The Church and Sustainable Living

by John B. Cobb, Jr.

John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is

The following was written in 1995.  Used by permission of the author.


The most important contribution of the churches, called for by those who newly look to it with hope, is to affirm the values of our tradition.  But, it is important that these values be taken seriously, and that means that they inform individual and corporate life.  The tension within the churches is between values based on caring and service and values based on the economic paradigm.

            A remarkable change is occurring in the attitude toward religion and the churches on the part of environmentalist scientists and philosophers.  Carl Sagan who once expressed quite negative attitudes toward Christianity has begun to work closely with the churches.  Quite recently, a new book by the environmentalist philosopher, Max Oelschleger, testifies to this shift.  The book is entitiled Caring for Creation: an Ecumenical Approach to the Environmental Crisis.  (Yale University Press, 1994)

            Oelschlaeger tells us of his own awakening to the crisis in the heady time of the first Earth Day.  At that time he was taught and believed that Christianity was hopelessly anthropocentric and alien to the vision that was needed.  He thought out of that assumption for years.  But he came to realize that the national life operates in terms of an economic paradigm that is inimical to the changes that are urgently needed.  The only locus in which alternative values and vision are nurtured is the religious community.  Hence he examined the teachings of Judaism and Christianity more closely.  And there he found the fundamental belief that is needed, the conviction that we are to care for the creation.  (Because of the nature of this magazine and my own role as a Christian theologian, I will speak only of the church in what follows.)

            In one sense, we Christians who have long been concerned about these matters could dismiss Oelschlaeger for his simplicity.  But we would be wrong to do so.  Just because he has looked at us from without, with no bias in our favor, we can have greater confidence that what he sees is there to be seen.  We in the church are deeply aware of our divisions and are often caught up in mutual criticism.  He is struck by our unanimity on the crucial core of teaching.  The ecumenism of which he speaks cuts across all of our usual boundaries.  We all teach that the world is God's creation and that we are called to care for it.  This teaching by itself, if taken seriously, provides, in Oelschlaeger's view, an adequate ground for the environmental concerns he shares with us.

            Reading this book, a church insider is struck by the lack of attention the author gives to the enormous resistance within the churches, liberal and conservative, to taking our own teaching seriously.  He turns to us with a hope that many of us have difficulty keeping alive within ourselves.  If we are the great hope for the salvation of the Earth, we wonder whether there is any hope at all!

            I am reminded here of the quip of Reinhold Niebuhr.  He said that the church is like Noah's Ark.  We could not stand the stench inside if it were not for the storm outside.  In the terms with which Oelschlaeger views us, we might be despairing of our poor embodiment of our own values if it were not that apart from those values and their implementation there is no hope for the Earth.  We, at least, do affirm those values, and haltingly, inconsistently, and often in distorted ways, try to embody them and encourage others to do so.  Sinful as we are, we do have a criterion by which to recognize our sinfulness.

            Perhaps the hope with which outsiders are beginning to turn to us may fan the sparks of healthy activity within our churches.  Perhaps it will encourage us to try once more to become what we already are -- a community of faithful people.  Perhaps it will help us to break free from mutual recriminations and to join together in reaffirming the elemental features of our shared faith that can generate and support the attitudinal changes that are so badly needed in the whole of society. 

            The most important contribution of the churches, called for by those who newly look to it with hope, is to affirm the values of our tradition.  But, of course, more is needed than simply verbal repetition.  It is important that these values be taken seriously, and that means that they inform individual and corporate life.  Unless this happens in the church, it is unlikely that it will happen in the body politic.  What would it mean for the church, local and ecumenical, to take its own teachings seriously? 

            Churches have always existed in a tension between the values they affirm and the values of the societies within which they exist.  This is inevitable.  Christians have created special institutions, at times, to more fully embody Christian values.  The monastic orders are the most important example.  But they cannot evade the tension, and the Reformers believed that all Christians, and all their institutions, should live in the tension rather than even attempt to escape from it.

            In the modern world the tension has been between the values of the Bible, on the one side, and the values of nationalism and the economic order on the other.  Of these latter, the economic order has increasingly assumed primacy.  The tension within the churches is between values based on caring and service and values based on the economic paradigm.

            We see this tension concretely in ministry.  On the mission field, workers were paid according to their need.  But in settled churches in the United States, churches paid what they could afford and what was required in order to compete for the ministers they wanted.  The determination of ministers' salaries by the economic paradigm has hardly been disguised. 

            On the other hand, the appeal to lay people has been chiefly in terms of caring and service.  And tens of millions have responded sacrificially with money and time.  The economic paradigm has been resisted, in general, successfully.

            The tension appears now increasingly as declining churches compete for new members.  According to Biblical values, the church exists to serve those in greatest need.  According to the economic paradigm, those feeling the need of what the church can offer, shop around to find who does the most for the least.  Some congregations continue to order their lives to the service of human need both within and without the congregations.  Others enter the market competition for members in ways that set aside much of the church's historic mission.

            With regard to the Earth, the economic and dominant modern theological paradigms have been all too similar.  Both have been anthropocentric.  But when economists have been challenged with regard to their paradigm, most of them have defended it and charged their critics with eccentricity.  When the church has been challenged with regard to its anthropocentricity, it has, on the whole and in principle, repented with respect to its teaching.  It has recognized the opposition between its deeper convictions and the anthropocentric formulations that have done such damage.  Thus the tension noted above between the values affirmed in the church and the dominant economic paradigm reappears here.

            The church as yet hardly knows what it means to implement its renewed teaching of caring for creation.  In exploring its meaning, it begins, quite rightly, with its liturgy.  Values not expressed in the liturgy are unlikely to be expressed in life.  Thus far, caring for creation has been upheld chiefly in special liturgies for special occasions.  We have a long way to go before it is fully integrated into the weekly worship of most of our congregations.

            The next place where we can find some emphasis on caring for creation is in the teaching of children.  Even during the long decades in which this teaching almost disappeared from adult worship and study, it maintained a foothold with children and youth.  Camping programs have been particularly important in this respect.  Now, with heightened awareness of its importance, this element in youth education has increased.  It should be possible to continue it into adult education.

            When it becomes a basic part of our regular worship and educational program, the tension between its implications and the normal life of the congregation, as well as the normal lives of the individual members, will be more keenly felt.  Our history shows that this does not guarantee that change in practice will follow, but it does offer hope.  Congregations will recognize the unsustainable character of the society into which they are so fully integrated.  They will also realize how difficult it is to extricate themselves from the ways of life that express the economic paradigm rather than the Christian one.

            Nevertheless, even in this preliminary stage of raising our consciousness, we know that some changes are possible because here and there they have already occurred.  Many churches have participated in, or even sponsored, recycling and tree planting programs.  Some have taken part in Earth Day celebrations or in walks to raise money for environmental causes.  Others have held local fairs or participated in community ones.

            More important but less common has been consideration of environmental matters when constructing church buildings.  But as we become more conscious of these matters as part of caring for creation, we can recognize the need so to build as to free our congregations from dependence on fossil fuels for heating and cooling.  This is not impossible with new construction.  Although the problem with older buildings is more difficult, when remodeling is called for, or when relandscaping is possible, some movement in this direction can be made.  We can also use much less electricity, partly by reducing unnecessary lighting, but chiefly by using far more efficient fixtures and appliances.  In the long run, these ways of reducing our use of exhaustible resources and our contribution to pollution also save us money, and this can be used to meet human needs that are more urgent than our comfort.

            There is an intrinsic value in showing our concern for creation in the way we build our churches.  There is also an educational value for the community.  Church members who think about how the church can become less unsustainable, will think also about their own homes and businesses.  A church that successfully embodies new technology in this respect will encourage other institutions to do so as well.

            Churches can encourage their members to take venturesome steps.  The New Road Map Foundation in Seattle has found that many people are willing to plan their lives quite concretely around service rather than around wealth.  It is a sad commentary on the churches that this actualization of our values has come from a quite independent organization.  But we can enormously increase the visibility of this effort to awaken us from the economic paradigm and reorient our lives.  The program is quite simple:  encourage people to consider what they really want out of life and, if this is not money, to live frugally, saving as much as possible, and then financing a life of service out of these savings.

            Churches can also encourage reflection about more communal or cooperative life styles.  One model that deeply embodies Christian values is a group of families pooling resources so as to reduce expenses and to free some of the adults to work as full-time volunteers for social and environmental causes.  The affirmation and encouragement of the larger church community can do much to sustain such experiments as they find their way through a maze of difficulties.

            Meanwhile the church can also be a center of thought.  Although it does not command the resources in this respect that are possessed by many other institutions, it does offer its own perspective.  The quantity of thought is of little worth, if it operates from perspectives that do not take account of the Earth and the needs of the poor.  Thinking from the perspective of caring for creation in both its human and natural aspects, if it is serious and clearheaded, can be of immense value.  Since so little of this occurs in other institutions, the church is called to take the lead.

            Such thought will inevitably be critical.  Our existing institutions, including the church, have not been structured around caring for creation.  Hence when they are viewed, beginning with the church itself, from this perspective, the threat to the Earth intrinsic to their operations can be exposed.  The need for Christian thinking of this sort is critical.

            Since our society operates primarily out of the economic paradigm, the critique of that paradigm and the way in shapes our institutions, beginning with the church, is especially urgent.  For the church to support an alternative paradigm is not enough.  As it articulates the Biblical paradigm more clearly, it must also make explicit what is wrong with the economic one.  It is as true today as ever that we cannot serve both God and mammon.  Yet as long as mammon rules the public world, it is possible only for a few individuals to serve God purely.  Mammon's hold must be challenged and broken if the church is to be truly the church.  It must be broken also if the Earth is to be saved from continuing degradation.