Tending to Eden: Background

A few weeks ago, I posted four articles on a ministry called Floresta, now renamed Plant with Purpose.

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

It turns out that Scott Sabin, executive director, has written a book describing their ministry, Tending to Eden: Environmental Stewardship for God’s People. I’ve been provided a spiral-bound, pre-publication copy and have been asked to review it here at OneInJesus. But a simple book review just won’t do. You see, Tending to Eden addresses some very big questions that point us, I think, in a very good direction. And this requires serious reconsideration of how we do missions altogether.

Background

Christianity Today ran a couple of articles on how Plant with Purpose does ministry in third-world countries, and I was very impressed. I concluded,

And, of course, this means that many Christian organizations work diligently to spread the gospel but leave their converts in poverty and unable to feed themselves. Others spend millions to dig wells and build houses but don’t change hearts.

However, a holistic ministry, built on a better salvation model, can not only bring right relationship with God, it can bring right relationships within the church, within the villages, with the government, and with the Creation. This is big.

Maybe it’ll help to start with some questions.

* Why is it that nearly all foreign aid, public and private, fails to lift the people who receive it out of poverty?

* Why is that many nations that are nearly 100% Christian remain in abject poverty?

* Why is it that some nations with virtually no natural resources — Israel, Japan, Singapore — are among the most prosperous in the world, while other nations, with a wealth of natural resources — Mexico, for example — are mired in the depths of poverty?

* Many historians credit the astonishing prosperity of Northern Europe and the United States in the last few centuries to the “Protestant work ethic.” Why doesn’t the Protestant work ethic work everywhere?

* Why did Rwanda suffer one of the most brutal genocides in history despite being nearly 100% Christian?

Now, questions such as these have huge implications. For example, evangelical and fundamentalist American churches are remarkably generous when it comes to foreign missions, but many are very reluctant to give to “social justice” or poverty relief programs, other than in times of crisis. After all, the churches can see very real benefits in evangelism, but see very little good from poverty relief efforts. Just so, Americans tend to be very skeptical of government-sponsored foreign aid, particularly when they see so little long-term good coming from it.

On the other hand, today’s evangelical churches are rapidly moving toward a better, more holistic gospel, which sees the need to not only to save souls but to help relieve disease and suffering. We are even seeing a movement toward “Creation care” theology, which points out that Christians have been charged by God with caring for his Creation.

The most immediate impact of this thinking has been in local communities, where churches are becoming more and more involved in inner city ministries, addiction recovery programs, and the like. And this is as it should be.

But we now find ourselves at the point where we need to take our broader, more holistic gospel to our ministry to other nations, and this means changing how we do missions. No longer is it good enough to only do evangelism, while leaving our converts disease-ridden and impoverished. No, we plainly need to figure a way to redeem not only souls but also communities and cultures and even the Creation.

You see, we are learning that salvation is not the goal. Salvation is the beginning. Salvation sends us on mission with God to do good works, which certainly includes bringing souls to Jesus, but it’s much, much more. To quote John Mark Hicks,

God created the cosmos in which to rest, delight in, and enjoy. He did not create it to snuff it out of existence. Though subjected to frustration, God will redeem it and the resurrected saints will enjoy the harmony, peace and wholeness of both creation and community as they bask in the love of God. Resurrected saints need a resurrected (renew) cosmos in which to dwell with God.

God has called us to redeem people, to restore them to a redeemed community, living in a redeemed Creation. We sometimes refer to this bigger, bolder gospel as “missional,” because it calls us to participate in all of God’s redemptive mission.

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14 Responses

  1. Here are a few thoughts I had on this same general subject. http://johnxbrown.wordpress.com/2010/01/06/fumbling-the-ball-on-benevolence/

  2. Great set of questions. May I pose an additional one?

    * In Western countries, and particularly amongst those with a “missional” outlook, there tends to be a focus on urban church planting and care for the urban poor. Does this model translate to the rest of the world, where 50% of people are rural, there is not enough food for all, and urbanisation seems to be a problem?

  3. When reading this I return to a set of figures:

    In the OT, the people gave 10% to God and government.
    In America today, the people give about 40% to government as a start.

    The government then gives hundreds of billions of $$$ to the poor. I see most Christians drained financially and emotionally before they come to a church where they are urged to care for the poor here and abroad.

    I want to see Christians give more of themselves. The situation is what it is, and it is difficult.

  4. I’m sure to get flack from this, but when a country has no food or health care, and we feed them and save lives so there are more of them, it doesn’t help, but hurts.

    Humans are like rabbits or rats, the more you feed them or us, the more we will breed and multiply.

    It is a never ending story. Their country can only sustain so many humans from its resources. When we double or ten times the people through our christian helping, they are ten times more worse off and dependent.

    Nature will set the number of people, rats, etc. a location can sustain and a plague or natural desaster will occur to keep the number in check. If you question me, read history.

    A mixed positive/negative is: the more we cause them to grow in numbers, the more we can save. The bad is the more of them, when we cannot afford feed or care of them due to our country trying to feed and care for itself, the more we caused to suffer.

    Helping medically when someone is hurt is fine, but that short time emergency help should be it because In most cases, we are not helping them, only making ourselves feel better.

  5. Jay,

    i hope you’ll have more to say about this topic and sub-topics–very much looking forward to it.

    Perhaps many in the church haven’t cared much at all about poverty in Mexico because they’re too busy having an angry-American attitude about “foreigners” walking across onto “our side” of an imaginary line. What would a Christian attitude toward immigrants look like? How similar would that outlook be to an American view of immigrants? If we don’t care for people in our own backyard, it’s no wonder we don’t do so hot with people oversees either. Just my two cents.

    –Guy

  6. John Grant, perhaps there’s some room to question your underlying assumptions:

    – Whatever I have read on population growth has suggested that populations actually rise in areas of poverty. To suggest that human communities are like populations of rats in that regard is somewhat spooky.

    – The earth should be able to feed a very large population. For all kinds of reasons, many parts of the earth now cannot. Many of those reasons are in some way attributable to the West; there is an issue of justice here, not just mercy.

    – Apparently the waste generated each year in the U.S. would fill a convoy of 10-ton garbage trucks 145,000 miles long — over halfway to the moon.

    Next week my best friends leave to live in one of the world’s biggest slums. Perhaps they should take the message there that there are American Christians who want to do them a favor by letting their children starve?

    Somehow, I think the gospel points us towards some better involvement in the world.

  7. Mick,
    say those 10 ton garbage trucks 145000 miles long start giving all that food to the world. Would be great for a long time. People in dry and terrible conditioned countries that have always starved due to conditions they choose to live in and cannot grow food or have water would flourish, hunger abolished, get fat and breed like crazy until the population was unbelievably hugh. Then it would take that many more trucks and where would we get them? Then what?
    I’m not saying for us to abandon those with an immediate need, help those. But to stay and build them up for a later much bigger catastrophe is wrong of us to do.
    Look at our own original inhabitant Indians and Alaskan Natives death figures and see what is the result of our interfering OPPS-helping.

  8. Mick,

    It is a good question. Our “missional” theology has largely been interpreted in the domestic context, the idea being that we should do domestically what we’ve been doing in missions. But a lot of us have been making the same mistakes in foreign missions that we make domestically.

    We have to re-learn how to do church in foreign contexts as well as domestic. And we don’t have a good way to re-train existing missionaries.

  9. Dwayne,

    I think you’re going to like a lot of what Plant with a Purpose teaches. Stick with me.

  10. John,

    Let me cut to the chase. The best way to encourage people to have fewer children is to help them become prosperous. Europe is so prosperous they aren’t reproducing at replacement rates.

    Of course, prosperity also means more people can be supported with available resources. To a Malthusian, it’s a double win.

  11. Guy,

    I’m not heading toward an immigration policy, but I can answer at least part of your question. All Christian ethics begin with: Love your neighbor. Any policy that begins somewhere else is un-Christian.

    There are multiple ways to love our neighbors in Latin America, but a policy that says, “Your problems are not our problems” is not Christian.

  12. John,

    You mention “people in dry and terrible conditioned countries that have always starved due to conditions they choose to live in and cannot grow food or have water…”.

    Problem is, this is a faulty underlying assumption – that people have just chosen to live in inappropriate locales. Just some of the reasons that people are in poverty include:

    – Good (in some places, most) agricultural land has been used to grow tea, coffee, chocolate, and tobacco for the West to consume. Most Westerners are in some way responsible.
    – Places like Africa were subdivided under colonialism in ways that destroyed existing food-producing lifestyles.
    – The West has effectively outsourced much of its hazardous and labour-intensive production and waste disposal to the two-thirds world.
    – Many people have very little choice

    There is a very strong argument to be made that the West became wealthy at the cost of the developing nations; that is, we didn’t just rise up but we plundered them to become wealthy, and they fell correspondingly. It’s not hard to find well-researched books documenting this post-industrial-revolution shift.

    Just because we can’t see the under-paid people who make and supply our stuff, doesn’t mean we aren’t responsible for them being under-paid. As James 5 says:

    “1Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. 2Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. 3Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. 4Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. 5You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter.”

    Any solution to this must include a change in lifestyle on the Western side of the poverty divide…

  13. @Mick Porter,

    Yep, the way to end poverty is by telling people “the West” is the cause of all their problems and making them into some sort of racists. That always solves everything. (Oh brother)

    How about creating irrigation system for those in arid countries and teaching them to grow food crops effectively? It might work better than indoctrinating them with “the Man is holding you down” sentiments.

  14. @Johnny,

    Surely you didn’t think that was what I was saying?

    Absolutely it would be a positive move to teach effective food growing in arid countries! Absolutely it would be destructive to stir up resentment in the two-thirds world towards the first world! When did I suggest such a thing? Inciting racism would be downright anti-gospel.

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