Earthly Discipleship: What’s missing from Christian discipleship and needs to be recovered

Modern-day Christian discipleship is missing something central.

“Yeah, yeah,” I can hear you say. This comes as no surprise. I’m sure you could point out a lot of things that are missing. Perhaps we just don’t pray enough, haven’t learned how to read more critically, don’t care enough for others, aren’t serious about our faith, don’t this, don’t that, blah, blah, blah, and so on. But what if an entire category, a whole realm of discipleship, were missing, altogether? What then?

Because I think there is, and I think it’s earth care. To be a disciple of Jesus, we must care for God’s earth. If we don’t, our discipleship is missing something crucial, right alongside prayer or evangelism or worship or care for our neighbour.

Mother Hen and Chicks
A mother hen has tremendous instincts to lead and feed her chicks. It’s amazing to watch!

God created his human images to care for his good earth. In Genesis one, after a stunning creation start-up, God blesses his human images to “fill and govern” the whole earth, with special attention toward living creatures of sea, air and land; in chapter two, having placed the first man in a more localized garden, the Lord God tells him to “tend and watch over it.” These stories relay creation from different angles, yet both represent a basic, human calling: to be God’s images on God’s earth, expressing his ownership by helping the earth achieve its God-ordained potentiality. We were made to make God’s good creation greater. 

And yet, for some reason, caring for God’s earth isn’t even mentioned in most discussions of Christian discipleship. Many Christians, including pastors, don’t even bring in creation care when they are talking about stewardship, which I find mind-boggling. Why is this? I’m not sure but let me take a few guesses.

  • Maybe it comes from our cultural move away from an agrarian lifestyle into an industrial and now post-industrial world. We’ve become more and more disconnected from the earth, and it’s showing in our neglect.
  • It could be that our disregard of creation is the natural byproduct of a kind of spirit/matter dichotomy that has haunted Christian thinking for centuries. Matter = bad, Spirit = good, or so we’ve Platonized.
  • I suspect some Christians have bought an “end times” theology that’s led them to think this earth just doesn’t matter anymore. It’s all gonna burn anyway, so why care?
  • I’m suspicious that, for some, earth care has been slighted because of its association with an environmental movement that has often been, if not explicitly anti-christian, then certainly critical toward Christianity.
  • And it could be that caring for the earth, or even admitting we should, will impact our lifestyle so much that we shy away from it, simply due to its financial implications. Like the Southern plantation owner of the 1830’s unwilling to consider humans as equals because it was bad for business, we are unwilling to care for creation because it might be bad for business, too.
Mother Goose on nest
A mother goose protecting her brood, down on Hwy 21 in Creston.

Whatever the reasons might be, the excuses are wearing thin.  If we really do believe the “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,” then surely we must care for what he has made? And if God made us in his image for the purpose of caring for this world (a mandate God never rescinded), then how can we talk about following Jesus without some sort of concern for the world he is reconciling? If God’s promise of resurrection and recreation reveals his commitment to the world, then how can we ignore it any longer?

We can’t follow Jesus and then ignore his world, for it is “through him [Jesus] God created everything
    in the heavenly realms and on earth.
He made the things we can see
    and the things we can’t see—
such as thrones, kingdoms, rulers, and authorities in the unseen world.
    Everything was created through him and for him.
He existed before anything else,
    and he holds all creation together.”  (Colossians 1:16-17 NLT)

We follow the Jesus who holds all creation together. Therefore, we must recover earth care as essential to our discipleship.

Don’t get me wrong. Many Christians are starting to embrace our calling to care for God’s earth. I am myself barely waking up to it. Terrific organizations, such as A Rocha Canada, are leading us in good directions. But as a whole, we still have far to go. Earth care is seen as the province of a few “green” Christians who live in certain (hippy) places, viewed as fad by many others.  Let me just say: If earth care seems faddish to us, it’s because we’ve so utterly misplaced our basic calling that what should be normal now looks foreign. Earth care isn’t faddish–it’s foundational.

God has made us in his image to express his caring ownership of this world. As Jesus followers, being recreated into his image, we are given the mandate to continue expressing God’s caring ownership of this world, showing his love in the ways we care for all who live on God’s good earth, be they people, animals, birds or fish.

We’ve got to recover earth care as a vital expression of our Christian discipleship. And we’ve got to do it now.

How have you seen earth care included or ignored in Christian discipleship?

Why do you think Christians have resisted caring for the earth as an expression of their faith?




6 thoughts on “Earthly Discipleship: What’s missing from Christian discipleship and needs to be recovered”

  1. This is a great and important post Tom – Thanks. Our pastor once said something that rang true on this issue. He said that since the Kingdom of God is already present (ie. at hand) that any effort we make that lines up with His Kingdom will be taken forward into the “Kingdom to Come” when it is fully realized. Thinking about God’s Kingdom, how we view the future of this planet and where we will spend eternity gave me great energy to care for all of God’s creation right now. The gospel is Good News right now for all parts of creation. God is interested in the redemption of everything and we can be part of that right now. This is really so exciting. Thanks again.

    1. That’s such a great way of looking at it. We live God’s future in the present – the kingdom breaking in. Love it. Thanks, Murray.

  2. Great article Tom. I think there is also an element of guilt, I mean sure we are to be daily recreated and absolution is part of our daily walk with Christ, but I think taking on caring for God’s creation (like some justice issues) means confronting some serious systemic sins that are really hard to stop committing without radical change. You have to accept you have been committing them over time as well. That can be hard. It is worth it though, I think we really miss out on God’s grace, the beauty and majesty of who he is if we don’t work to heal creation. I think it also helps people figure out what next, I mean, you get to that point where you are saved, and maybe you can focus on personal holiness while to wait for Christ’s return, but that can get a bit old for folks (at least that and only that), in part because it is missing this other relationship that is restored in salvation. I think it can also get people excited for Jesus return and the reconciling of all things to God, we get to keep on in that roll of caring for creation, but everything works well (which beats now with toil and uncertainty, and frankly I am more excited about an eternity with God in His creation instead of say just singing, I am not that into singing).

    1. Thanks, Jerremie. I think we need to just take it one step forward at a time, letting the Spirit lead us. Sometimes that will include repentance, but even that will be experienced as a joy.

    1. Yes, that’s a pretty broad term. I use it to refer to the various ways we relate to God’s earth with respect and care for its flourishing. That doesn’t mean we don’t use or manage or consume resources, but we practice and act with a sense of our responsibility to both the earth and to God. I think earth care expressed itself in a lot of different ways depending on place, person, gifts, experience, interests, etc. My hope is that by taking our responsibility more seriously, we’ll have the creativity and grace to figure out what it’ll look like for each of us.

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