>Evangelical churches are unlikely places for finding environmental movements. I had the privilege this past week of spending six days with Lifezone Church in Tauranga, Bay of Plenty, New Zealand. I went there to explore their congregation’s journey in their struggle to understand what God is asking of them in relation to restoration of a small piece of nature. In Evangelical circles we actually don’t call this an “environmental” movement, but rather the “Creation Care” movement. “Creation Care” recognizes that God is the creator and sustainer of all. And rather than separate nature from humans, Creation Care requires that we work with God in restoring wholeness in relationships amongst humans, nature, and God wherever we can. As the Evangelical Environmental Network (www.creationcare.org) states–It’s about Life!
A decade or so ago, a member of Lifezone church had a vision from God centered around a piece of land just inside the boundaries of the city. The church had miraculously sold a previous piece of property for an incredible increase in value in its search for a new space and Keith Hunt, with not long to live, had a vision for this piece of land. It had been in pasture and he envisioned it restored to native bush, where tourists and local people could come encounter God through his creation. At the flat-topped center of this restored bush, where an organic kiwi orchard now sits, would be a community center that welcomed the community and served as a meeting place for the church. Keith did not live long after the purchase of the land, but those that caught this vision still talk about it as if it was yesterday. One called it an experience of being baptized in the Spirit when first hearing the vision. And those that God moved still feel the burden and responsibility of their stewardship obligations over this small piece of God’s Creation.
Much has happened since this initial purchase of land. The crash of 2008 meant that the city did not grow out like the church anticipated. Several pastors have come and gone and much of the membership of the congregation is now new with little knowledge of this history. In the meantime, those original “holders” of the vision have worked with Kuaka New Zealand, an educational and travel organization, and the local government to plant 40,000 native trees. Student volunteers from around the world have planted. My own students planted one hillside when I organized a 2 week class on sustainability in the Bay of Plenty, working with Kuaka New Zealand. We covered our carbon footprint by planting in what is now called Sanctuary Park (www.sanctuarypark.org.nz) While the church struggled, God went ahead of them, restoring Sanctuary Park through extensive community and global engagement.
Lifezone Church has recently purchased land and buildings in a warehouse district of Tauranga for its site. This has initiated a new round of discussions about Sanctuary Park and its purpose and relationship to congregation’s mission. This may seem to be a conversation that is coming a bit late in the process, but I think not. Last year, when we planted with my class, it was difficult to envision the restored habitat at Sanctuary Park. One year later, when I visited, I could only say “It is finished!” The biggest part of the labor is complete. After a wet summer, finally the vision becomes real. The berries are on the trees planted earlier, beginning to draw the birds. The water route is clear for the endangered White Bait fish to come up the stream and spawn in the wetland.
And as the vision becomes real, so does its connection to the mission of Lifezone Church. An Evangelical church that gives 25% of its budget to missions and evangelism is finding that the Bible asks them to incorporate God’s Good Earth into their vision of Shalom and Salvation. Will Sanctuary Park become a place for tourists to encounter God? Will it be a place for quit reflection? The future is open as the Church grows toward developing a vision for this former pastureland.
And in it all, I can’t help but believe that God is doing a greater work than just restoring one small piece of his creation to health.
Some of the earliest plantings
Restored wetland for White Bait –right; Most recent plantings–left
Pasture on left with restored area growing on right
Trees grown to the point where berries are now coming–a major draw for native birds