If the world is at stake, stewardship of creation must be global. And with an evangelical passion akin to world missions, Ed Brown is preaching ecology to the nations.
One region at a time.
Following initial consultations in Jamaica in 2012, Brown became the Lausanne Movement’s catalyst for creation care and helped build out the Lausanne/World Evangelical Alliance Creation Care Network (LWCCN). The goal was to amplify a conviction forged two years earlier in Cape Town, South Africa, at the third Lausanne Congress: Creation care is a gospel issue within the Lordship of Christ.
Since then, LWCCN has conducted conferences in 12 regions drawing delegates from over 120 nations. Concluding earlier this month in Jordan for the Middle East and North Africa, Brown and his colleagues addressed local issues for a region experts warn is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world.
And the UN is cued in. Its 27th climate change conference, COP27, begins November 6 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, with COP28 scheduled next year in the United Arab Emirates’s Abu Dhabi.
Brown served previously as chief operating officer for the evangelical Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies, and today is a fellow at the Nelson Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He founded Care of Creation, Inc. in 2005, and is author of Our Father’s World: Mobilizing the Church to Care for Creation.
In Amman, he spoke with CT about the challenge of politics, the response of missionaries, and the drastic impact environmental changes will soon have on ministry to one’s neighbors.
Reflecting on your many meetings, did the message of creation care resonate with the international evangelical community?
Much more so than in the US. We found people hungry and eager to have us come. People in these countries live closer to nature, without the protections from nature that exist in the West. They are much more aware of climate change happening. You can’t hide from it.
We’ve seen this with the floods in Pakistan, and with Hurricane Ian it is coming home to America. But this has been true for people in the Philippines for decades. The weather is changing, and our message is that creation is groaning in a biblical sense.
What is it that they were hungry for, or lacking?
Everywhere we go, the Spirit has been speaking to people about caring for God’s creation. With a conference like this, people are discovering each other. I may be the only one in my church, they realize, but I’m not the only one in [my] country—and now we can communicate with each other.
There is also a thought that individuals and church leaders sensed that something wasn’t right, without knowing the biblical foundation about how the Bible speaks to the issue.
Can you give an example about how we have missed this message in Scripture?
The central passage I use is Colossians 1:15–20. It begins by speaking about Christ creating all things and ends with how the blood of Christ on the cross is redeeming all things. Most people read this redemption in terms of people. But if you zoom out and realize that the “all things” being redeemed are grammatically the same as the “all things” he has created, then you have a universal picture of redemption.
This is reinforced by Romans 8: how creation is waiting for the redemption that will come through the revealing of the children of God.
The church has sometimes struggled over the correct prioritizing of evangelism and social outreach. Does adding a third issue of creation care become too much for some?
Actually, it is the opposite. People working in poverty have realized for a number of years that they are on a treadmill and moving backwards. You cannot make progress in development and ministering to the poor if there are environmental problems that haven’t been addressed.
On the health side, medical missions want to cure people, but many of the diseases they face are environmental diseases. You can’t have a public health program without addressing the underlying environmental issues. There is a synergy here that we should have picked up on a long time ago, but it is happening now.
One of the underlying strengths of our movement has been to use local leadership, local scientific resources, and local theologians as much as possible. It has been organized by a couple of us from the West, but my UK co-catalyst was raised in India, and me in Pakistan.
Still, it has been thought-provoking that we’ve had very little buy-in from the local missionary community. They have been invited, but they don’t come. The pastors come, the publishers come, and the churches the missionaries have planted have come. But up to now, the American and Western missionaries have not been very interested.
Have you found any skepticism about the science?
In some places. But we have not allowed these conferences to be debates over whether climate change is real—that is a given. The purpose is to say: What are we going to do about it?
Whether in America or elsewhere, how do you address the skepticism, whether it is with the science or the politics?
There are two doors we can walk through. The first [is] from Scripture. If the audience is politically skeptical but biblically literate, we can present a solid exegetical message that creation care really is a gospel issue. These passages exist, and we must deal with them.
The second door is the historic American commitment to care for the poor. It is starting to dawn on people that other countries are suffering because of weather events, and it is becoming more and more difficult to deny that is caused by what is happening in the environment.
But there have always been poor, as well as climate catastrophes—to which the church has responded. What is different now?
People are realizing: This famine or this drought is not just an act of God. It might actually be caused because of my lifestyle, our lifestyles together. If it is just a plague of locusts, I can respond, but I bear no responsibility. But if is a hurricane driven by climate change, or food scarcity caused by the shrinking of biodiversity, we connect the dots and say: Maybe how I live is having an effect on these crises.
But perhaps you will lose people in this complexity? Activists can follow the arguments and evidence, but can pastors?
There are many pastors who are well read and up on the science, [who] are aware of the connections to consumerism and Western lifestyles. But they are dealing with people in their churches who are skeptical. What can they do, especially if their job is on the line?
We are doing a program this November at the University of Wisconsin called Creation at the Crossroads. It is designed to bring pastors together, [to] talk to scientists about the latest evidence and to theologians about the biblical way to address it. We have a conflict expert coming, about how to navigate a church that is divided. We need to learn how to talk to each other.
So how should pastors bring this message to their congregations?
In my experience, you bring the empirical evidence within the context of a biblical framework. Anecdotes within a sermon. The message is that God made the world, he gave us a responsibility for it, and it is falling apart. I have confidence that the Holy Spirit can take his word, help people see what is happening, and then help them start to make a difference.
What about the political side of skepticism? Often climate change is part and parcel of left-leaning issues.
One of the things we are trying to do is depoliticize it. In the creation care movement in the US, there are people working the Republican side of the aisle, trying to persuade others that the environment should not be a progressive issue. In fact, it is a quintessential conservative issue. Conservative. Conservation. Do you see the connection? It is concern for future generations, exactly the same as fiscal conservatism. It ought to be seen as a conservative issue, and the fact that it is not is because we’ve been sold a bill of goods.
Any convinced individual can begin to make the lifestyle changes necessary to help the environment. But given the severity of the problem, policy changes appear necessary. For this perhaps one must vote left, but many will not want to do that. How do you advise someone torn about this issue, on how to vote to save the planet?
I am probably among those who strongly feel we need a third party in the middle. There has never been a better time for a party to package pro-life and pro-environment together. I have to say that I have not made politics my particular part of the vineyard; God has not called me there.
But are there others, working to cultivate strong evangelical environmental advocacy efforts with people on the left and decouple the environment from other progressive issues?
I think more of the work has been done with people on the right. People on the left, they are already convinced. It is on the right where people are digging in their heels. It is a thorny issue to go to the left and persuade people to change their view on abortion or gay rights, or whatever else. So I don’t know what the answers are, politically.
But apart from politics, are there issues ecologically minded evangelicals are debating among themselves?
Actually, yes. As we learn more about how intricate and complex God’s creation is, some evangelical creation care thinkers are reexamining the idea of dominion and stewardship.
Knowing now how little influence we humans have within nature, are we perhaps overstating our role as rulers or managers on God’s behalf? It is a lively debate, but one that has a biblical answer.
The concept of dominion is stated clearly in Genesis 1 and expounded at some length in Psalm 8. For me the question is not, “Are we rulers or stewards?” but rather, “What kind of rulership or stewardship ought we to be exercising?”
With whatever influence it has, what should the church do now?
With what I anticipate happening in the next 15–20 years, and [like] many scientists I’m afraid it might be sooner, the church must realize that aspects of normal ministry may no longer be possible.
Consider Ukraine: No one can do door-to-door evangelism in a war zone. Similarly, how can you do church planting in Pakistan, when a third of the country is underwater? We need to anticipate environmental refugees—and there are already studies explaining where they are coming from and where they are going.
And of course, let us do what we can to slow things down. Almost everyone agrees that climate change cannot be stopped, but it can be slowed if we change our lifestyles.
If you play the visionary, what must the church or mission agency do now to prepare for the coming changes? How will they take the gospel message to the world?
Much of what we will have to do is practical love, not just suburban evangelism. I don’t know how leaders of World Vision, SIL, Compassion International, or TEAM should change their strategies—but they must be talking about this. Do the analysis, and anticipate the threats.
Will “practical love” be necessary also in the suburbs?
As environmental impacts ramp up, more and more people will discover they are vulnerable. On the West Coast, the Colorado River is running dry. An entire swath of the country is or may soon be on water rationing, and I don’t know how to deal with that. We are not as protected from environmental impacts as we think we are.
Supply chain issues are affecting cellphones and new cars, but what happens when it hits the grocery stores? Trace it back, and you will discover that there were no apples, because the pollinators were absent. This brings it home, but by then, it will be too late.
That sounds discouraging. Are there signs of hope?
Practically speaking—and politically, since this is a global political challenge—there isn’t a lot of hope. And even if things were to change dramatically on the political front, the rise in temperatures already experienced will make events like Hurricane Ian and the Pakistan floods regular and frequent events.
On the other hand, as Christians, we’re not limited to what is practically and politically possible, are we? Our hope is in Jesus, and my belief is that as God’s people wake up and begin to respond, God will meet us more than halfway.
We believe in miracles when it comes to human disease. Why not also an environmental miracle or two?