblical understanding – that God's missional intent is not confined to homo sapiens but is about creating communities of shalom in which relationships between humanity, God, and all of creation are reconciled and renewed – is evident in declarations such as the Anglican Five Marks of Mission. But what does this fifth mark of mission actually mean: “to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth”? How does safeguarding the integrity of creation relate to the other marks? Is caring for ecosystems and endangered species of the same priority as care for our fellow human? And, how does this fifth mark become an integral aspect of missional living in the contemporary world?
Five Marks yet interwoven
We need to recognise that the five marks, while distinct in our declarations, are in practice inextricably interwoven. Consider the work of Christian conservation organisation A Rocha in Uganda. A project of providing cheap and easy to use bio-sand water filters to produce clean and safe drinking water for slum-communities near Kampala looks, on first glance, as simply a response to essential human needs. But the benefits of this project spread beyond individuals to families, communities, the land and countless other species!
The distribution of 600 bio-sand water filters has eliminated the need for women to boil water over charcoal fires. Each bio-sand filter is utilised by five families (strengthening community) meaning 15 000 people now drink safe drinking water (health benefits), thus saving $152 000 NZD p.a. in charcoal costs and medical fees (poverty reduction). Healthy children are less often absent from school (education benefits) and women now have 15 days per household p.a. – the total time previously spent boiling water! – to devote to income-generating enterprises (gender empowerment).
And the benefits beyond homo sapiens? Previously, families required approximately 12 bags of charcoal each year for boiling water. So, for every five families, 60 fewer bags of charcoal are bought. For 15 000 people, that’s 36 000 bags. One felled tree makes two bags. Therefore, because of the filters, at least 18 000 trees each year are still growing (less carbon-emissions and on-going carbon sequestration), thus preventing top-soil erosion and desertification, and continuing to provide habitat for wildlife (bio-diversity gains).
Here in Aotearoa the Karioi – Maunga ki te Moana conservation project which seeks to restore biodiversity to a sea-bird mountain near Raglan likewise provides multiple benefits: community building & empowerment, environmental educational for youth, job and income generation for local hapu. (See www.arocha.org.nz/projects/karioi-maunga-ki-te-moana).
What's our role?
But what of those of us living here in Aotearoa New Zealand not engaged directly in community development or conservation work? How can “safeguarding the integrity of creation” be an integral aspect of our missional living?
The Paris Climate Change conference in November 2015 was a watershed moment. After decades of denial we seem to have acknowledged that the global ecological crisis stems from the unsustainable mode of living pursued by homo sapiens (especially Westerners). Since the industrial revolution, powered by the cheap energy provided by fossil fuels, we’ve created a way of life in which speed, transience and limitlessness are seen as virtues. We live largely in ignorance to the detrimental impact our pattern of living has on other non-human inhabitants who share this planet with us. Whether we care to admit it or not, the average New Zealand standard of living is unsustainable – dependent upon an overuse of ecological capital and the exploitation of others (human and non-human).
Missional living that is serious about safeguarding the integrity of creation will reflect intentionally on the nature of our housing and churches (size, heating, energy efficiency, water use); our frequency and mode of transportation (public vs personal vehicle); our leisure activities (the luxury of overseas vacations); what we purchase (needs vs wants and the power of advertising; the ecological footprint of a product from extraction-manufacturing-transport to market to disposal; product design & longevity); and what we eat (carbon footprint; water use; ecological impact of insecticides).
Just as we should be aware of the human impact of our consumer choices (explored in Intermission Issue 25), we need to become awake to the ecological impact of our patterns of living. Such awareness however, should not to lead to paralysis. For the sake of the poor and the planet, we need to transition towards a low-carbon economy – lowering our carbon emissions and then off-setting the rest (see www.climatestewards.org). Background knowledge provides the context where, as missional communities of faith, empowered by the Spirit, we can explore creative ways of living which will benefit all of God's creatures.
Dr Andrew Shepherd is the National Co-Director of A Rocha Aotearoa New Zealand. Later this year, A Rocha in partnership with Tear Fund, will be releasing the Rich Living programme, designed to assist faith-communities explore sustainable ways of living. Visit www.arocha.org.nz/education-advocacy/ or email
Share examples of projects which weave together the 5 Marks of Mission (evangelism, discipleship, compassion, social justice, creation care)? Why is this interweaving an essential insight for local and global mission?
What steps will you and your group make to reduce your environmental footprint?
This article mentioned a holistic bio-sand filter project that simultaneously addresses environmental, social, educational, gender and economic issues. The French government is offering funding for 100 environmental projects that receive the most votes. We encourage you to register and vote, enabling this project to grow. Voting is open until July 7. For more information, click here. To vote, click here.