Preaching on Climate Change: Why it Matters
By Jim Antal
Climate Church, Climate World(Rowman Publishing, 2018) by Jim Antal is a guide for people of all faiths to find value and gain insight by focusing on how the church and people of the church can address the climate change crisis. Antal invites communities of faiths together to bear witness and acknowledge that God’s creation is suffering and in jeopardy. Viewing the climate crisis as a theological emergency brings together these groups and gives them a common goal to initiate an intervention. The following excerpt is from Chapter 6 Worship as a Pathway to Freedom.
Preaching on climate change matters for two primary reasons that are in tension with one another. First, preaching on climate change matters because people don’t want to hear about it. Second, preaching on climate change matters because people know they need to take action to address it.
There are many reasons people give for not wanting to hear about climate change, especially in church. Here are a few: Living day to day is already hard enough. Church is supposed to give me rest and refreshment and to recharge me for the next week. Climate change is not going to affect me; it’s someone else’s problem. The challenge is too enormous; there’s nothing I can do about it, so why should I think about it? I come to church to be inspired, not to be depressed. Climate change is a political issue; politics doesn’t belong in church.
Despite these complaints, at some level, most people recognize that something is terribly wrong with the world. Most parishioners recognize that human activity is primarily responsible for the catastrophe that is upon us, and that human beings have the responsibility to tackle it.
This tension is familiar to any pastor who has served a congregation whose history includes a significant, unseemly “secret” that everyone in the congregation knows and that no one wants to talk about. The “secret” could be about a current or former staff person, about church finances, an unresolved church “fight” that took place years ago, or about any number of other things. If such a congregation is to heal, the “secret” must be exposed, faced, and engaged. When this process is handled well, the congregation is blessed with renewed joy and freedom.
In a majority of churches, climate change is this kind of “secret.” Let me make this same point by citing some recent polling data. A 2015 poll conducted by Yale revealed that two-thirds of American voters think that global warming is happening, yet two-thirds of Americans rarely or never discuss it.
If the work of the church is to make God’s love and justice real, and since climate change amplifies every other social justice issue, it falls to the church to create the conditions in which people can face the reality of climate change and respond to God’s call to take action to protect God’s gift of creation. By preaching regularly on climate change, pastors give permission to the congregation to share with each other their fears, grief, dread, and feelings of impotence. Having named and shared those concerns, congregants can begin to offer each other the kind of solidarity that leads to courage and the capacity to act. If church is to provide hope for those who gather, it must be a safe enough place for people to share what is truly in their hearts—the fears and concerns that keep them up at night. Preaching that offers heartfelt, vulnerable testimony can play a crucial role in creating a safe place where congregants can listen and share their deepest fears and hopes.
Another reason why preaching on climate change matters emerges from a 2014 Survey on Religion, Values, and Climate Change. It shows that people who have heard a sermon on climate change (even if only occasionally) are more likely to accept climate change as real. In addition, Americans who say their clergy leader speaks at least occasionally about climate change also score higher on the Climate Change Concern Index. More than six in ten Americans who report hearing about climate change from their clergy leader at least occasionally are either very (38 percent) or somewhat (24 percent) concerned about climate change.
That survey also revealed that for people worshiping in white mainline Protestant churches, only 10 percent of them report that their pastor speaks of climate change “often,” and only 20 percent report that their pastor discusses climate change “sometimes.” In African American Protestant and Hispanic Catholic congregations, people report that their pastor speaks about climate change much more frequently.
It is important to note that effective sermons provide congregants with a frame that allows them to understand and find meaning in a biblical passage or to be moved by and engage a social justice issue. Often, what makes a sermon exceptional is that the sermon helps the listener to reframe a dilemma or an issue with which she or he has been struggling.
William Sloane Coffin Jr. did this for thousands of people on many occasions, although none had a greater impact than the sermon Bill gave following the death of his son Alex. Bill’s testimony that “God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break” when his beloved son died provided millions of people with a new frame through which to understand grief in their own lives. In the sermon, Bill explicitly rejected the platitudes that mourners often hear. “It was God’s will” is one such phrase — as if a loving God would intend and plan the death of Bill’s son. That this sermon immediately became the best known of all Bill’s sermons is an indication of the profound longing among people of faith to have a new frame through which to understand loss and tragedy. Given that every day it becomes more clear that life as we know it cannot be sustained, ordinary people need a new frame through which to understand the meaning of their own lives and the lives of their progeny. This reality represents both an existential threat and a call to social action. Preachers must be able to offer their congregations new perspectives that allow them to reframe how God might be calling them to redirect their individual lives, as well as their lives together as a congregation and as a community.
Take a moment to look at the material on Climate Witness. Pope Francis’ Encyclical Laudato Si’ “woke up” thousands of churches to the climate crisis and led to a new term: The Francis Effect. The Francis Effect prompted New England churches affiliated with NEREM (New England Regional Environmental Ministries) to pledge to preach on climate change in the fall of 2015. They called it a New Awakening. The website is filled with inspiring resources.
All of this leads us back to where I began: preaching matters. Clergy are trusted messengers whose testimony from the pulpit makes a difference in the attitudes and actions of their parishioners.
The Church was born for this
I can’t count the number of times since my ordination in 1980 that I’ve thought with immense gratitude: “I get to do this!” Not only do pastors help to shape the individual lives of those who are part of their church communities, they also help give direction to the community where their congregation is located. Truly, this is a high calling.
In ordinary times that would be more than enough, but these are not ordinary times. Clergy today live out their calling at a time when the continuity of life itself is in jeopardy. There is no scientific debate on this. In 2014, the world’s largest general scientific society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which includes over 121,000 members, published a paper, “What We Know.” This document makes clear that:
- Climate change is happening now.
- It’s largely caused by humans.
- It has gotten worse in recent decades and it will keep getting worse at a faster and faster rate.
- Humanity is doing little to address it.
If all we do is continue to behave normally, carrying out our everyday actions without making a change, life as humans have always known it on this planet will come to an end.
Since 2007 I’ve put it this way: we are the first generation to foresee, and the final generation with an opportunity to forestall, the most devastating effects of climate change.
This is precisely why NOW is the time for every setting of the church — from small chapels to megachurches, from local congregations to national denominations, however varied their belief systems and historical traditions — to join the United Church of Christ in declaring that a new moral era has begun, and that our generation has a moral obligation to protect God’s creation.
Truly, as Bill McKibben told me in 2007, this is an opportunity for which the church was born.
It’s important to remember that religious leaders and their congregations have played a crucial role in nearly every social transformation:
- For millennia, it was normative to own slave — until Samuel Sewall from Old South Church in Boston published the first antislavery pamphlet in 1701 and thus launched the Abolitionist Movement.
- For centuries, it was normative to allow only white men to interpret scripture from a pulpit — until the Congregational Church ordained Lemuel Haynes and Antoinette Brown (Blackwell).
- History will forever admire Dietrich Bonhoeffer for gathering a group of seminarians at Finkenwalde to prepare Christian leaders to oppose Hitler. Bonhoeffer’s sermons, along with those of other courageous pastors whose voices Hitler could not silence, continue to inspire.
- Martin Luther King Jr. helped to bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice by changing the aspirations of a nation.
- Archbishop Desmond Tutu inspired scores of clergy to work with him until the dignity and equality of all South Africans was written into the law.
The preaching of these religious leaders repurposed the church for their time and place. Their clarity — and the actions they took — were not immediately popular or successful. The majority of congregations kept doing what they had always done. Instead of offering a moral critique that could risk their status, their jobs, or perhaps even their lives, most pastors chose instead to attend to the immediate needs of their flocks. They continued to offer leadership that looked pretty much the same as it had for decades and perhaps centuries before.
But as we reflect on the history of the church and its centuries of witness, who do we hold up as an example of what it means to be a follower of Jesus? What does this say about our vocation — and our preaching — in today’s world?
As the weight of climate injustice, environmental racism, the sixth extinction, and so much more now rests on our generation, it’s time for the church to embrace its long history of prophetic witness. The fulfillment of our covenant and the continuity of life on Earth depend on it.
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