Greening Your Church:
A transformational church helps its members and society hear a new story that defines who we are. Transformation deals with matters of identity and purpose that are deeper that behaviors and policies.
A transformational church looks for comprehensive changes in theology, worldviews and values that will lead to profound changes in individuals, communities and society. Speaking and acting in a prophetic style, current power structures and economic systems are critiqued, and a new vision is lifted up. A confessional spirituality acknowledges our participation in destructive and exploitative systems. "Voluntary simplicity" (an affirmation of "enough", and of relationships as more important than things) is affirmed. A transformational church sees a need for dramatic change in social and political structures, even as it works within those structures as a means toward a larger goal.
In a transformational church, the range and depth of issues will almost certainly go beyond what are generally considered "environmental" issues. The interconnection of issues, systems and values will be seen.
There are relatively few models for deeply transformational ministry. Churches working in this realm will be creating new programs and developing new resources. Study and witness are significant forms of action in a transformational church, when "doing" and "being" come together.
In a church working at transformational ministry|
THE CENTRAL PROBLEM TO ADDRESS: The values and worldviews of our society are deeply flawed. New visions of "the good life" and "progress" are needed which will call us toward just and sustainable ways of living.
THE PRIMARY GOALS: To see Christianity as joyously "contrary" to the dominant culture, to center the work of the church in justice and care for creation, to celebrate change toward a just and sustainable global society, and to witness boldly to the larger community.
THE PRIMARY STRATEGIES: Transformational churches lift up a prophetic and hopeful vision of a different way of living in Earth community, and stand in resistance to "business as usual". Their work for political, economic and technological change addresses the symptoms of a flawed culture.
MOOD: Hope, deep faith, confession and imagination can characterize a transformational church.
|Jump to sections on: Congregational leadership | Building issues | Church programs | Strategy | Examples | Resources|
There are lots of bullet points listed below --
You don't have to do them all, or do them all at once!
These are options to be considered and prioritized.
Clear and visionary leadership is essential in creating and sustaining a church that does transformational ministry.
- Leaders in the congregation will have deep grounding in values and theological ethics. Christianity is named as a source for values and perspectives which can call us into Earth community, sustainability and justice.
- Leadership will be shared among a variety of people.
- Leaders will be skilled in creatively "re-locating the problem", and in the tools of strategic framing which change the dominant questions. (See our short article on "The Human Problem".)
- Leaders will be mentors and travelers on a journey, more than factual experts. Sincerity and authenticity is the pursuit of transformation are as important as a strong knowledge base.
Building and administration
The church facilities are a setting where transformational values are nurtured and modeled. The values that shape decisions about the building and resource use are named often and explicitly.
- Place a strong emphasis on conservation (reducing use) as a deeper step than efficiency. Behavior change and shifted expectations are highlighted, and there is less focus on technology.
- The church will consider shared facilities with other congregations or agencies. Maximize the value of the building through intensive use of all spaces.
- Look 30 to 50 years into the future when making decisions about facilities and major investments. Be aware of the pending impact of peak oil and climate change. Think how the surrounding community may change, and shape the church facilities to serve that community (community gardens, farmers markets, neighborhood meeting space, etc.).
- Establish policies that embody new and sustainable values: pot luck meals are strictly vegetarian, exclusive use of fair trade coffee (or no coffee at all!), prohibit single-use bottled water, "earth friendly" cleaning products, substantially adjust thermostat settings for heating and cooling.
- Intentionally curtail building services that the society considers normal. Do not turn on lights during daylight hours. Do not install air conditioning in moderate climates, or do not use air conditioning except in extremely hot weather.
- If the worship space in the building is poorly insulated or inefficiently heated, consider moving to another space (fellowship hall, another facility, or small gatherings in homes) during the winter.
- Periodically question whether the church really needs a building of its own.
Worship in a transformational church will be emotionally and spiritually rich, will nurture a strong sense of the faith community, and will constantly reinforce a sense of personal and social identity which is contrary to the dominant culture.
- Rooted in the biblical principle of shalom, a passion for justice and for the health of God's creation will flow through all parts of worship. Members will be expected to carry that passion into their daily lives and into public action.
- All of our "neighbors" people around the world, future generations, and other species will be acknowledged as valuable parts of Earth community, in sermons and prayers, childrens' sermons and litanies, and in music.
- A global perspective will be reinforced through the diversity of sermon illustrations, readings and music, and in the range of issues addressed.
- Language will be used intentionally and creatively to be fully inclusive (of all creation, as well as gender, race, age, ability, etc.), and to shift perspectives about social norms and worldviews (critiquing normal uses of "progress", "abundance", "nature" or "the environment").
- When specific issues are addressed, they will be framed as expressions of deeper causes. Rather than a laundry list of disconnected problems, the church will come to see multiple issues as symptoms of a flawed way of life.
- Worship theme will reflect all three layers of transformational preaching, with a rich development of the pastoral and theological themes that inform issue actions.
- Preachers will break away from the Lectionary, at least on occasion, to use texts and themes that the Lectionary ignores. Biblical passages that affirm the integrity of creation, and the need for justice in relationships with other-than-human creatures and the land will be highlighted. Prophetic texts of judgement, challenge and confession will be recovered as words of transformational promise and hope.
- Confession and activism are mixed, indicating our complicity in the destructive systems we seek to change.
- Commitment ceremonies might be created for people who are taking transformational actions -- downsizing their home, becoming a single-car family, becoming vegetarian, or chosing not to have children.
In this deepest stage, the areas of study will often be broader than what are generally considered "environmental issues." Transformational ministry, from an eco-justice perspective, stresses the interconnection between the ecological health and human justice. It looks at the ethical values and philosophical worldviews which shape the world in which we live.
- Educational offerings will include traditional classes, as well as a variety of other settings that allow more extensive and engaging learning to take place: retreats and workshops, field trips, films and plays, community lectures and political rallies.
- Church members who are involved in social change movements and alternative communities will inform the congregation, both as mentors and with specific details.
- Mission trips and immersion events will highlight the transformational learning opportunities for trip participants, more than stressing the charitable service that is offered to others. Involvement with marginalized or impacted communities will help to nurture an awareness of those who benefit least from the status quo.
- Extensive ecological education will provide an experiential knowledge of habitats and relationships, and of the local bioregion. Humans will be seen as part of the ecology.
- Courses and discussions will go beyond what are normally considered "environmental" topics to study economics, politics, consumerism or militarism.
- Educational programs will address the cultural assumptions that are implicit in many discussions and policies -- whether growth is an unquestioned good in a limited world, what we mean by "the good life", the appropriate constraints on personal freedom, and the trust that we place in science and economics.
- Transformational churches will offer many programs dealing with aspects of voluntary simplicity and with resisting consumerism. (Note that these transformational programs which call for changed values and new identities are often much easier for congregations to implement than are "leadership" actions which involve political advocacy on controversial issues.)
- The extensive set of Eco-Curriculum Reviews maintained by Eco-Justice Ministries can help your church select faith-based resources that are appropriate in developing or reinforcing your congregation's transformational theology and interests. The JustFaith program is one of the resources we have reviewed which embodies transformational perspectives in developing faith and spirituality, in linking many issues, and in an intensive course schedule that demands full involvement.
Creative and challenging pastoral care is an essential part of transformational ministry.
- While the goal of pastoral care in many churches is the comfortable functioning of members within the society, a transformational church acknowledges discomfort and anger as appropriate. Transformational counseling names the flaws at the core of our society, gives tools for resistance and change, offers support and encouragement, and helps people claim different ways of living in Earth community. (See the Eco-Justice Notes, "Unconscionable Compliance" for a discussion of this distinction.)
- Hope as a theological virtue placing our hope in God, instead of hope as optimism about a desired outcome will be a strong theme in both pastoral care and worship.
- The church may offer rituals that address profound grief at the devastation of species, the destruction of life systems, and the loss of indigenous cultures. Grief is seen as a motivator toward action.
Advocacy and Public Issues
- Transformational churches will often be called toward public witness and resistance statements that highlight what is not right alongside of advocacy in support of specific policies.
- Advocacy related to specific issues will be seen as part of the movement toward a transformed society, rather than an immediate goal in themselves.
- Work for social change will happen in many arenas beyond legislative advocacy -- shareholder resolutions, letters to newspapers and other media outlets, blogging about issues, boycotts and protest events, civil disobedience.
- Acts of public witness will use religious symbols in their moral statements -- ringing church bells 350 times as part of the climate change movement, holding a symbolic funeral for endangered species, a Good Friday procession to stations of the cross at sites of environmental racism.
- Work in partnership with secular or religious agencies that are advocates for voluntary simplicity and other deep values changes.
The central task of a transformative church involves guiding us -- enticing us -- toward a different identity. The church tells a new story about who we are -- individually, as a community or society.
In religious terms, the church seeks conversion. In the language of science and philosophy, it is about paradigm shift.
Transformation involves more than intellectual choices. It is emotional and spiritual, as well as rational. It is a change of mind and heart, a shift of worldview and values, that in turn shapes our relationships and behaviors. Transformation takes us away from a profoundly flawed situation, and takes us toward a hopeful new reality. Transformation may not answer all of the old problems that have vexed us. Rather, we ask different questions that have more fruitful solutions.
Transformational Christian ministry joyously affirms that the Christian Gospel calls us into new relationships, new values and new purposes that work toward the healing of creation. We are re-oriented in our relationships with God, and with all of creation.
Several interlocking pieces are necessary for transformational ministry to take hold in a congregation:
- Church leaders -- the people who shape programs and who speak as representatives of the church -- must acknowledge that our current way of life is inherently flawed. We are not confronting a multitude of independent problems, each of which might have political or technical solutions. There are flaws in the very basis of how we understand ourselves, and how we live. (See our article on "The Human Problem" for an discussion of this shift.) This analysis and perspective must be an explicit, recurring and public theme.
- We are deeply attached to our current way of life, and most of us don't want to change -- personally or institutionally. We have to be brought to a realization -- in heart and soul, as well as mind -- that things are not working. The transformational church must be willing to name and confront these failures. They are evident in well-know environmental problems (climate change, species extinction, envrionmentally-induced cancers, environmental racism, etc.), in distorted spirituality, international conflicts over scarce resources (including oil and water), and the suicidal economic demand for perpetual growth on a limited planet. These must be addressed with reference to the best of serious scholarship, and with intensely personal experiences. These are personal and pastoral issues, as well as matters of justice and public policy.
- Churches in the more affluent and powerful societies must guide their members into confession, where we admit our complicity in the systems that cause injustice and ecological disruption. While our work must include activism that seeks change "out there" in policies and systems, we must also deal with the need for change in our own identities and behaviors.
- In theology and spirituality, the church has to affirm the good news that another way is possible. The way we are living is not the only way there is. The church must stimulate "prophetic imagination" (as described by Walter Brueggemann, see below). The church must affirm that transformation is not only possible, it is desirable and faithful. ("Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God -- what is good and acceptable and perfect." Romans 12)
- Christian churches must connect the good news of transformation with the essential good news of the Gospel. Transformation is not on the fringe of what it means to be Christian. We are dealing with matters of sin, evil and redemption. We are calling people toward the realm of God, and God's shalom. We are affirming the fullness of abundant life (as opposed to affluent life). In this time when humans are alienated from the rest of creation and from one another, we are embodying the good news that "God was in Christ, reconciling the world."
- Transformative churches must provide a compelling glipse of what the transformed society looks like. Programs on voluntary simplicity demonstrate that living more gently on the planet also enhances our relationships and reduces stress. Teaching youth and adults how to resist consumerism allows us to claim more control over our lives, and to discover gratitude. Immersion experiences can allow people to discover joy and fulfillment in different cultural settings, or in healthy ecological relationships.
- Transformational churches will use some of the strategies of "leadership and action" to address the symptoms of a failed worldview. The church will engage in advocacy on immediate issues -- to reduce climate change impacts, to develop renewable energy, to reduce pollution, to preserve ecological health. In its own facilities and programs, the church will attempt to embody its values and ideals.
- Some of the public witness of a transformative church will take the form of resistance, instead of advocacy. It is important to say "this is not right" to the dominant culture. It is valid and helpful to announce that "it does not have to be this way", even if there is not a clear alternative. Active resistance, a refusal to participate in destruction or exploitation, may involve civil disobedience.
Transformational ministry is most often seen as one element of a church's program or identity. Unfortunately, it is rare to see a Christian church that fully embodies a transformational perspective and style. (Please let us know about comprehensive examples -- we'd love to highlight them!)
- Any church that offers programs on voluntary simplicity or resisting consumerism is providing some transformational ministry.
- Churches that use the JustFaith curriculum are highlighting a transformational approach to spiritual development and education.
- Churches that have participated in the 350.org climate change movement have acknowledged that humans must live within the constraints of natural systems (especially 350 parts per million of CO2 as the highest safe level). Humans exist within nature -- not outside it or above it! This movement is structured as an act of moral witness; its calls for action are far more demanding than any legislative option, certainly in the United States.
- Opening the Letter: A Congregational Guide to God's Earth Is Sacred is a curriculum resource from the National Council of Churches that develops a call for transformational ministry. The source document, God's Earth is Sacred: An Open Letter to Church and Society in the United States, was drafted and signed by leading theologians and activists. It states, "We believe that caring for creation must undergird, and be entwined with, all other dimensions of our churches' ministries. We are convinced that it is no longer acceptable to claim to be 'church' while continuing to perpetuate, or even permit, the abuse of Earth as God's creation."
- The immersion trips offered by our friends of New Community Project are transformational, both in their prophetic content, and in the dramatic impact that the trips have on the participants.
- The United Church of Christ congregation in Bath, Maine, has developed detailed plans for making their facility carbon-neutral, which includes arrangement to stop using the sanctuary during winter months. "Prepare partners and neighbors who use the building, principally Food Bank, Recovery Groups, and faith community partners, for cooler temperatures in the building during winter season. Work with Worship Team to train Chaplains for Home Worship 3 Sundays per month, December April. (Concept: 20 Home Worship services 3 Sundays per month, Worship with Communion at the church 1 Sunday per month.)"
- The Church of the Crossroads, in Honolulu, Hawaii, has a long-standing reputation as a transformational community providing dramatic witness and leadership on many issues. Their vision statement includes these statement: "Church of the Crossroads, a community of faith rooted in the life, faith, and ministry of Jesus the Christ and centered in personal and social transformation, is committed to embody the three-fold missional activity of God: 1) the mission of nurture; 2) the mission of service; and 3) the mission of peace with justice, and the stewardship of the earth. ... Transformation is the linking paradigm. For example, we understand that the mission of nurture is linked to the mission of service and the mission of peace with justice and the stewardship of the earth. "
- Flagstaff Federated Community Church, in Flagstaff, Arizona, has an active "Christians for the Earth" team that has organized programs on voluntary simplicity and ecological education. They started the Shared Earth Network, "a faith-based citywide network for environmental advocacy in Flagstaff. We aim toward goals and projects that are transformational, dealing with the moral and spiritual issues of living within limits."
- Washington Park United Church of Christ -- the congregation in Denver, Colorado, that donates office space for Eco-Justice Ministries -- defines itself through four faith-based statements of identity, including a Whole Earth declaration with an ecological perspective. Every worship service begins with a naming of the four stances by members of the congregation. The church uses arts to reinforce the stances, with posters lining hallways and the fellowship hall; the base of the communion table is a tree branch with nesting birds. Acts of public witness and resistance include an annual Good Friday Vigil Against Gun Violence.
- An absolute classic in transformational biblical studies is the book by Walter Brueggemann, Prophetic Imagination. He writes biblically and strategically about the need for prophets to help us believe that another way of living in relationship with God and community is even imaginable.
- The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has a fairly extensive set of resources on Congregational Transformation. Their definitions say that "Transformation is the intentional spiritual journey that a congregation undertakes systemically in order to realize what God has called it to be as church and to do in mission in todays world." While their materials do not deal with larger questions of social transformation, they are valuable to churches who desire to be more transfromational in their range of ministries.
- As mentioned above, Opening the Letter: A Congregational Guide to God's Earth Is Sacred is a curriculum resource from the National Council of Churches that develops a wholistic call for transformational ministry.
- Alternatives for Simple Living -- "equipping people of faith to challenge consumerism, live justly and create meaningful celebrations" -- has excellent resources to help congregations critique our consumer culture, and affirm other options.
- The Worldwatch Institue has a blog on the theme of Transforming Cultures: From Consumerism to Sustainability with insightful posts by our friend, Erik Assadourian.
- Also from Worldwatch, Gary Gardener's book, Inspiring Progress: Religions' Contributions to Sustainable Development brings a global, inter-religious perspective to the transformative work of faith communities.
- The Transition Movement -- originally in Great Britian, now worldwide -- "is comprised of vibrant, grassroots community initiatives that seek to build community resilience in the face of such challenges as peak oil, climate change and the economic crisis." The website for the United States branch of the movement has lots of information and resources. Some church groups are finding participation in Transition programs to be hopeful.
- Redefining Progress is the group that first developed the Environmental Footprint quiz, and they have researched the Genuine Progress Indicator as an economic measurement that is more helpful than the Gross Domestic Product.
- The Northwest Earth Institute produces highly respected study guides that will draw a discussion group into transformational perspectives and action. Topics include: Voluntary Simplicity, Globalization and Its Critics, Discovering a Sense of Place, and Reconnecting with Earth.
- David Korten's book, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community, highlights the need for a profoundly different story to guide our culture. Many church groups have used the book for group study -- although its treatment of Christianity is harsh and not very nuanced.
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Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
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