Closing the Credibility Gap
Religion & Liberty Online

Closing the Credibility Gap

If denominations want to demonstrate leadership over social issues like the environment they must have a good track record leading folks in spiritual matters within their own congregations.

After all, if they can’t handle the Great Commission, how effective can their first commission work possibly be?


If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evanglicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither. [C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity]

Photo credit: Southridgeworship.comChristian denominations across the social – and let’s face it, political – spectrum have been laying down all sorts of ecclesiastical ground rules on climate change. For some that means adopting others’ statements of aggressive or restrained action. Others have scratched out their own.

The Body of Christ is a diverse place and it’s not for me to say that a particular approach to ecology is or isn’t where God wants them to be. But one of the rules that should apply to green churches across the board is this: Be spiritually credible first.

What I mean is this. To be credible in bibical terms a denomination should desire thriving congregations. Even growing ones.

Paul put it to Timothy this way: "If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?" Take that one notch higher. If church leaders can’t meet the needs within their own denomination how can they take care of the world?

An example? Sure. Via VirtueOnline, here’s an Anglican position on climate change:

The U.K. must face the challenge of climate change with passion and creativity, not gloomy martyrdom, the Church of England has warned an official consultation. "If the U.K. can show the rest of the world an effective way of legislating against actions which we know will harm the planet, and in so doing have motivated good behavior, it will have done the human family a very great service of leadership," argues the submission by the Church’s Mission and Public Affairs Council to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ Consultation on the draft Climate Change Bill. In the document, the Church also argues that the system of ‘carbon credits’ — where countries each have an account of emission credits to ‘spend’ — must be regulated so that rich countries are unable to purchase credits from developing countries, which have not signed the Kyoto agreement. The submission also suggests that rich countries should offer assistance with ‘clean’ development mechanisms.

Very aggressive stuff. Right in line with Jesus’ brother James, who is famous for writing "Show me your faith without works, and I’ll show you my faith by my works." I’m all for avoiding "gloomy martyrdom" by the way. You’d think a progressive Episcopal Church would be adding to the role up yonder by the thousands. The opposite is true of course.

Take this church in Boston:

Click thumbnail to go to .pdf version at VirtueOnlineToday the old church has been reduced to mission status with regular attendance from 12 – 15 on any given Sunday. The church is now virtually empty and the Diocese is asking neighboring parishes to help fund the utility costs. Five different ministers have been in charge since Fr. Hiles left with 98% of the congregation eight years ago. The last two were women. When VOL called the parish a recorded message was heard from the interim vicar The Rev. Jacqueline Schmitt. St. Paul’s "famed" kitchen, which fed hundreds each week, was shut down in 2005 for sanitary reasons. Rodents and fire caused eviction of the only ethnic group from the education building in 2006. A "For Sale" sign can now be seen out front of the building. Reports have it that area congregations originally supplying St. Paul’s kitchen with food for the homeless are now being solicited for financial support of the old building and its general fund.

Anglicans in both the US and UK are thriving in pockets, like the fired up Episcopal congregation led by my brother in Christ (and judo black belt!) Pat Finn. But as he shared with me some years ago, the Episcopal Church as a whole is struggling.

In C.S. Lewis language they’re aiming at the earth. So are lots of other very green protestant churches. From a brutally honest 2006 PCUSA report:

Between 1994 and 2004, the PC(USA) experienced a ten-year decline in average weekly worship attendance larger than any other mainline denomination (a decline of more than 100,000 in attendance). The past five years (1999-2004) have essentially seen a dead heat in attendance decline, with the ELCA, PC(USA), and United Methodist Church all down about 90,000 in attendance. Of the larger mainline denominations, three—Episcopal Church, ELCA, and PC(USA)—all experienced percentage attendance declines of 5% or more. The PC(USA), down 7%, again led the way.

The article offers possible reasons for this, like "differential fertility," [A whole ‘nother post right there, eh? db] "racial and ethnic changes in America," "social conflict," and "changing worship styles," ending with a stern reminder that the trend isn’t the same in "nonmainline" denominations. They also cite "declining community involvement" as a reason, which seems sorta counter-intuitive when all these folks can talk about is what they’re doing for the community.

What’s going to close the Church’s green gap? Leaders like David Jeremiah and Rick Warren and Tri Robinson and Father Pat can do it, and not because of any snappy, progressive sounding, eco-friendly, Wallis-esque mission statements. If Average Joe Christian listens to these leaders it’s because their environmental outreach is part of a vibrant, biblically-sound, Spirit-filled ministry.

Another way it’s going to happen is this: Last week I criticised Southern Baptists for what I thought was pretty pitiful foot dragging on climate change research and alternative energy. Disappointing, but not unexpected. What was unexpected was more than 40% of those voting on the climate change statement supported it. I think it won’t be too long before SBC leadership is smart enough on climate change to step out ahead of it. When they do folks in the pew will see a credible, prayer-driven response to Christian stewardship that’s consistent with a broader evangelical ministry; not a reaction to a single issue.

They’ll follow in droves.

Jesus said: "handglobeSeek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you…" If denominations want to demonstrate leadership over social issues like the environment they must have a good track record leading folks in spiritual matters within their own congregations.

After all, if they can’t handle the Great Commission, how effective can their first commission work possibly be?

[Don’s other habitat is The Evangelical Ecologist.]