Green Congregations Celebrate God’s New Creation in Worship
Christians often remind each other that worship is more about God’s beauty and glory than about us.
It’s less likely for congregations to model the fact that creation is also more about God’s beauty and glory than about us.
But congregations attune to creation care are finding new ways to remember that we worship the One who is creating, redeeming and sustaining this world—and invites us to join in renewing all things.
Episcopal churches in Atlanta, Georgia, sometimes play sounds of wolves, birds and waterfalls instead of prelude music. Churches across North America have projected photos of oil spills and mountaintop removal landscapes during the time of confession. Congregations in Scotland offer seasonal praises such as this Lenten prayer by Eleanor Harris: “Praise be for rabbit and salmon, beetroot and leeks, parsley and radishes, for fasting and simplicity and new and contrite hearts washed clean from greed and pollution in the blood of Jesus Christ.”
Green congregations around the world celebrate God’s new creation in worship because the Bible invites us into the ongoing story of “the maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.” These churches use key worship moments and sermons to express that truly following the Lord requires caring for the creation which Christ holds together. Many churches also plan special Sundays or liturgical seasons on seeing the environment through eyes of faith.
Back to biblical roots
People uneasy about integrating creation into worship may feel reassured by looking at the whole arc of scripture. The Bible begins in a garden that God called good long before creating humanity. It ends in a new heaven and new earth, in a city where God’s light is its glory and tree leaves are for healing the nations.
Genesis shows our intimate connection with the earth. The Hebrew word for earth is adamah. Its word for humankind is adam. The Common English Bible retains this link between human and humus in Genesis 2:7: “The Lord God formed the humanfrom the topsoil of the fertile landand blew life’s breath into his nostrils. The human came to life.”
People troubled by current humanity’s deeply disturbed relationship with the earth sometimes blame an interpretation of Genesis 1:27 that gives us free rein to dominate and subdue the earth and exploit its creatures and riches.
Even a theology of creation stewardship puts the focus on people, not God, according to Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, former general secretary of the Reformed Church in America. Instead, he proposes a theology of interrelationship. “Creation has value because of its relationship to God, rather than its utility for humanity,” he wrote in a much-quoted article, “Renewing the Whole Creation.”
God’s unconditional covenant with Noah makes clear that the promise is for “all living creatures of every kind on earth” and “all generations to come.” Granberg-Michaelson cited Old and New Testament pictures of shalom, the universal flourishing that each person of the Trinity is working toward. “This ‘new creation’ in Christ can neither be simply individualized nor spiritualized. It relates to the whole of life, and to the material world,” he wrote.
Key moments in worship
The 16th century Protestant Reformer John Calvin called creation “the theater of God’s glory.” When worshipers recognize God’s glorious providence in nature’s patterns, they begin to hear God’s call to cooperate with and protect the earth so that all may flourish.
The invocation, confession, prayers, and closing offer key creation care moments, according to Let All Creation Praise, a website of creation care resources for Christian worship.
Worship often opens with an invocation, invitation, or call to worship our Creator, such as: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; for he has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers” (Psalm 24:1-2). Imagine pairing these words with sounds from local nature, images of nature in your community, or live plants and animals. Then the worship leader can say, “As humans in the web of life, let’s join the choir of all creation to praise God.”
What gets mentioned or not in worship forms worshipers’ views of what’s important in living out their faith. That’s why it’s good to confess how we misuse or harm creation. Consider using this excerpt from a prayer in the new Lift Up Your Hearts hymnal: “Creator, forgive us. The earth is yours and everything that is in it. But we forget. In our arrogance we think we can own it. In our greed we think we can steal it. In our ignorance we worship it. In our thoughtlessness we destroy it.”
In every congregational prayer, try to include at least one petition for people, other creatures, or places affected by natural disasters or environmental woes. You might also ask God for the wisdom and courage to act.
Use the same closing for weeks in a row to embed its words in worshipers’ imaginations. St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church in Adelaide, South Australia, has used this one: “Wherever you look, wherever you walk, Christ is there. Celebrate the Christ who fills our creation!” Let All Creation Praise suggests this sending: “Go in peace. Serve the Lord. Remember the poor. Care for creation.”
Preaching the whole gospel
Tri Robinson pastored Vineyard Boise in Idaho for six years before becoming what he calls “a born-again believer in caring for the environment.” After seeing how the Bible lays out “God’s great plan for resourcing and providing for his creation,” he spent six months praying and preparing before preaching on it. He feared his congregation would reject him as a political liberal for preaching that God holds us accountable to use, protect, and pass on the earth as a sacred blessing for future generations.
Instead, Vineyard Boise welcomed this call, Robinson writes in his book Saving God’s Green Earth: Rediscovering the Church’s Responsibility to Environmental Stewardship. The church now recycles, sponsors family camping trips to repair backcountry trails, and tends a three-acre garden to provide food for poor people and opportunities for prisoners on work release.
Peter Sawtell, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and executive director of Eco-Justice Ministries, describes three layers of environmental preaching. He says it’s crucial to begin with a foundation of sermons on sin, guilt, repentance, forgiveness and grace. A sermon on “Be angry, but do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26) might use an environmental illustration on how to redeem grief and anger. For example, U.S. schoolchildren were horrified to learn that commercial tuna netting practices killed dolphins. Hundreds of thousands of students boycotted dolphin-unsafe tuna in school lunches. This led to industry standards that protect marine mammals.
Sawtell also recommends preaching on generalized themes such as the integrity of creation and relationships between humans and nature. Ellen F. Davis, an Old Testament scholar at Duke Divinity School, says this is easy because the Old Testament refers so often to land, water, nonhuman creation and land care as a primary religious obligation. Jesus preached that birds and lilies reveal God’s love. Paul explained that the whole creation groans to be released from the impact of human sin and for the body of Christ to fully image our Creator.
The third layer of environmental preaching, which deals with Christian approaches to toxic waste, endangered species and other knotty problems, works best when congregations have been grounded in the other two layers.
Don’t miss this story’s companion piece, “Worship in the Season of Creation and Earth-themed Sundays.”
Two older essays by Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, “Renewing the Whole Creation” (scroll down) and “Covenant and Creation,” offer helpful frames for seeing what the Bible says about creation care.
Our Father’s World is a 27-minute film you can watch online. Pastors from independent and Vineyard churches explain why they now see environmental stewardship as a Christian responsibility.
The Lausanne Global Consultation on Creation Care met in Jamaica just after the 2012 Hurricane Sandy devastated the Caribbean. Discussion, study and prayer led them to conclude that creation care is “a gospel issue within the lordship of Christ” and that we are faced with an urgent crisis “that must be resolved in our generation.”
In her excellent sermon on Psalm 65, Ellen F. Davis offers biblical insights on our role in God’s creation. Her book Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible is well worth studying in a small group setting. Samuel Wells explained why Christians should care about the fate of the earth in his 2012 Earth Day sermon.
Patriarch Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church, explains in “The Green Patriarch,” a 41-minute online video that sin is not only against other people. It’s also sinful to misuse animals, trees, air, water and the earth.
Catholic Climate Covenant is a campaign for U.S. Catholics to reduce their carbon footprint because “climate change falls heaviest on the world’s poor.”
Start a Discussion
Feel free to print and distribute these stories at your staff, worship, board, or church education meeting. These questions will help people think about why and how to include creation care in worship.
- Might a regular visitor conclude from your worship services that God’s plan of salvation is only for humans and mainly about disembodied souls after death?
- If so, how might you like to change worship to express God’s love for creation and your congregation’s desire to heal and preserve the earth for future generations?
- How often do you hear sermons (or examples within sermons) about creation care, environmental stewardship, or earth keeping from a faith perspective? Do you agree with the Lausanne statement that creation care is “a gospel issue within the lordship of Christ”?