Missiology in Environmental Context: Tasks for an Ecology of Mission

By Jenkins, Willis | International Bulletin of Missionary Research, October 2008 | Go to article overview

Missiology in Environmental Context: Tasks for an Ecology of Mission


Jenkins, Willis, International Bulletin of Missionary Research


For a field focused on the most geographic practice of Christian faith--crossing from one terrain to another for the sake of Christ--missiology seems to manifest a strange absence of the terrestrial. (1) Missiology rarely discusses the significance of earthly context or ecological dynamics for mission theology. For all its attention to culture, missiology seems to have little to say about the landscapes formed by ecology and culture in reciprocal relation. Insofar as missiology remains extraterrestrial, abstracted from geographic context, it struggles to make missional sense of environmental problems or to interpret emerging Christian responses to the challenges of sustainability.

In recent years, as churches have begun responding to environmental problems, missiologists have entertained occasional calls to link ecology and mission. (2) These proposals, issued from across a theological spectrum, encourage missiology to make environmental issues significant for the church's theology and practice. Meanwhile, without much notice from missiology, grassroots Christian initiatives in sustainable community have been emerging around the world. What we need now is an ecology of mission that can show how environmental issues matter within the practices of following God's love across terrains. In this article I consider initial proposals to link missiology and environmental issues, as well as contextual examples of environmental mission practice, in order to identify some specific tasks for contemporary mission theology. (3)

Recover the Geographic Context of Mission

Discussions of environment and mission often refer to Marthinus Daneel's African Earthkeepers: Wholistic Interfaith Mission (2001). (4) Sections of this work have appeared in the few journal volumes devoted to the topic, and excerpts often constitute the only missional perspective in anthologies of Christian or religious environmental thought. (5) Daneel's account of interfaith reforestation as an extension of the "war of liberation" to reclaim native lands presents a rich case for missiological evaluation. His portrayal of connections between social liberation and ecological restoration vividly demonstrates the missional significance of connections between social and ecological relations. It would be impossible to make sense of mission in Zimbabwe apart from the country's political history and the religious significance of its lands for its peoples.

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Ecosystems, species, skies, and wetlands make up the context of mission, just as do cultures, languages, markets, and health clinics. (6) Consider the example offered by the director of a community development organization sponsored by the Church of Uganda, responsible for dealing with poverty and proposing public health initiatives. Missiological indifference to ecological issues, he explained to me, exacerbated the very problems he was assigned to address. He spoke of the importance protecting wetlands has for protecting public health. Thick wetlands filter rainwater from the cultivated hills above. When too many reeds are cut, opening channels for livestock and people to enter the water, communities require more resources for constructing concrete-protected springs and for antibiotics. Communities that carefully regulate wetland use have better access to cleaner water and fewer health problems. Moreover, communities where wetlands have been entirely drained face water shortages, and in some places the local climate has warmed enough for malarial mosquitoes to come. Both the diocesan office and international mission agencies, however, understand land management and social outreach as separate mandates, and only the latter as a legitimate concern of church mission--even when the church owns the land!

Sometimes stark social problems have the power to elicit new levels of missiological recognition and interpretation. Responsible contextual mission practices depend on a theological interpretation of social ecology--whether as simple as the relation of wetland biology to human epidemiology or as complex, as Daneel has shown, as the relation of land policies to colonial oppression and the experience of God's liberation. …

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Missiology in Environmental Context: Tasks for an Ecology of Mission
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