All over the world, young people are taking action to call us adults to account for the ways we have allowed the planet’s resources to be squandered, the atmosphere polluted and heated, and the earth destroyed. And they are right to do so. I hope that more and more of us are doing our best to listen and to act.
In our churches, as elsewhere, you would struggle to find a single young person who is not deeply concerned for the future of the environment. Many are making profound connections between their faith in a God who creates all things for good, and the urgent task of caring for all that God has created. Many churches, my own included, are waking up to the importance of providing frameworks and tools for people – young and not so young – to see their response to climate catastrophe as an important part of their Christian discipleship and witness.
This is all, I would argue, good news. It is good news that young people are calling the church and the world to repentance on this issue. It is good news that the church is (albeit too slowly) waking up to the reality of what it means to be stewards of creation in a context of climate emergency. It is good news that we are finding ways to reflect this in our liturgy, worship, teaching and prayer, as well as in practical and political action.
But I wonder how well what we are teaching matches up with how we are teaching it? Especially in the context of youth work and children’s work.
Traditional models of church-based children’s work in particular can be very resource-heavy. The route from a cupboard full of craft supplies to a sticky, glittery creation to take home is a well-trodden one. Any children’s worker or youth worker will be familiar with the experience of carting around vast quantities of stuff – plastic cups for the opening game, straws and sellotape for the craft, modeling clay for the prayer activity, or whatever it might be.
But when our young people (and we ourselves) are so acutely aware of issues of waste, pollution and resources, I’m not sure this approach is sustainable – theologically as well as environmentally.
If we preach that we need to make different and more sustainable choices for the future of the earth, but then we put in the next order for a load of disposable resources which we know will soon end up in the bin, then we are at best sending out very mixed messages to our young people.
If we invite children to reflect on the integrity of creation, but in doing so create yet more waste to pollute the planet, then we cannot be surprised if they question our own integrity.
The solutions are not obvious, but I think it starts with a change of mindset. We cannot just replace like for (more eco-friendly) like. Yes, it will help a bit if we use recycled paper and biodegradable glitter, but it’s not enough. We need to be developing ways of approaching children’s and youth work which first do no harm to the planet we all inhabit.
And in doing so, it might just be that something unexpectedly wonderful emerges. Perhaps we will spend more time outdoors. Perhaps we will be less fixated on creating something with the illusion of permanence. Perhaps we will be freed up to offer to young people more open-ended, risky, vulnerable ways of exploring God, the world, and our place in it.
I have been trying to change my own mindset on this for a couple of years now. I haven’t got all (or perhaps any) of the answers. I still have a box of felt pens in my cupboard. I still seem to get through a ridiculous amount of paper. And I still carry around a huge amount of stuff! But it is slowly becoming different stuff. Leaves. Stones. Sticks. Items we will play and create and explore with, and then return to where we found them. The contents of my recycling box, ready to be made into something wonderful, and then returned to the recycling when it is no longer needed. There is less plastic, less paper, more natural objects and reusable resources.
And always I am asking myself: what is the next step I can take to reduce the environmental impact of my ministry with children and young people?
If you have tried something eco-friendly in children’s and youth work which has worked well, please share it in the comments. Let’s try to build up a list of ideas and resources to help each other on this journey.