Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Convening "Creation and the City of God"

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

The last two days, Global Ministries hosted “Creation and the City of God,” a theological consultation that considered how the built environment can exemplify the flourishing of God’s creation through the ways in which development integrates with and enhances the places where it exists, ensures physical, economic and emotional safety for people in the community, and contributes to the sustainability of all of creation.

The consultation brought together a unique mix of scholars, pastors, agency executives, financial decision-makers, and creation care advocates from across The United Methodist Church and beyond. Five panels fostered interactions among those gathered around the topics of the theological significance of the built environment, how the built environment can promote inclusion and belonging, how we respond to vulnerability and living in liminal spaces, stewardship of finances and property, and creation care witness and advocacy.

I had the good fortune, along with Rev. Jenny Phillips and Rev. Dr. Jerome Sahabandhu, to be one of the people convening this event. Thus, I know as well as any why Global Ministries hosted this event. I share here a version of my remarks from Monday morning to the participants on that question.

In my role as Director of Mission Theology at Global Ministries, I see one of my main jobs as fostering conversations. In fact, I’ve argued that mission is conversation – conversation in the context of relationships across boundaries about God’s good news. That focus on conversation is spelled out in the purpose of this blog (“Dedicated to fostering conversations about the global nature of The United Methodist Church”), and it’s present in much of the rest of the work I do as well.

Thus, when Rev. Malcolm Frazier, at the time the United States Regional Office Representative for Global Ministries, approached me and my colleague Jerome Sahabandhu about the possibility of convening a theological consultation for mission partners from around the US, I was intrigued.

When Jerome and I agreed to take Malcolm’s idea and run with it, we had to decide: On what area of missional work should we focus? What topic would be significant enough to warrant our time and attention, while not duplicating existing resources and conversations?

On the question of significance, it was clear to me that creation care is one of the most pressing political, social, cultural, and religious issues of our time. Recent scientific findings released in the past six months have only heightened that sense.

I have been deeply encouraged to see missiologists paying increasing attention to creation care as an area of mission work over the last decade or so. For instance, it is included as one of the Five Marks of Mission, J. Andrew Kirk lists it as one of four main areas of mission work in his seminal book What Is Mission?, and recent ecumenical documents on mission such as Together Towards Life have emphasized the importance of creation care as a realm of mission work.

Yet while there has been important work done in the area of creation care within The United Methodist Church by the bishops and by our sister agencies such as UMW and Church and Society, and by some of Global Ministries’ own global missionaries, it seemed like there was room to do more. Indeed, until we see dramatic changes in the ways our economy and society are structured for the sake of reducing our impact on the created world, I don’t think any amount of effort related to or attention on this issue can really be too much or unnecessarily duplicative.

At the same time, Global Ministries was deepening its creation care efforts, including naming the creation care dimension to long-standing work. In addition to a growing attention to creation care, Global Ministries has a large and diverse network and a reputation as a trusted partner to many in the denomination. Therefore, we thought that Global Ministries had the possibility of bringing together people around this issue in a way that had not been done before by including a wider array of partners in the conversation.

Thus, Jerome and I agreed to focus on creation care. Yet, although creation care is something I care very deeply about as an individual and think is quite important as a missiologist, it is not my area of primary academic expertise. Fortunately, it was at just this time that Global Ministries hired Rev. Jenny Phillips as our first-ever Creation Care Program Manager. Jenny brought a wealth of experience, knowledge, and networks that have really made this event possible.

Together, Jenny, Jerome, and I identified urban areas and the built environment as an aspect of creation care that would benefit from more attention from the church. Moreover, we felt there was often a disconnect between conversations among those involved in creation care, those involved in property stewardship, and those involved in efforts to increase inclusion. Therefore, it seemed a good topic around which to build this consultation. Jenny was much influenced here by the work of Barbara Rossing, one of our panelists this morning, on ecology and eschatology. Hence, we arrived at the theme of “Creation and the City of God.” The rest of the program flowed from there as we asked questions about what the City of God would look like, for people and the rest of God’s creation.

I expect some interesting insights to come from these two days of conversation, especially around this focus on urban and built environments. But beyond these specific insights, I pray that this event serves to encourage further conversations, conversations in which we all have a role to play, about our relationship as humans with the rest of God’s creation and our responsibility to discern together God’s good news, not just for humanity, but for all that God has made.

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