Dave Bookless is a mission partner with Church Mission Society, and director of theology at A Rocha International, a leading international Christian conservation charity. The team at CMS caught up with him to talk about mission, mindsets and his hopes for the world.
How would you complete the phrase “mission is…”?
Well at its biggest, mission is all that God calls us to do in the whole of God's world. If you want to translate that into some specifics, mission includes walking round the supermarket imagining that Jesus is standing next to you and asking what would Jesus buy and why. Mission is going for a walk down by the river or the canal and enjoying the beauty of God's creation, and the fact that the goodness and the love of God scream out from every tree and flower and bird and sunset, and that creation is God's most powerful evangelist.
How do you respond to those who would say that environmental issues just aren’t a priority for the church?
We can go back to the scriptures and see how we as human beings fit in to God's purposes for the whole creation; how Jesus never preached a gospel that was simply about ‘saving souls’. He preached the good news of the kingdom of God, which is about God's rule on earth as in heaven, and in every sphere of life. So, if we say “Jesus is Lord”, then that means that Jesus must be Lord of the whole of creation, and Lord in terms of our attitudes towards the climate, towards our lifestyles, towards the economic systems that we have. If we don't allow the lordship of Jesus Christ into those areas, then are we really being his disciples? It's not a case of throwing out the gospel of salvation from sin, but of recognising that the lordship of Jesus, the good news of Jesus, is about the whole of creation.
One of the stories I often share is of an evangelist who had spent decades preaching repentance and salvation for individuals and nothing more than that. And then he began to get the theology of creation care. He came up with this statement that when Christians take the earth seriously, people take the gospel seriously – when Christians actually care for creation, people are attracted to Jesus because they recognise it all adds up.
When it comes to responding to climate change, is it about doing things or is it about not doing things?
It is both, but I think the absolutely key thing is our motivation. It's quite easy for tackling climate change to become a new list of commandments: thou shalt do thy recycling, thou shalt walk or cycle instead of driving, thou shalt change thy electricity supplier, and so on. And those are good things to do, but if they become a new list of requirements, a kind of “eco Pharisee”, then actually they stop being part of the gospel. So, the key thing is to pray and ask the Holy Spirit to show you where God wants you to start. It should flow from your relationship with God and it should be about worship. So, if I start recycling when I didn't previously, I shouldn't be doing that because I feel I ought to – that would just turn into a chore. If I do it out of worship, I start thinking “I am showing that Jesus is Lord by bothering to sort these things out”. If we turn it into worship it transforms how we do it, whether it's stopping something or taking something up.
For the church in the West, where we might be a bit more disconnected from the impact of climate change, is there a challenge around a mindset change with regards to our consumption?
Absolutely. One of the questions that I hear fairly regularly is, “well surely the problem is population growth and it's all these countries in Africa and elsewhere that have massive population growth that are causing the problem?” I always turn that question on its head and say, yes population growth is an issue – we had our population explosion centuries ago, while other countries are going through theirs now. But a far bigger issue is consumption growth. It takes 16 babies born in sub-Saharan Africa to consume what one baby born here in the UK will consume in a year, and given expected average life spans, a child born in the West will consume about 30 times as much in their lifetime as a child born in sub-Saharan Africa. Jesus had more to say about the dangers of loving money and things too much, than he had to say about heaven and hell, salvation and sin, and almost any other subject.
If you ask me the number one reason why the church in Western countries is by and large declining, I think it's because our lifestyles are just like anybody else's. Nobody can tell that we're Christians by the way we live. I think we need to radically re-examine and be challenged about our lifestyles, our consumption and what we really put our faith in.
If every church in the UK or even globally became part of A Rocha’s Eco Church scheme, how much of a difference would that actually make?
It would be phenomenal. We, the church, are the only organisation that is in every community in the country. Globally, the Christian church is the only organisation that has the world's poorest, the world's richest, those with no power, those with lots of power, those in communist, capitalist, and everything in between regimes around the world. The Bible says that the church is God's hope. And there's an amazing verse in Romans 8 that says creation is waiting for the children of God to be revealed. If that's true, then the solution to the environmental crisis may include UN treaties, it may include good policies and lifestyle changes, but ultimately God's solution to the environmental crisis is the church waking up. So, both theologically and practically I have enormous hope that if God's church really begins to catch a vision of caring for creation as part of mission it could change things around the world.
And what gives you the greatest hope?
I think what gives me greatest hope is when I see people change – when I see people change in their thinking and in their behaviour, and when I see – and I'm seeing this more in the majority world than I am in the West – churches genuinely integrating caring for creation as part of their discipleship.
Our interview was first published in the Church of England Newspaper on 8 Dec 2017.