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17.06.2024

Jesus Died to Save the Planet: Next steps for church leaders

In the essay Jesus Died to Save the Planet, we saw that the flourishing of the earth is as central to the purposes of God as the redemption of people, and that we are called to align with his mission in our everyday working, resting, and playing; speak up for and stand with our neighbour and the earth; and announce the news that Jesus is King.

These require real and perhaps quite deep changes to how we live. And the church has a crucial role to play. But rather than a long to-do list, the essay suggests three strategic steps church leaders can take:

  1. Check and, if necessary, change our church’s purpose statement
  2. Appoint champions
  3. Amend how we speak about the gospel

Let’s explore each of those steps in a bit more detail. And if you’d like to talk to someone about how to take this further, get in touch!

 

1.  Aligning with God’s purpose 

Like most businesses, charities and civil society groups, many church communities have a statement of purpose, sometimes called a mission or vision statement. It’s the statement that captures who we are and what we’re here for. For some it’s a simple strapline, for others a fuller statement, and for still others it’s unwritten. The key question is: how far does your church’s statement of purpose align with God’s purpose?

The purpose of God

God’s purpose is to make peace with and renew all things, and that purpose is accomplished by the work of Jesus Christ on the cross and in his resurrection. God is working towards his goal of a prospering humanity and a flourishing earth. This decisively is accomplished in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. His good servant rule has begun.

God’s purpose for his people

By his Spirit, we are being made new and are empowered to participate in his plan for the renewal of all things. We are being made more fully human, and we are to live lives aligned with his purpose. Lives that make peace with, align with, and anticipate the final renewal of all things. This isn’t only about the flourishing of the earth. It’s also about justice and reconciliation and bringing peace.

Your statement of purpose

You might be confident that your purpose statement echoes that big, holistic purpose; or you may feel you need to make some changes. If that’s you, here are some questions to help you think through your church’s purpose statement:

  • How centred is it on Jesus?
  • How closely does it align with God’s purpose?
  • What does it say about who we are?
  • What does it say about what we’re here for?
  • How does it encapsulate following Jesus in all of life?

Setting a purpose statement can be challenging. Why not get together a group of elders, church council members, or others in your leadership team to think it through? At our church, we used the Grow Course to help us work through this.

You might also want to consider setting aside a few weeks for a focused teaching programme to unpack the meaning of your purpose statement. At our church, we called it a ‘course correction’, spending a couple of months setting a wider vision for what it means to follow Jesus. The aim is that the flourishing of the earth and the healing of the places and relationships we’re in becomes part of the way we speak about the news that Jesus is King. More about that in step 3 below!

 

2. Appointing champions 

Setting a purpose statement aligned with God’s mission in the world is a hugely important step. Following through on it into our priorities – and the staffing that reflects them – is arguably just as important. There’ll be quite a lot to think through, affecting most areas of the life of our community. And for most of us, that could mean significant changes.

An analogy from business

At the electricity generation company I used to work for, we appointed an Environment, Social and Governance Director. It was their job to make sure the whole organisation was working for the flourishing of the communities in which we worked and the living world around us. It wasn’t their job to do all of the things that needed to be done – that would be impossible! – but rather to make sure everyone was doing their work in a way that lined up with our priorities for communities and biodiversity.

Making appointments

In just the same way, you may want to consider appointing a ‘whole-life discipleship champion’ – not to do all the work, but to empower, equip, and hold to account the whole community, making sure we’re living and working for the flourishing of the earth and the good of our neighbour in all we do. The role might be paid or unpaid, and it might be someone new or one of the existing members of the team. But having someone to take the lead on this can make a real difference.

Overall, this person will be one you go to for advice on how we make the flourishing of the earth an integral part of our response to news that Jesus is King. To get practical, responsibilities for this role could include some or all of the following:

  • Becoming knowledgeable and remaining up to date on climate and ecological breakdown
  • Providing clear guidance on the most effective actions we can take in response
  • Identifying how we can put this into practice our daily working, resting, and playing lives
  • Participating in the weekly review of Sunday’s gathering and the coming week’s priorities
  • Leading an annual review of our fruitfulness as a community
Whole-life discipleship

As you begin to work this through, you’ll probably find that where we as a community make the most difference is in our daily lives, scattered to our places of work and home. For example, it may be that we can improve how we heat our church buildings. But the bigger change will be in how we heat our homes, workplaces, and public spaces – or how we travel or what we eat. The God who died and rose to reconcile and renew all things takes joy in our whole lives lived in line with his purposes.

 

3. Adjusting how we speak about the gospel

This is arguably the most important of the three steps. We all have a ‘go to’ mental map of the gospel. No matter what the sermon topic or the Bible passage says, it’s what we come back to week by week as the key message. Everything else fits around it. It’s what we’d say if we had just one sermon. Or just two minutes with someone.

In Jesus Died to Save the Planet, we saw that too often our go-to, week-by-week summary of the gospel is not as holistic as the Bible sets out.

First, we tend to talk only about humans – the idea that Jesus died to save you and me – whereas the New Testament is clear that Jesus died for all things (Colossians 1:20).

Second, we tend to use the word ‘gospel’ as a stand-in for a set of propositions about salvation (we are sinners, Jesus died to save us so that we can be with him). But in the New Testament, the ‘gospel of Jesus Christ’ means ‘the news that Jesus, the Anointed One, has become King’ (Mark 1:1, 15).

As a result, the flourishing of the earth is often treated as a secondary issue – a nice-to-have rather than central to Christ’s work on the cross. To address this, here are four actions you can take:

  1. Look again, perhaps together with your leadership team, at your go-to summary of the gospel, approaching it through the biblical lens of (i) the news that Jesus has become King; and (ii) that he died and rose to reconcile, unite, redeem, restore, and renew all This may need more than a few slight tweaks!
  2. To help with this, perhaps run a series preaching from Genesis 1–2, Micah 6, Ephesians 1, Colossians 1, Romans 8, and Revelation 21 on God’s plan for all things. You could describe this as a ‘course correction’, an emphasis for a while until it becomes part of your normal discourse. Useful resources here are Chris Wright’s The Great Story and the Great Commission, Matthew Bates’ The Gospel Precisely and N.T. Wright’s How God Became King.
  3. As part of your normal review of how the Sunday gathering went this week, ask how well the talk, our songs, and our prayers reflected this overall message.
  4. As part of your regular annual review, ask what fruit you’re seeing. Are we equipping people to live their whole lives with and for Jesus – and as a result, are we helping them contribute to the flourishing of the earth, justice for the vulnerable, and God’s purposes in all of life?

Making this shift will likely require a consistent conscious engagement in our speaking, whether on the law, the prophets, the Gospels, or the letters, and in our songs and prayers. But we need to do it if we are to be truly biblical and God’s earth and the plight of the poor are not to remain side issues.

 

A ship or a lifeboat? 

In Jesus Died to Save the Planet, I use the metaphor of a great working ship, on which we, the crew, have mutinied, to the ruin of the ship and everything on it. The captain has himself come to the ship to call us to turn again to him. Rejected and put to death by the crew, he nonetheless is raised to life. He pays the price for our mutiny. He calls us to loyalty, giving us his Spirit, to crew as he has shown us, until he returns to give his ship a full refit and his good captaincy is uncontested at last.

This metaphor helps us understand a few different ideas:

  • Jesus, the captain, is restoring us to a role we had in the beginning. That is, to ‘rule’ in self-giving service and love, to protect the earth and our fellow humans.
  • The call of Jesus is not to leave the ship, but to crew it as intended: to do justice, to love neighbour, and to take care of the earth.
  • There is no line between salvation, lordship, and discipleship. It is one holistic moment – we are saved as we turn to Jesus as Lord, committed to living his way.
  • Eternity begins now. We receive eternal life (the ‘life of the ages’ in relationship with God, neighbour, nature, and self) the moment we commit to Jesus and his way, living now in anticipation of the renewal of all things, his rule at last all-in-all.
  • It concerns our living, working, playing lives. It is in the engine room and the canteen, on the bridge and the decks that the crew does its work, not in the weekly briefing.
  • The announcement of the news that Jesus is king is the solution to climate and ecological breakdown. For if we live his way, perhaps the tide will be turned. Either way, we are resourced in the Spirit to live hope-fully his way, come what may.

If the ship doesn’t work for you, perhaps a vineyard, an owner, his son, the tenants and a cornerstone works better (Mark 12:1–11). Or perhaps you might come up with a better one. Either way, it’s essential that our go-to gospel summary resembles the biblical gospel as closely as possible.

 

Paul Kunert

Author, Jesus Died to Save the Planet

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