Ecology and Theology: Investing in Sustainable Ministry

In 2005 an organization called the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) began with 40 organizations committed. Today over 1,000 have signed on, from universities to ecological groups. More than a few researchers consider the concept of sustainability-from renewable energy to viable long term jobs-one of the key megatrends, ranking up there with information technology and globalization.(1)

If you google synonyms for “sustainable” you will find the following. Note the two categories:

Synonyms: maintainable, supportable, bearable, justifiable, workable, defensible, viable

Synonyms: ecological, environmental, green, natural, balanced, organic

I am confident the idea of “sustainable” has only recently had such a clear connection to ecology. But, what about theology? In this case I am not thinking of the biblical and theological implications of the gospel on the environment, although I am grateful we are becoming better at such conversations. I am wondering about whether or not those of us who follow Christ, and especially those of us who serve as leaders of the church, give enough attention to sustainable ministry, or to use a more biblical expression, “fruit that remains.” Does our practice of theology demonstrate a short term, event-driven ideology, or does our understanding of the gospel help us to focus on effectiveness for the long term?

I have been giving that a lot of thought the last few years. How can I not only serve Jesus with a passion, with biblical clarity and effectively, but also in such a way that I can somehow have influence for the Kingdom of God well beyond my life?

Sustainability matters. For example, when I go into a restaurant in my local community, my first thought is not on getting a meal. I am looking for an opportunity to serve the server by praying for him or her (and by tipping well!), and when possible to make a lasting relationship. Just this morning I am going fishing with a man I met who serves tables and is a bartender at a local restaurant. He does not yet follow Jesus, but he has become more than a casual guy at a local watering hole; he has become my friend.

When you go to visit someone for your church, whether on a regular “outreach visit” or as part of a newcomer service, do not go to make a visit-go to make a friend. Friendships are sustainable, random encounters are not.

If you teach a class or do some kind of training as a believer, say, through your local church, do you think about the long term, sustainable impact of what you do, or do you sometimes fall victim to the trap of seeing each “session” you teach as a self-standing event, not too related to the everyday life of those you teach? It is hard to build community in a 45-minute lesson a week. That is why for me, mentoring forms the heart of my concept of teaching rather than speaking in a lecture hall with 80 students.

How much time do you give in thought about what you do for Christ in terms of its sustainability?

All these examples matter I think. But the issue that caused me to think more about sustainability has less to do with what happens in our local communities and is instead more global in focus.

I am thinking about mission trips. Over the last two decades a dramatic rise in short-term trips overseas has been one of the more encouraging signs of the work of churches in the U.S. But I fear we think too much about the thrill of being “on mission” in another place more than we think about the sustainability of the work we do on such trips.

I have been to many nations on a variety of trips for an assortment of purposes, from choir tours to educational ventures to mission opportunities. You more than likely have been overseas on mission or other trips as well. If you haven’t I hope you will. But I am thinking less and less about how many different places I can go, and more and more about sustainable ministry.

Think about all the trips you have taken for the Kingdom of God. Think about the exact places; picture the faces of the people. Today, a few months or years later, what continues to make an impact for the Lord because of your time there? I am grateful that I can think of pastors in the Ukraine still benefitting from training because I went to speak to hundreds of pastors there in an evangelism conference. Why? Because Pastor Johnny Hunt of First Baptist Church, Woodstock, asked me to go as part of an ongoing, sustained ministry there. If I planned a cool trip to the Ukraine to train pastors from all over that nation I could never have pulled it off from scratch. But an ongoing ministry there could.

Our church currently goes every year to many nations overseas. But two places we go in particular have allowed us to established sustainable ministry: to Greece and to India. I want to be a part of ministries that look long term, that do not just the easy work of popping in, setting up a tent, and vanishing, but the long term work of investing. I went to Greece to serve the Greek people. But I went mainly to meet friends, and I now have some wonderful Greek friends with whom I still communicate. And, I hope to see them again face to face, perhaps next year!

I hope you have decided to invest in sustainable ministry locally and globally. It has become far too easy in the Western, conventional church driven as we are by consumer values and an event orientation, to do all sorts of things that in themselves are not bad at all but in reality have no sustainability to them. Perhaps we can learn from recent ecological trends that the pursuit of sustainable energy can help us think more carefully about sustainable ministry.

(1) Mike Knight, “Sustainability Goes to School,” Delta Sky Magazine, July 2010, p. 113.

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