Teach to the appropriate level
It may go without saying, but be sure that the content and the approach of your teaching are matched well with your expected students. The third grade kids may not be ready for a series on the economics of globalization, and an adult seminar may not respond well to a session on "God made the trees and the birds."
At any age, though, from toddlers through the senior citizens, there are important and faithful lessons about the environment and justice that can, and should, be presented.
Take the time and energy to understand the students. Get a feel for what they already know, for the issues and the problems that they face, for their questions and their convictions.
Don't assume that the designated age level is right for your class. Be willing to use a middle school curriculum for adults who are first coming to grips with some part of eco-justice. Dare to use a lesson plan designed for adults with a set of bright and committed kids.
Evaluate all your curriculum
The fact that somebody printed a curriculum does not mean that it is good. It certainly does not mean that it will do a good job of addressing matters of eco-justice. Before buying curriculum materials (even from your own denomination), evaluate it -- use our curriculum reviews for explicitly environmental materials! -- to see if it teaches what is important to your church. Before teaching from a curriculum, look carefully to see if there are sections that you need to modify or avoid, or if there is content that you will need to add.
In evaluating the content of a curriculum -- whether "environmental" or not -- consider some of the following areas.
As you do this evaluation, it is relatively easy to address the pieces that are explicitly named. If the lesson plan has a section on "a Christian approach to the environment" you can decide if you like what it says. It is harder, but still very important, to evaluate what is hidden or missing. What message is given if a year-long curriculum never talks about nature, or about the power wielded by corporations and governments? What does it mean if the authors assume - but never mention - that the lifestyle of affluent Americans should be the norm for all people?
- How do the materials make use the Bible? What is the interpretive style? What texts are included, and which sorts of texts are left out?
- How is "nature" presented? Is it something that is separate from humanity, is the relationship between humans and nature discussed, or are humans seen as part of nature? Is nature seen as beautiful and benevolent, violent and uncaring, fragile or durable? Is the non-human world invisible in the curriculum?
- What does the curriculum say about humanity's place and purpose in creation? Is humanity seen as part of creation (nature), or as standing outside and above nature?
- What feel do you get in reading through the curriculum about the author's preferred notions of progress and growth, authority and power, justice, diversity, wealth and poverty, or stewardship?
- Does the curriculum deal with any current issues in church and society? Or is the life of faith presented as detached from political, economic, environmental and social issues?
- What voices and perspectives are heard through the curriculum? Are thoughts and stories presented from around the world, from the poor, from people with a variety of experiences?
Look for ways of addressing eco-justice through different types of education
In a church setting, there is a different sort of range in the types of education than one would find in other settings. Each of those types of education has appropriate ways of raising and affirming eco-justice themes. (These notes are geared toward adult education; similar classes could be done at other grade levels.)
- Bible study - Many congregations have occasional or ongoing classes that are devoted to study of the Bible. There are rich possibilities for doing studies on words used throughout the Bible (shalom, justice, dominion), or on biblical themes (God and nature, poverty and wealth). In a class working through a book chapter by chapter, a teacher open to eco-justice will see meanings and references in many places that should be explained and emphasized.
- Theological study - Some congregations have classes that deal with theological and philosophical topics. There are thousands of books from many different perspectives that can be used as the basis of such a class. It could be fruitful for a group to compare two very different approaches to eco-justice (for example, the creation spirituality of Matthew Fox and the liberation theology of Leonardo Boff).
- Personal growth - Classes are often offered on topics like marriage and family, parenting, spirituality and prayer. If these classes fail to touch on matters of the environment and justice, they are not covering their material well! In the modern western world, our personal lives are intertwined with the institutions and the environment that surround us. Family finances, issues that arise in careers and the workplace, the pervasive influences of advertising and media, the health impacts of chemicals, individualism and materialism -- all of these must be considered in the church as we help people make sense of their lives.
- Issue work - Lots of churches have classes that look at "current events" and contemporary issues. This is, of course, the easiest way to have folk connect their church and their faith with what is going on in the world. The challenge with this sort of class is often to include intentional theological and ethical content. There are also potential problems in two kinds of superficiality (addressed in the next two "tips").
Go for depth
Especially at the adult education level, many churches have a class that looks at a variety of contemporary issues. Frequently, these classes will spend a week or two on one issue, and then move to a very different topic. This allows the class to be interesting to a wide range of people, but may be a fairly ineffective way of bringing people into new understandings and commitments.
Spending more time on an issue allows people to go into more intellectual and personal depth. Evaluate your seminars to see how deeply you expect students to go:
Education that is effective in changing both individual lives and the broader world will frequently get to the depth of compassion and commitment.
- Informed - aware that there is an issue, and knowing something about what is involved.
- Concerned - feeling that the issue is important in some way, a "that's too bad" response.
- Compassionate - a feeling of personal caring about those involved in the issue, with some degree of personal involvement, an "I want to help" response.
- Committed - a deep sense of wanting to be involved and to make a difference, a decision to find a way to do something.
Lead to action and involvement
In addition to information, knowledge and belief, the educational ministries of the church should always help people to act on their convictions. A well-rounded educational program will include information about ways to live out the principles and values that are taught. In the area of eco-justice, part of that education will include informing students about the agencies, programs and opportunities that are available in the local area which are effective and reflect the same values. Students should be encouraged toward both personal behavior and community involvement, including political involvement.
Teacher training and support
If you want your educational program to strengthen students in their eco-justice understanding and commitments, be sure that all members of your educational team are prepared to support that goal. Provide training opportunities for teachers about the meaning of eco-justice, and how it should be a part of the curriculum. Encourage the teachers with thanks, affirmation and nudges to keep working at the theme. Help them to find the teaching tools that they need to carry through on this important work.
Work beyond the curriculum
The printed curriculum or lesson plan is only part of the educational experience in a classroom. Students learn from everything that happens in and around a class. Encourage teachers and the rest of the educational team to look at:
- Prayers - when members of the class pray together, try to direct thanks and petitions beyond the personal and the local. Let the prayers touch on God's saving and sustaining love for all of creation.
- Artwork - the pictures and posters on the classroom wall communicate a strong message. They should reveal the diversity of God's creation, with people of many different races and settings, and with the non-human parts of God's creation. The artwork should inspire students toward stewardship and sustainability.
- Modeling of behavior and beliefs - what is said and done in the class should mesh with the lesson that is being taught. Using the blank back side of printed paper for artwork, or "recycling" junk into crafts projects models good stewardship. A teacher who talks about his or her family's efforts at "simple living" communicates how values make a difference in everyday life.
- Snacks - the food served can also communicate about values and commitments. Rather than high-sugar, high-fat, mass-marketed junk-food, snacks can be healthy and gentle for the earth. Use fruit drinks, fresh fruits and vegetables (locally grown, and in season), home made quick breads, or cheese.
Get to the institutional and systemic themes
It is helpful and important for classes to look at current issues, at the policies and decisions that make the news. But it is also important to look at the larger questions of how institutions and systems work in today's world. Take some time to study the whole movement toward globalization that is shaping international law and treaties. Investigate the big idea of ecology, and how all living things interact. Without some understanding of these "big picture" perspectives and trends, the questions and options related to specific issues will not be clear.
Go beyond classroom settings (part 1)
The educational ministries of the church take place in Sunday School classrooms and Bible study groups, of course, but we do education in many other settings as well. As you consider how to do education toward eco-justice in your church, consider how teaching and learning can happen in:
- sermons and worship
- bulletins and newsletters
- stewardship campaign
- youth group and fellowship events
- choir practice
- plays and musicals
- committee meetings
Go beyond classroom settings (part 2)
The core education program of the church (the one that the Christian Ed Committee takes responsibility for) can break out of the classroom setting, too. Vacation Bible School is not the only time to do something big and special! Some other special events for education can be:
- A weekend or week-long retreat
- Experiential education that gets participants directly in touch with the subject (a trip to a local conservation center, or a "toxic tour" that visits a neighborhood heavily impacted by wastes and pollution)
Tie into current events
The educational idea of "teachable moments" reminds us that it is easier for people to learn new things when they already have questions about the topic. When news headlines and events in popular culture raise an important point, use the interest that is generated to build on the eco-justice theme. In addition to dealing with news events in sermons, classes and newsletters, some other occasions that might present teachable moments include discussion groups based on popular books and movies, candidate's forums before an election, and times of life transitions (birth, confirmation/baptism, graduation, marriage, moving to a new community, retirement, death).
Eco-Justice Ministries * 400 S Williams St, Denver, CO 80209 * 303.715.3873
Home Page: www.eco-justice.org *