My attention has been drawn to a report produced by the Youthscape Centre for Research and Tearfund entitled ‘Burning Down the House: How the Church Could Lose Young People Over Climate Inaction’. The message of this 20-page publication is there in the title: the church’s failure to address climate change threatens to alienate young people.
I’m afraid I found it a disappointing publication but before I explain my objections let me say two things. The first is that I believe climate change is a serious threat and that something needs to be done urgently. Let no denier of climate change enlist me in their support. The second is that although I’m delighted to see Christians getting involved with the environment and climate change issues, let me remind you this is no novelty for Christians. This week marks the hundredth anniversary of the birth of John Stott who encouraged a biblically based response to environmental issues and, amongst many other things, was involved in the setting up of the Christian environmental organisation A Rocha. Further, the Church of England is struggling with the practicalities of reaching the target of net zero carbon by 2030. So this is not new for Christians to engage on climate change.
So where does my disappointment lie? Well, on reading this document I can’t escape the feeling that we as churches are being asked to leap on a bandwagon. Yet bandwagons are the most dangerous form of transport known to the human race and it’s wise to ask questions before jumping on board. I have concerns in several areas.
First, I find that this report lacks clarity. The church, we are told, is supposed to be involved in ‘climate activism’. But what exactly does activism mean? In what way are we to be active? The evidence from the photos seems to be that Christians are to protest. I don’t have a problem with that. But it seems unclear what we are protesting against or for. Are we to march? Write placards? Spray slogans on walls? Drive electric cars? Is it a sin to eat meat? If the devil is in the details, he is also in their absence and there is an unhelpful vagueness here.
Second, I find this document lacks foundations. Bizarrely, in a 20-page report that manages to find space to explain ‘intersectionality’ there is only a hint of any Christian framework for our involvement in climate matters. This is particularly disturbing since for several decades there has been a great deal of informed Christian thinking on environmental involvement and climate change in particular. To take one example, one of the topmost American climate scientists, Professor Katharine Hayhoe, is a Christian and has done a great deal of writing and speaking on how, as biblically informed Christians, we should approach climate change issues. But such is the advocacy of activism in this report that there are virtually no Bible references and not even a recommended reading list.
The result is a shallow report that bears more than a passing resemblance to the placards it displays. The fact is that there is a profound and rich Christian rationale for caring for the natural world. We believe that our wonderful planet is made and sustained by God, that it is his handiwork and that ultimately, we are accountable to him for our management of it. We are stewards not owners of this world, and cherishing not perishing should be our watchword. Our response to the climate crisis should be deeply rooted in a theology that runs from creation to new creation. We need to submit all of the why and the how of our engagement with creation under the authority of Scripture; this report feels like we need to take young people’s word as gospel. Reading this report I feel we need more of Saint Peter and less of Saint Greta!
Third, it lacks discernment. A perennial problem in Christianity has been the misidentification of moral fruit for spiritual roots. Throughout history people have observed the good deeds undertaken by the church, whether with the poor, the marginalised or the enslaved, and have assumed that social action is the ultimate priority of the church. Here, however – and forgive me but I am an evangelist – lies a deep and dangerous misunderstanding. Fundamentally, Christianity is not about social action; it is about lives changed through encountering Jesus. The cover of the report shows a young woman holding a placard saying ‘WE ARE THE CHANGE’, but the truth is that only Jesus brings change.
The report implores us to not ‘let [young people] down by refusing to acknowledge the biggest crisis we have ever faced’, but the reality is that the biggest crisis we have ever faced is sin, and only Christ can redeem us. We will drown in despair if we think climate activism, or any form of social action, will bring us redemption. Good works do not make a Christian but Christians do good works. At the heart of any Christian approach to the care of the planet is that it is the right and proper response by God’s people to God’s grace shown to us in Christ. This report seems to me to put the cart before the horse.
Finally, let me return to the title of this document: ‘How the Church Could Lose Young People Over Climate Inaction’. Let me make two observations. Unless I have misread my Bible, motives for action should always be based on morality, not on popularity. Sadly, it’s not hard to find occasions when the church has put its Bible aside and chosen to listen to the voice of the people. It’s rarely ended well for anybody. Actually, the church that decides to follow the world rather than lead it gains little respect. This leads me to a second thought. The report’s enthusiastic suggestion is that churches which teach more about climate change will keep young people. Is it possible that this suggestion may be counter-productive?
The fact is, most youngsters I know have been overloaded with information on climate change since they came out of nappies. What they are looking for in the church is not more of what they get everywhere else. They are seeking for a radically new way of seeing themselves and the world that includes responding to climate change. The view in this report that Christians should enthusiastically endorse climate activism seems radical: ironically, it is not radical enough. This report lacks truth and hope. Without Christ we have a hopeless end, but with Christ we have an endless hope.