Saving Both Souls and Soil
Many believers are familiar with the term “medical missions.” Less well known, though a growing awareness is popularizing the movement, is the field of environmental missions. The idea’s biblical base is to combine God’s creation care mandate with the additional call of Christ’s “great commission.” What that means and looks like and how it can be cultivated into fruition is the subject of Lowell Bliss’s new book, Environmental Missions: Planting Churches and Trees. Bliss is the director of environmental missions organization Eden Vigil.
The purpose of the newest category of missions, Bliss asserts, is two-pronged. The goal is to integrate the dual aims of the environmental missionary: to care for the environment and to make disciples. Why? Because God is a both/and God, not an either/or God. He cares for both people and the planet; he is concerned with saving both souls and soil. Following Jesus’ example, then, we can be both people and tree-huggers.
Bliss chronicles his path from traditional church planting missionary in India to a growing interest and later vocation in environmental missions. He was “converted” by the death of a dear Hindu friend from malaria, borne through a mosquito on the stagnant Ganges plains. The air and space that surrounded his friend, and surrounds us all, became something to be cared for, loved, and redeemed as a co-laborer with Christ.
Environmental missionaries engage in environmental development, addressing the evangelistic call to make disciples while being intentional in their work of creation care. The environmental missionary, Bliss says, is the picture of an individual with a Bible in one hand and a shovel in the other. As others witness cross-cultural care of the earth, they have a unique opportunity to preach the gospel.
Caring for the environment can be a vehicle to minister to local communities. Environmental missions can be a means to that end, but it is also an end in itself. We see from Scripture that God cares very deeply about the world he created for us to inhabit. As Bliss writes, “We care for the earth because God told us to, because we respect it as his, because it is a way of loving our neighbor who shares the planet, because future generations ... still need to use it.” God the creator declared it “good” before humans even entered the scene. Can we say we love God, then, if we simultaneously and knowingly perpetuate activities that deleteriously affect his earth and harm his children?
Critics who favor the idea of a “throwaway” planet in light of what they see as “the coming of the End Times,” find no reason to labor for the preservation and restoration of the earth, its waters, and its atmosphere. Yet if we are commissioned to be stewards of God’s creation, hastening its destruction marks us as an unfaithful people. The environmental missionary, writes Bliss, recognizes that “our responsibility is to endure in love…to preach the gospel until the end, care for creation until the end, and do so with love.” At this time, we must strengthen our resolve to persevere in our co-labor with Christ until the last moment. And we can be greatly encouraged, because we are not alone in this struggle, nor could we succeed without the power of the Holy Spirit working in, through, and beside us.
God loves the children of his imaginative creation. He also intensely loves the world he created. He doesn’t give up reclaiming, redeeming, or restoring either, and neither should we. May the purposes of environmental missions be manifested through us, and as charged with in this book, may we seek to “disciple local believers to care for their local piece of creation.”
Thoughtful and well-written, Bliss’s book has given me a better understanding of the newest category of missions work. His hope and encouragement to partner with Christ and fellow believers in care of the earth and those who inhabit it are inspiring in the face of what sometimes seems an insurmountable endeavor.
I would recommend Environmental Missions as a great read to all who have a heart for reaching people on their own mission field while also caring for the field itself.
Anna Hall is campaigns assistant for Sojourners.