At George Fox Evangelical Seminary, this semester marks the first for the Christian Earthkeeping concentration and growth in the way evangelicals are viewing environmentalism through the lenses of stewardship and poverty.
Since an announcement in May, the evangelical seminary located in Portland, Ore., has welcomed its first 15 students into the program and started them on their first course in Christian Earthkeeping. The course is part of a concentration in sustainability.
Admissions officer Sheila Bartlett says the concentration is about more than the three R's (recycle, reuse and reduce).
"This is not about recycling … this is about good stewardship," explained Bartlett.
On the website, the seminary notes that the evangelical church has long been silent about environmental issues. However, it cites the Bible as the anchor for Godly concern. The site quotes Genesis 2 :15, which states, "The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it."
Evangelical leadership has historically challenged environmentalism because of theories such as global warming and climate change.
In March 2007, Focus on the Family's James Dobson and Family Research Council's Tony Perkins expressed opposition to evangelical activism on global warming.
This year, Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., a leading evangelical theologian, posed arguments that liken ecology to a secular religion on his blog.
"[T]he intellectual elites are not so secular as they believe themselves to be. As it happens, their religion may not be theistic, but it is a religion all the same. That fact is confirmed in a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Stephen T. Asma, a professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago, argues that the new religion of many secular folk is ecology," he wrote in a January blog post.
But according to a 2009 report from the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, sustainability studies – the study of environmental, economic and social dimensions – is catching on at many Christian institutions of higher learning.
Last year, the institution created a grant for the development of creation care courses and 24 CCCU campus applied. Six of those campuses received mini grants of $5,000 along with training and with the intent of offering courses this year.
"Something is happening that makes [the work of creation care] less adversarial and much more attractive. We have seen a sense of value and technology come together, so that it has become a sense of best practices to do what is right," said Dr. Randy Lowry, president of Lipscomb University.
What's happening, says James Tomowich, a senior fellow of the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, is religious leaders are taking an ecology stance that is focused on people as the answer to earth's problems rather than the initiator.
The type of environmentalism that focuses on climate change and global warming says that humans and humans' consumption are the source of earth's problems, Tomowich points out.
By contrast, he defines stewardship as "an acknowledgment that God created all things and that, as in the first two chapters of Genesis, God gave human beings one, dominion over creation, and two, called them to be stewards to tend the earth."
The difference is the role of the human being. "Humans from a biblical, Christian point of view are producers and stewards of creation. From an environmentalist point of view, humans are users and polluters," Tomowich explained.
The focus of Christian earth care then is to uplift people spiritually and economically.
The goal of Christian stewardship on the mission field is not "running in[to an impoverished community], sharing Christ with people and then running away," Tomowich shared, but to develop communities so as to lift people from the biological and environmental problems that stem from poverty.
This is also the goal at George Fox Evangelical Seminary.
Seminary students who elect the Christian Earthkeeping concentration balance theology courses with a half credit earthkeeping courses such as "Theology and Stewardship," "Theology and Ethic of Land" and "Poverty and Restoring Earth-keeping" throughout the fall and spring.
In the summer, students will participate in five-day retreats to learn about the environment but also, how issues like racism, sexism and global systems lead to poverty.
Daniel Brunner, a professor at the seminary, says the program is focused on the social justice aspect of sustainability rather than climate theory.
"This is the single most important social justice issue facing humankind today," Brunner told The Oregonian. "Therefore, it needs to be the single most important social justice issue the church engages in."