Saturday, January 03, 2009

sustainable spirituality

While in Australia, we enjoyed a trip up the Coorong. It’s a vast mix of saltwater, lagoon and freshwater, a beautiful and peaceful place where the Murray River meets the ocean. It’s also a scar on Australia, as the entire place is basically dying. Irrigation demands upstream combined with human manipulation and drought mean that Australia’s largest river lacks the fresh water strength to flow out to sea. Mile after mile of the mouth is basically salinising. Birds are leaving and fish are dying and dredges are working non-stop to stop the river mouth silting up.

As part of the day long tour, we walked over some sand dunes. Suddenly our guide bent down and started digging. In a few minutes, he offered us fresh water. In the middle of these desolate sand dunes, there was water. A bit further on, he showed us the piles of cockles, and the eating place of the Ngarrindjeri people, who have been the traditional custodians of these sand dunes for over 6,000 years.

I stood there astounded. Put me in that place, amid those barren sand dunes and I would die. Yet other humans have learnt to live within this environment.

I pondered the implications for spirituality. If the church is declining in the West, then could at some point, the way we do church actually be killing the fresh waters of faith? If Australians can live out of sync with their environment and in so doing, begin to kill the Murray, then are there ways that Christians and churches are living that are actually killing faith?

I thought of middle-class families, rushing kids from one learning opportunity to the next, too busy rushing to spend time enjoying.

I thought of churches who live in older buildings, when so much energy simply has to go into window repair and the manse roof, rather than into nourishing faith and vision.

I thought of denominations I have consulted with, and the way that their understandings of full-time ministry warp and shift their vision of what it means to be missional.

I thought of smaller missional communities, often younger people, keen, radical. They don’t need a building nor a full-time minister. Yet without these structures, and in times of flux and change, they can lack wise, older heads to lead and guide. How are such communities networked and resourced?

Sustainable agriculture integrates three main goals: environmental stewardship, farm profitability, and prosperous farming communities. What might be the shape of sustainable spirituality? Here’s a list of starters.

1. It would honour the faith of ancestors, glad that historical resources have proven lifegiving in the past.

2. It would be sensitive to contemporary culture, acknowledging that this is our environment and needs to be read respectfully and lived in sustainably.

3. It would make formation and discipleship of the next generation a priority.

4. It would network widely and broadly, aware that only in collective knowledge can one small part make sense of a wider whole.

What else? Does the analogy work? What might a sustainable spirituality collective look like?

I’m actually wondering about making this a major blog theme over the next while. I’m even wondering about blog rename – sustainable Kiwi, in order to capture some of the nuances of the above, which “alternative” and “emergent” and “missional” seem to have failed to mobilise around.

Updated: some challenging links – Earth abbey; sustainable spirituality wiki.

Posted by steve at 10:11 AM


  1. I think it would need a stronger, earthed relationship to the natural environment, and reconnect the “spiritual” and physical worlds, in doing so, it would be a collective that had seasons and celebrations in tune with the surrounding physical and cultural environment.

    I think it also would need to be a community that creates, not merely consumes. The digging of each well needs to be done, or else no fresh water flows, the digging is essential, as the tasting of the fresh water is. I guess there’s also the need to keep the well open and clean. Communities that manufacture offer something to the wider world, something we’re all learning during this credit crisis where making money by manipulating money has proved to be the lie it is.

    Interesting post Steve. Am also wondering about making sustainability a new theme for us too here in the UK.

    Grace and peace, and every blessing in this new year,

    Comment by Jonathan — January 3, 2009 @ 10:33 am

  2. definitely re earth Jonathan. for me, that’s part of the attraction, that we as Kiwis can work on our own church year/seasons for example, and that sustainable gardening, green buildings are all a part of it.

    i like what you say about create not consumer.

    Comment by steve — January 3, 2009 @ 11:19 am

  3. In another life, I worked as a primary teacher. My colleagues and I mourned for our students their impoverished experience of community and environment, lack of time to “free range” and imagine, lack of stories, and lack of mealtimes, all dimensions that contribute to the sustainability of life. Today I wonder about those same qualities in the lives of adults. Where i see energy, I also see pauses in activity, multigenerational mealtimes, stories and resources being shared, and often flowing out in play and creativity.

    Comment by Kerry — January 3, 2009 @ 3:35 pm

  4. I warm to your basic thesis, Steve, but I am not absolutely sure about your No 2. I think we majored on the young all through the 1950s with a huge Sunday School Movement which we were sure would put a sound church in place in the next generation or two. It didn’t happen because the culture of one generation won’t be the same as that of the next – “The church that is married to the age will be widowed in a generation”. So perhaps the first need is to “dig out the old wells” for the present generation.

    Also, there are a lot of ways of “being church” these days and even those that seem to some of us to smother grace and faith may meet needs of some others. Is that a serious problem?

    I am more challenged by the congregation where I worship than with trying to reflect on the whole range of churchdom. It’s enough for me that where I meet to worship there is a community that is often refreshing, stimulating, risking and serving with care and passion. I think it has some of the marks that you are thinking about.

    Comment by Dave — January 3, 2009 @ 7:37 pm

  5. Great ideas here and the post about Christmas seekers too. I know when I first stepped into a church it was after attending a Christmas Eve service in a somewhat intoxicated state. I got up the courage to return the following Sunday morning but it was really hard. I suspect the church didnt really expect someone to just turn up on their own. And as you say everyone was on holiday and I couldnt recognise any of those who had been part of the Christmas service. I used to just go and sit by some old folk and then feel lost at the end of the service. There was a cuppa on offer in another room but I was too chicken to go in. It was really hard to keep going back and took several visits before a parishioner introduced themselves and I started to meet people. Looking back I don’t think the church was prepared for someone from a totally non-religious background. Someone asked me if I wanted my name in the prayer directory and I was too embarrassed to say I had no idea what one was. I also found there wasn’t specific support for the challenges faced when ones entire family and friends are not Christians and/or have a negative outlook on Christianity. There were some carecells specifically for couples that I couldn’t belong to, there were always marriage strengthening courses etc for couples that I didnt feel I could participate in etc etc. So yep perhaps some of the lost are at the end of the river and resources there are perhaps scarce?
    Anyway, best wishes for the New Year and thanks for the thought provoking blog content over 2008.
    (Oh and don’t forget to fix the spelling of the heading 🙂 )

    Cheers, Jack

    Comment by Jack — January 3, 2009 @ 8:06 pm

  6. Dave,
    I’m not argueing that a church become wedded to its culture. It’s simply about naming one’s environment – that the noughties are different from the 90’s and the 80s etc, that texting and web will change the way life is lived and loved, and so the way faith is shaped. Or to use the Coorong analogy, that in a dry spell, we adapt and live differently,

    jack, ta for encouragement, the honesty and for the eye kept on my spelling 🙂


    Comment by steve — January 3, 2009 @ 11:01 pm

  7. Although the below is taken from a different context ( educational leadership) the principles are worth reflecting on and some may be transferable when thinking about Sustainable spirituality.
    (Sustainable Leadership – A.Hargreaves and D. Fink, 2006, Jossey – Bass Leadership Library in Education)
    Seven Principles of Sustainability
    1. Depth ( Sustainable leadership matters). We must preserve, protect and promote what is itself sustaining as an enrichment of life: Leadership for learning and leadership for caring for and among others.
    2. Length ( Sustainable leadership lasts). It preserves and advances the most valuable aspects of life over time, year upon year, from leader to the next.The challenges of leadership sucession, of leading across and beyond individual leaders over time are at the heart of sustainable leadership and change.
    3. Breadth ( Sustainable leadership spreads)In a complex world, no one leader, institution or nation can or should control everything. Sustainable leadrship is distributed leadership.
    4. Justice ( Sustainable leadership does no harm to and actively improves the surrounding environment).It actively finds ways to share knowledge and resources with neighouring schools (churches)and the local community. Sustainable leadership is not self – centred : it is socially just.
    5. Diversity(Sustainable leadership promotes cohesive diversity). Strong ecosystems are biologically diverse. Sustainable leadership fosters and learns from diversity and moves things forward by creating cohesion and networking among its richly varied components.
    6. Resourcefulness ( Sustainable leadership develops and does not deplete material and human resources. Sustainable leadership renews people’s energy. It does not drain its leaders dry through innovation overload or unrealistic time lines for change It is prudent and is resourceful leadership that wastes neither its money nor its people.
    7. Conservation ( Sustainable leadership honours and laerns from the best of the past to create an even better future). It revisits and revives organistaional memories and honours the wisdom of memory bearers as a way to learn from, preserve and then move beyond the best of the past.


    Comment by Martin — January 4, 2009 @ 4:55 am

  8. Those look really worthwhile Martin. And it leads me to thinking about how similar schools and churches are. And that it is important also to clarify from your number 1 just what it is we wish to “preserve, protect and promote” – I think in today’s secondary schools there is so much emphasis on assessements that while a child can get great results many leave without a passion for learning. With regard to churches I suspect the goal of ‘faith gets clouded too with things like numbers attending etc.

    Thanks for the spelling correction…sorry, it’s an occupational hazard…has the potential to stifle a writer’s flow & creativity and I still do it…but I promise I’ll restrain myself to headings only 😉

    Comment by Jack — January 4, 2009 @ 9:27 am

  9. great list martin – is the book worth reading?


    i have long had this theory that the closest thing to my job is that of being a primary school principal – both change agents, both creating learning environments, both with a complex range of stakeholders inc public, parents, students, teachers, government, to engage with, both needing to balance paperwork with people.

    no worries re spelling


    Comment by steve — January 4, 2009 @ 2:54 pm

  10. Yes, I found it a informative and thoughtful read.

    Comment by Martin — January 4, 2009 @ 10:19 pm

  11. Thank you for starting off this idea – I think it’s absolutely spot on – I keep think about how I do spirituality rather than go for a sleep!!
    We want spirituality to sustain and nourish us and yet practise it in an often unsustaibable way – I’m neverthelss very challenged by how rowan Williams finds for praying … nearly midnight here must got to bed and stop blogging!!

    Comment by jane — January 5, 2009 @ 11:38 am

  12. […] on January 5, 2009 by Chuck Warnock Steve Taylor started an interesting conversation about a sustainable spiritual collective.  He even renamed his blog sustain:if:able kiwi.  Fortunately he’s still at the same url, […]

    Pingback by Sustainable spiritual collectives « Confessions of A Small-Church Pastor — January 6, 2009 @ 5:23 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.