Green the Congregation through Education
It is absolutely crucial that education becomes an integral component in our efforts to become communities that care for creation. We cannot assume that people discern the urgent nature of the ecological issues. We cannot take for granted that they understand the dynamics of global warming or the deterioration of the ozone layer or the loss of biological species. We cannot assume that people will see how some biblical interpretations and some theological points of view have in fact been contributing to the mentality that degrades the Earth. Nor can we expect that most of us to be aware of the ways in which our own actions, choices, and lifestyles have an impact upon the well-being of creation. Learning about these things is essential to becoming part of the movement in the church to care for the earth. We must learn how these things work, why they are important, how we need to think, what we need to do, and how we need to do it.
The Power of Education
We underestimate the power of education if we think it cannot transform us. Remember some words you heard about life that you will never forget or an insight that has shaped so many of your subsequent attitudes and decisions in life. Just think about pieces of information you have gotten at one time or another that completely changed your mind about something and enabled you to see things in a new way. Or recall how the learning of some skill or method opened up many possibilities for your life. Or ask yourself how certain life experiences have “taught” you the capacity to cry or to wonder. Think of the story you heard or the novel you read or the magazine article that has led you to take a course of action or to take up some cause or concern in life. Try to take in the accumulative impact of teachers and Sunday schools programs that cared about you and taught you basic things about life that inform the way you live today.
Add to this the influence of Jesus in his role as teacher—offering such unforgettable sayings and such memorable proverbs, telling parabolic stories that led people to think in entirely new ways, and offering insights with life-changing reflections on morality and our relationship with God. Jesus fulfilled the role of a sage—sharing unconventional wisdom that challenged the core values and the common ways of his audiences. Jesus’ words were actions that produced results. They were events that opened up new worlds for those who had ears to hear. Jesus the teacher has been the model for so many Christian teachers to follow and so many of the educational programs of the church—as means to create and train faithful disciples.
Learning as Transformation.
How can learning about the environment transform us? I know many people who have been forever changed because of some insight that led them to see, in an instant, a whole new sense of relationship with the rest of nature and a sense of responsibility toward it. Many people can identify the words they heard or the life experience they had that turned them into someone who cares for creation. For some, it was learning about the extent of the effects that human activity is having on the planet. At first, they may become overwhelmed by this information, but then they begin to see what we humans have to do now to change this human activity. Others are transformed by a re-reading of the Bible in a way that awakens their awareness of God’s love for creation and our responsibility to care for this garden Earth. Still others are horrified by the human injustices that are inextricably interwoven with our exploitation of earth and its resources.
As a result of learning, people are led to profound repentance, a turning around, an abandonment of attitudes and actions that are cavalier toward nature, and an embracing of actions that tread lightly on the Earth. Through an awareness of political decisions that erode our clean air or clean water, people are led to a stance of advocacy. A report of what is being done to address certain ecological problems leads to hope. Learning what difference our collective actions can make leads to a renewed sense of Christian vocation as we develop spiritual practices in our daily lives. In all of this, it becomes clear that education can transform us, and it can empower us for action.
Part of the reason why we are not always transformed by learning is the simple fact that we do not expect to be changed. We think of education as adding on facts and information rather than learning ideas that will change our minds. We think of education as someone else’s opinion, which we listen to as we think of rebuttals for our own point of view, rather than expecting to be altered by someone else’s real life experience. Or we think of education as passive activity in which a teacher pours facts into our heads, rather than the acquisition of insights that will subvert our present stance and that will generate new interests and activities. If we come to education with an open and a ready mind, expecting to be changed by what we learn, we will probably experience some of the transformation that learning promises to bring—transformation that the Christian tradition promises to bring us!
Teachers of Transformation.
If we are to pursue education on the care of creation, we need teachers who have the commitment and the resources to educate for transformation. These will be people who are themselves open to change in the very course of preparing to teach others! By a variety of means—lecture, discussion, stories, hands-on experiences with nature, inspirational anecdotes, proverbs and famous quotations, the creation of life experiences, and so on—teachers can change minds, strengthen convictions, evoke feelings of attachment to nature, enable people to be aware of things they never thought about before, awaken an experience of awe and reverence, empower for action, and foster a sense of solidarity with others who care for creation. It helps to be clear about the results you want to achieve: attitudes beliefs, values, actions, passion, and advocacy. In this way, we can seek to teach in a way that will provide the best chance to enhance our Christian discipleship. The possibilities are endless, limited only by our capacity to see them. If we do not underestimate the possibilities for Christian education but open ourselves to all that can happen as a result of learning, we can then quicken our imagination to think of new ways to teach and learn.
What do we need to learn about? There are many possibilities here. Do not plan to engage in all the possible learning activities that you may think of, at least not all at once! Rather, take the opportunity to use your ideas at the place of the greatest interest or the most need for learning or the place you think will have the best impact. The subjects are many, and there are resources available for all of them:
● The principles of ecology and how to think environmentally
● The state of creation at a local, regional, national or global level
● What is being done to address the problems at these various levels
● The connections between ecological degradations and human (in)justice
● The biblical, theological, and spiritual foundations for care of the earth
● The place of humans in creation and our vocation to care for it
● The actions that we can take and the practices we can adopt to care for the earth
● First-hand experience with the wonders of nature
● First hand experience of the human threats posed against nature
In developing these possibilities, you may want to include elements of “action and reflection” in what you do. Explain to people at the start that you want them to be open to change and action. Then, after the learning experience, ask how they may have changed their ideas or attitudes or beliefs or values as a result of the learning. Ask also what they may be led to do as a result of what they have learned. Then, at a later time, ask the same people to reflect on what difference their new attitudes and new behaviors have made on them and others and the world around them.
Methods of teaching/learning.
There are many approaches to style and method of teaching. We tend to think of lecture as the main means to present ideas. Here the expectation is that the lecturer knows and the listeners are learning. But there are many ways to de-center the teacher and engage everyone as learners. What about quotation/reactions, in which the leader provides some provocative passages from important books and authors and then invites the group to discuss their responses to them? What about asking participants to take different sides of a debate about the environment, for example, in a conflict between species-preservation and job-preservation? Or consider a book-talk, in which all participants read the same book and take turns leading the discussion. You could assign a different biblical passage to each participant and ask them to come to the next meeting prepared to share their reflections on it. Guests speakers or a panel of folks can be stimulating. Or ask a guest to do a demonstration, such as how to compost food scraps. Showing slides with time for reactions—say of the effects of global warming or a catalogue of endangered species—can be very illuminating. Each of these might take some preparation and planning, but they open up the means of learning to include/engage the whole class and at the same time give everyone responsibility for their own learning. Even though some methods may already be familiar to people, if they are pursued in a new way with the expectation of change and transformation and action, they will be a fresh means to learn and grow. Be imaginative!
Education for all ages.
It is important to think about a curriculum for all ages—from the youngest to the eldest and all together. Intergenerational experiences can be very important, in which the wonder of childhood can be brought together with the wisdom of age. After all, the whole point of our caring for creation is for us to leave this planet for the next generation at least as healthy as previous generations entered it. It is so important to teach the children—in Sunday school, at worship, in vacation church school experiences, and at home. Often, it is the youth who bring their parents to awareness and to a change of behavior. We can build on the experiences children are having in their school ecology programs. There are many hands-on programs for the youth of the congregation, programs that make a significant environmental difference for the church or the community. Summer youth programs and support for youth to go to church camps can also be a means to generate “earthkeepers.” Adult programs of education can take many form—forums, classes, book studies, filed trips, retreats, workshops, and so on. Incorporating creation-care into the programs and opportunities for the elderly are so crucial for drawing upon the advice and energy of retired folks in this crucial work.
Collaborative teaching and learning.
It is always helpful to have partners in teaching and learning. Consider several people teaching a class together. The impact of the learning on others will be greater. The learning with be enhanced by the mutual relationships. And the message is given that no one of us has all the answers. Only together can we gather the wisdom necessary for the environmental tasks before us. Or consider cooperative learning projects. Could we not ask two or three people in a class to investigate something together—local pollution, a nearby agency that restores habitats, the benefits of getting rid of Styrofoam, the trees that could be planted on the church property, or other such matters of interest to the work of the congregation—and report back the next class time. Any time we engage people in the learning process, people take responsibility in a new way for what they have learned and for what they need to do about what they have learned. Collaborative teaching and learning is effective teaching and learning.
Many opportunities that arise can serve as “teaching moments.” Look out for them. They may be related to actions and decisions of the congregation: time to purchase coffee for the coffee hour, approval of the budget, the appointment of a new worship committee chairperson, the need to repaint several rooms, or spring clean-up. All these moments represent opportunities to make changes in purchases and practices—along with the opportunity to learn why it may be important to do things a different way. Some of the teaching moments may come from outside the congregation: the latest news about global warming, some legislation on the docket related to protection of species, a new book on ecological theology, a statement on care for creation from a national church, a local news item on environmental injustice, or an article in a popular magazine. Any of these can provide educational opportunities about care for the Earth before the congregation—in forums, classes, newsletters, prayers, and conversations. Education is not always prescribed by a curriculum. Sometimes, the best learning takes place in those opportune times when the situation is ripe for learning.
Hands-on experiences can be invaluable. Education is not just ideas and mental learning. It is also a matter of experience. One approach is to see for oneself the ecological devastation human beings are doing to nature. Members can arrange a field trip to local habitats such as polluted streams, lost prairies, industrial waste sites, non-regulated factories, and places of logging and strip mining. You can talk with people in neighborhoods with high cancer rates or a high percentage of lung ailments. You can see the effects of urban sprawl. At the same time, it can be a wonderful experience to visit projects of habitat restoration, community organizations that challenge our current lifestyle, or a tour of businesses that have “greened” their practices.
Furthermore, many doctors and therapists now believe that a personal relationship with nature is an important part of health and well-being. More and more people are being restored to health or discovering a balanced life or maintaining wellness in their life by communing with nature. Such a relationship cannot be a substitute for a relationship with God, but it can enhance a relationship with God and be a vehicle through which one experiences God. Ask any group of ten people, and most if not all will be able to relate a special experience in nature when they felt close to God. Such direct experiences with creation—both its wonders and its problems—can also increase our sense of solidarity with creation, our responsibility for creation, and our willingness to advocate to protect it.
Sometimes, the efforts suggested above can seem scattershot, doing one thing here and another thing there. What might give the educational program some coherence and increase its impact would be to organize these programs in such a way as to foster a sense of discipleship among members. A sequence of educational opportunities would give a sense of growing understanding and commitment among members. Another strategy might be to invite people to join a small group with a commitment to care for creation in an intentional and comprehensive way—and to learn the information, skills, and actions that would enable them to do this. It may be that a group of people would be willing to go through a year-long training process in which together they learn about the environmental state of the world, ecological justice, biblical roots of care for creation, theological concepts, a spirituality of place, and practical choices at home and work. Perhaps those who have gone through such a program might then become leaders of further groups in the congregation, so as to develop a network of earth-keepers across the congregation.
The idea of all these efforts is to incorporate care for creation into the educational programs of the church so thoroughly that is becomes part of the ethos of the life of the congregation. In a sense, the entire life and activities of a congregation can be a source of education for environmental responsibility. The appearance of the church as a place that obviously cares for creation can itself be educational. Furthermore, all occasions can be an opportunity to educate: the use of personal mugs rather than Styrofoam cups at meetings; the nature of the food and its preparation for communal meals; the practice of recycling bulletins at services; the choice of cleaning materials for church clean-up days; plans for building projects; and so on. In this way, the building/grounds and the activities themselves become a learning laboratory for ecological responsibility. In the end, the atmosphere of the life of the congregation becomes one in which people naturally assume attitudes and take responsibility for celebrating creation and caring for it.