Here am I, an environmental scientist. Send me!

Building homes and other structures with common materials in Malawi.
Building homes and other structures with common materials in Malawi.  By creatively recycling materials on hand, people divert trash from being burned and creating pollution.  This could be the work of an environmental missionary!

Environmental missionaries are those sent cross-culturally to labor with Christ-the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of all creation-in caring for the environment and making disciples among all peoples.  ~pg. 17

Lowell Bliss, Environmental Missions: Planting Churches and Trees.  William Carey Library, 2013

In 2009 I was a college student attending my first Urbana Missions Conference, and the book “Environmental Missions” was a twinkle in Lowell’s eye.  I was not interested in overseas missions because I was studying wildlife ecology, and enjoying it very much.  I thought that I would need to be a medical professional or pastor in order to be a proper missionary.   I thought my wildlife ecology studies precluded me from missionary work.

However, the idea of environmental missions is exactly the opposite: we can care for God’s good earth and His very good creation: people…at the same time.  Join me as I reflect on a few quotes from Lowell Bliss’ book, Environmental Missions, and explore the possibility of expanding our current understanding of missionaries to include those who love God’s world.

“Environmental missions, by definition, lives at that point of integration between church planting and creation care.  We must ruthlessly keep ourselves at that point.  It is too easy to “greenwash” our efforts, whereby our missions projects have a green veneer about them–perhaps to obtain a convenient visa in our passport, perhaps to appeal to a new generation of recruits–without actually benefiting God’s creation at all.” ~pg. xvii, Environmental Missions

I’ve noticed that being “green” is wildly popular today from a corporate perspective.  Many cleaning and food products in particular shout their environmental friendliness from labels with green leaves and images of nature.  You have to be careful to check carefully if the product is actually any more sustainable than the rival brands, because “greenwashing” is good business: people like to think they are buying something healthier for themselves.  Often, we are easily fooled.

Before we can accept environmental missions as a new category of God’s Kingdom work, we have to realize that conservation and stewardship are important for life and worthy of our attention; they aren’t just a “greenwash” like the quote says above.  We know that God made the world and everything in it, and commanded humankind to rule over creation as image-bearers of Himself (see Genesis 1).  We would be making a huge mistake-sinning against God-if we manipulated creation care in order to attend to “higher” spiritual interests only.  As St. John of Damascus (675-749 A.D.) said,

I do not worship matter. I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake, who willed to take His abode in matter, who worked out my salvation through matter….Because of this I salute all remaining matter with reverence, because God has filled it with his grace and power. Through it my salvation has come to me. (emphasis mine)

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A few years ago I met Craig and Tracy Sorley, missionaries with Care of Creation Kenya.  Their work in Kijabe focuses on restoring the soil and livelihoods of their neighbors near and far through a training program called Farming God’s Way.  When the soil is healthy, crops grow healthy; and when harvest time comes, families are able to provide for themselves and earn an income.  When the soil health is poor, farmers must expand into the forest and plant more acreage to grow enough crops to survive; when the forests are all cut down, local rain patterns change and cause droughts or flooding.

Through raising crops, planting trees, taking care of livestock, and even activities like building long-lasting buildings or wells, missionaries may engage in creation care in some way.

I observed that talking about sustainable agriculture, wildlife conservation, and even science in general was a door wide open to discussing the Creator God of the cosmos, the redemptive work of Jesus, and the presently active Holy Spirit.  This was true in my lecture halls in Madison, Wisconsin and in East Africa.

“Environmental missionaries want to evangelize the world, but…the creation care they engage in must be bona fide.  It must be recognized as a good calling in its own right, an act of worship to the Creator, an act of love for our neighbor…creation care must mean more than a creative access strategy.”~pg. 10, Environmental Missions

Maasai crops
Care of Creation Kenya visiting the farm run by Masai women who took the Farming God’s Way course.  I’m leaning on the blue rain catcher.

In reality, there is no tension between preaching the Word and caring for what the Word spoke into being.  An environmental missionary loves God by taking responsibility for the care of all aspects of God’s world: rehabilitating damaged and degraded habitat, maintaining healthy ecosystems, preventing pollution of air, water, and soil, and acknowledging the sacred gift of crops and livestock for food.  Finally, an environmental missionary knows that the spiritual health of the people he or she loves and serves is inextricably linked to their physical environment.

In Kijabe, I learned first-hand that one of the best ways to love one’s neighbor is to work with him or her to restore health to the soil.  To do that, you must know what makes healthy soil, and how the soil is just one part of an entire ecosystem.  Out of reverence for God’s good gifts of soil, rain, plants, and the tiny microbes that make farming possible, an environmental missionary loves their neighbor by caring for creation.

Focusing on the health of the environment isn’t a trick to sneak missionaries into countries closed to the Gospel; no, God calls all of us, whether we are biologists, botanists, environmental scientists, or agronomists to serve and love our neighbors.  Using our skills and knowledge is a great way to thank God for his good gifts.  Praise God, I can love and serve my neighbors through wildlife ecology…and I should!

What about you?  What might God call you to do with your specific knowledge and skills?

Forest monitoring in Vietnam.
Forest monitoring in Vietnam.

Today, more and more missions agencies are recognizing the value of environmental work alongside traditional church planting and evangelism.  Here are a few examples:

  • TEAM has over 20 opportunities to serve in the missions field while focusing on creation care.  For example, serving as a sustainable agricultural specialist in Chad, or a renewable energy technical adviser in Central Asia.
  • OMF, an missions agency focused on Asia, is looking for fisheries experts and people trained in the environmental sciences to serve long-term in China and Thailand.
  • Lasting Harvest International trains missionaries in community development skills on a rural farm in Panama.  Everyone learns about aquaculture, animal husbandry, and how to work cross-culturally: all the skills you need to be an environmentally-aware servant of Christ.
  • For more opportunities, check out this web page on Care of Creation’s Urbana site.  Don’t see the type of opportunity you’re looking for?  Tell us what your interests are and we’ll see what we can find out.

Thinking of pursuing environmental missions as a vocation?

Check out the book on Environmental Missions.  You will read Lowell and Robynn Bliss’ amazing story of church planting in India and coming to understand God’s call for creation care.

Also, read the blog post below from TEAM senior director Steve Dresselhaus, on “why all missionaries are environmentalists (or should be).”

Why All Missionaries Are Environmentalists (or Should Be)