Unraveling the 3 Layers of Environmental Preaching

Every religious leader holds a sacred duty to guide their congregates on matters of social justice. Faith leaders provide a moral compass that assist us in navigating issues of ethics and communal good, but many religious leaders have trouble determining how to address environmental issues in a meaningful way. Rev. Peter Sawtell, Executive Director, Eco-Justice Ministries has penned an article entitled, Three Layers of Environmental Preaching, to offer guidance on preaching for the planet, to better engage religious practitioners on the matter.

The first layer of environmental preaching is referred to as 'issue preaching' – where faith leaders address particular points of social maladies. In regard to the environment, this manifests as a discussion of 'global warming, toxic waste, urban sprawl or wilderness preservation.' An additional (more abstract) layer, unravels humankind's connection to nature and lastly, man's moral responsibility to care for creation. An especially relevant point with Pope Francis' recent claim that human degradation of the environment is a 'sin.'

With these three layers in mind, use insights from ecoAmerica's, Connecting On Climate report to implement climate action in your congregation. For starters, 'put yourself in your audience's shoes' as to better 'align your climate message with your audience's worldview.' For most, the effects of climate change appear far removed from their immediate lives. In demonstrating how climate change effects the poor, you will reroute the discussion away from politics and back to a moral issue. 

Three Layers of Environmental Preaching
By Rev. Peter Sawtell for Eco-Justice Ministries

A local church pastor who wants to "preach on the environment" faces many problems. Lack of training can make it hard to address the technical issues. Dealing with such topics can stir up controversy in the church. A broader notion of what "environmental preaching" can encompass, however, gives more options.

I have found it helpful to think in terms of three different layers in which preaching can address eco-justice themes. These layers address very different purposes, and have distinctive styles. In a well-rounded ministry, there will be a mix of these layers. (Examples of the three approaches — drawing on my writing in Eco-Justice Notes instead of full-length sermons — are listed at the end of this article.)

What most of us think of as "preaching on the environment" qualifies as "issue preaching." This places an emphasis on public policy issues, and tries to bring a moral and theological perspective to the debate. Sermons on global warming, toxic waste, urban sprawl and wilderness preservation fit into this category. In issue preaching, the pastor usually has to rely on experts in the policy field to spell out the options; the pastor can then evaluate those options from an ethical perspective. While issue preaching has the capability of getting people involved in the world, it also has a high probability of making someone mad!

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