taking the words of Jesus seriously

I have always loved animals. And thanks to my parents, I began my formation as a Jesus-follower from a very early age. I vividly remember walking into my bedroom as a very young child, lying down on the floor, and asking Jesus to come into my heart. I went to a Christian elementary school, attended worship services Sunday mornings, Sunday nights, and Wednesday evenings, went to Vacation Bible School and family camp and summer camp and two Christian colleges. I’ve been a part of non-denominational churches, Episcopal churches, a Church of Christ, a couple of Nazarene Churches, a PCUSA congregation, a Brethren in Christ church plant, and a Foursquare community. I was raised in the church, but never heard a sermon about animals.

And though animals were here on earth before humans, present at Jesus’ birth, and expected in heaven, it often seems that the only time they appear in our Sunday conversations is during announcements about the upcoming church barbeque. I’ve sung the Doxology in sanctuaries across the United States (and in a few other countries), and never once have we talked about what it means for animals (including the ones we eat) to “praise Him all creatures here below.” In my lifetime, the earth has lost more than half of its wildlife, while the number of animals we confine and kill in animal factories has climbed steadily higher. Rev. Dr. Tony Campolo once said to me that every time a species goes extinct, their worship is silenced and we are complicit in that blasphemy. The church in the U.S., as a whole, has failed to develop a reputation of caring deeply, teaching consistently, and acting faithfully to prevent climate change, species loss, food injustice, or animal cruelty.*

READ: Creation Groans: Why Red Letter Christians Should Care About Animals

Churches have a lot on their plates. In addition to caring well for one another, we hope churches are engaged in their communities and the world. Some congregations may object to spending time in pursuit of creation care when there are so many life-and-death issues facing the people in their communities. But there’s no need to separate creation care from people care or from our spiritual lives. The United Methodist Church says that, “Climate change has repercussions for many of the issues we face today, from the wellbeing of our children, to global poverty, to economic growth. Caring for God’s creation is one of the greatest humanitarian and moral challenges of our time…”  And the National Association of Evangelicals claims that, “We worship God by caring for creation.”

But where to start? What can one congregation do to correct hundreds of years of bad theology and destructive practices, not just about creation care generally, but about animals specifically?

I co-direct a project called CreatureKind. We are working to help engage churches with new ways of thinking about animals and Christian faith. Our particular focus is on farmed animals, but there are lots of ways that Christian communities can begin to pay attention to and talk about what they — as members of the body of Christ — believe about God’s creatures and how they might move toward living out those beliefs more fully. In a nutshell, we believe that how we see ourselves influences how we see and act towards other creatures. So being “creaturekind” isn’t just a theological reality, but one that can influence our day-to-day choices. (You can read more about why we are called CreatureKind and what that means here.)

Below are six ways we at CreatureKind suggest that church communities can be more attentive to the reality of our shared life as beloved creatures of God.

  1. Deliver a Sermon: We don’t have to limit our creation care discussions to Earth Day or the Feast of St. Francis. The scriptures contain lots of texts for churches to examine together. For a few examples from varied contexts, check out the sample sermons from CreatureKind staff and friends.
     
  2. Include and Advertise Veg Options at Church Meals: When you’re planning church meals, be sure to include a veggie option and make sure people know it will be available! On spaghetti and meatballs night, have a pan of sauce without meatballs. (Bonus points if you include a vegetarian meatball, made from scratch or not.) At the fall kick-off-barbeque, have veggie burgers and veggie dogs available to grill. Leave meat-and-dairy add-ins on the side of pastas, salads, and other dishes. And if your congregation is all-potluck, all-the-time, ask a few folks to bring a veggie dish to be sure there’s something for everyone! Reducing meat consumption is good for humans, animals, and the planet.
     
  3. Run the CreatureKind Church Course: Will my dog go to heaven? Why did God make animals? What does Christianity have to do with animals? The free CreatureKind six-week small group course is a dialogue-based way for congregations to consider together what they believe about animals and how to put those beliefs into practice.
     
  4. Read a Book about Animals or Creation Care as a Congregation: There are an increasing number of great books to help Christians think well about our relationship with God’s creation and then put that thinking into action in ways that are appropriate for their particular context. Here are a few potential options!
     
  5. Partner with a Local Shelter: For some people, their pets are an important part of their well-being. Elderly folks may take great solace in a beloved dog or cat when their family members seem to visit less often. Children may learn to care for others by caring for a pet. Your local shelter may welcome the opportunity to talk to your congregation about pet care or adoption. And your community may embrace opportunities to add pet food and supplies to your food pantry.
     
  6. Volunteer at a Local Shelter or Sanctuary: Muck stalls of horses rescued from abuse, walk dogs waiting for their forever family, read to cats, mend fences to keep rescued pigs from wandering too far. Spending time with animals and with the people who care for them can be a wonderful way for your church to show your community that Christianity is Good News for the whole creation.
     

If your church has done these or other activities to include animals in our efforts to care for creation and live our shared faith, let us know in the comments! We can all learn from each other’s experience.

*Here’s a shout out to some of the people I know who are working to change this, including Creation Justice Ministries, Green Seminary Initiative, Seminary Stewardship Alliance, Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, Green Chalice Ministries, Blessed Earth, GreenFaith, the HSUS Faith Outreach Campaign, and many more individuals doing the hard work of advocacy in their communities without the benefit of organizational backing.

About The Author

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Sarah Withrow King is the deputy director of Evangelicals for Social Action and the co-director of CreatureKind, a project to engage the church on animal welfare, with a particular focus on farmed animals. She is the author of "Vegangelical: How Caring for Animals Can Shape Our Faith" (Zondervan, 2016) and "Animals Are Not Ours (No, Really, They’re Not): An Evangelical Animal Liberation Theology" (Cascade Books, 2016). She is fueled by black coffee, dog snuggles, and repeat-watching The West Wing.

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