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Timely Messages from Honored Guests

The Gospel and Nature Conservation
Peter Harris is International Director of A Rocha (Portuguese for “The Rock”), an “international conservation organization working to care for God’s world.”

Amongst evangelicals, the authority of Scripture is not in question. Furthermore, everyone agrees that because we all care about the people we know, we want them to be able to accept that Jesus Christ is their Lord more than anything else we might wish for them. So perhaps it is particularly hard for us to come to terms with the realization that even so we have fallen into deeply unbiblical ways of thinking about people, the world we live in, and the gospel itself. Very often in discussion of what constitutes mission, it seems we want to force a choice between loving God and caring for what we call society, or even more so the environment. However by doing so we express one of our more common evangelical heresies—namely that we can show we love God only by a very restricted range of activities that we arbitrarily label “spiritual” (our lists all differ—but caring for the environment is clearly off-limits for most). In this view of things, which owes a lot to Plato and subsequently the Enlightenment, but little to Scripture, the rest of what we do in life has little to do with God and even less to do with our expression of the gospel. As a corrective, we should rediscover the following:

God cares about people, not just souls.
In Romans 12:1, Paul urges us to offer our bodies to God as a spiritual act of worship. This should not surprise us—after all we are followers of Jesus who took on the elements of His own creation and laid them down to give us eternal life, and then in His resurrection body ate with His disciples. But sadly we can easily fall into thinking that “spiritual,” by which the Bible means what is of God’s Spirit, implies “non-material”—and here Plato appears again! As God has committed Himself to the future of His creation by the resurrection of Jesus’ body, we make a tragic mistake if we become indifferent to the well-being of creation—and we will consign much of our human experience to a place outside the lordship of Christ.

The gospel doesn’t stop with people.
Paul tells us earlier in Romans 8 that the whole creation will share in the glorious freedom of the children of God. Rather than cutting out parts of our experience from the possibility of redemption, the challenge for Christians is to find creative ways of drawing it all in. In Lebanon, the A Rocha team has seen how indiscriminate hunting is helping to drive rare migrant birds of prey to the brink of extinction. They know that the whole creation is called to give glory to God, and as they see the spiralling groups of birds making their way up the Bekaa valley in the spring sunshine against the shining background of Mount Hermon, it is easy to get a glimpse of what that means. But this is a witness which will be lost without a major effort to protect the birds and work to awaken the attention of those who live under this phenomenal spectacle. So they have been able to conserve one of the major migratory staging posts at the Aammiq marshes and to set up an extensive schools program, both of which have attracted a lot of national attention. In multi-religious Lebanon, it is natural to explain that love for the Creator, Jesus Christ, inspires this Christian project.

Mission is not just preaching.
It never has been, or Jesus would have left the sick unhealed. But behind the false dichotomy between evangelism and caring for creation are some unreliable and unfounded assumptions about the nature of mission. Maybe it needs a modern C. S. Lewis to do justice to the logical flaws which infest them, but they are roughly similar to an argument which might run: “You can get to London in a car—so unless you have a car, you can’t get to London.” In other words, often the love of God is explained and shown by preaching, but that doesn’t have to be the only way. The explanation of Christ is essential, yes—but before that, how do you propose to get a hearing, and where will you be heard? Near Arles, where we work with A Rocha France, less than two percent of people now have anything to do with a Christian church. Over half those who live in our local towns are Muslims, and those who aren’t hold few particular organized beliefs. Among those they do hold are convictions that life and religion are firmly divided. Economics, the arts, environment, money, sex, and all the new ways of being family have nothing to do with belief and so can safely be left to those involved in public life. Religion is a private affair for those who like that kind of thing. So any visitor to the A Rocha field study center is confronted immediately by a challenge to all of that. The environmental questions that the team are working on include not just the technical “how” and “what” of nature conservation, but the “why” questions too. What we are working on and the way we work, at its best, makes clear the character of the Creator. Inevitably discussions follow. Our national chairman, Pierre Berthoud, is dean of the theological faculty in Aix, and he recently explained. “Most French people are ‘spontaneously anti-Christian,’ but at the same time they are increasingly environment-conscious.” There, then, is a point of contact from which we can declare the full counsel and love of God, which covers all of Creation—from the birds of Lebanon to our Muslim neighbors in France.