Great Barrier Reef scientists now believe that this ecosystem can only be restored if many choose to change their lifestyles in consideration for other species, as well as people suffering in different countries and future generations. Cooperation must work on multiple levels from large-scale government support and energy change in industry down to households and churches using sustainably, ethically sourced products and individuals living aware of their carbon contribution, which includes wasting less food and cutting down on red meat, to name a few. Yet, with a problem this daunting and far removed from most of our everyday lives, how do conservationists inspire change?
The Making of a Disciple
In 2008, environmental education experts Joe Heimlich and Nicole Ardoin found that psychologists have difficulty explaining a clear relationship between “pro-environmental attitudes” and “pro-environmental behaviour.” Each of us are physical beings bound to a context: a specific time, place, culture, and set of values. We are not all motivated by the same things, and we are not equally capable of changing our routines. Different communities live under very different pressures, and some people—like the coral—are struggling for their very lives.
Heimlich and Ardoin's review also found that awareness of the issues and solutions are key steps along the road to action but that this knowledge alone is not enough. Beliefs are important for motivating behavior change. These include our responses to questions like: Do we believe that we are able to change and make a difference? Do we feel responsibility for and connectedness toward those suffering? Who do we believe has control over the events in our life?
While scientists may wish a simple knowledge transfer will inspire change, I am reminded of the relational way of Christian disciple making. After spending 24 years in pastoral ministry, the writer, speaker, and discipleship teacher Greg Ogden noted in his book “Discipleship Essentials,” that Jesus’ own disciple-making pattern "was to be intimately involved with others and allow life to rub against life."
The Power to Change
Christians are not strangers to working with the complexities and resistances of the heart. Robert Sluka, a marine biologist working for the Christian conservation organization A Rocha, first introduced me to this synergy between environmental education and faith. Addressing a room full of secular conservation scientists in Cambridge, United Kingdom, he said, “In a way, you are evangelists too! You have a message you believe is important, knowledge you believe should change how people live, and you face obstacles as you try and help the people you are approaching.”
As I’ve read about environmental education, I have been drawn to think of Jesus as the perfect teacher and changer of hearts. God fully entered into our context and gave us, by his love, the ultimate motivation to change our lives. Further, Jesus' winsome example—his humility, compassion, and sacrifice—teach us how to reach out relationally to those around us. As a conservationist, this insight shapes my approach to community projects. As a Christian, it goes even further than this.