A.J. Swoboda: I’m a Pentecostal environmentalist

Creation care is an integral aspect of the relationship of the Holy Spirit to the world, says a Pentecostal theologian, pastor and environmentalist.

I’m a Pentecostal pastor, a theologian and an environmentalist. Hard to believe these three identities can coexist in one person at the same time. But they can and do.

And I’m not the only one: among Pentecostals and charismatic Christians, there’s a resurgence of people engaging pressing issues like climate change and ecological degradation as Pentecostals and charismatics. They are not leaving their faith to do so.

We are “green Pentecostals,” and we are proud of it. For us, caring for the earth is a point of gospel-centered discipleship.

A common caricature is that we’re snake-handling, dance-in-the-aisle, big-haired Christians who seem more concerned with the end of the world than with caring for the world.

That’s not been my experience. Since my college years at the University of Oregon, Pentecostalism has fostered within me a deep love for Jesus Christ, a passion to preach the Bible, zeal to see the world come to faith -- and a desire to care for God’s creation.

During the overwhelming journey of completing two full-length books on the relationship between Christian theology and the environment (“Tongues and Trees” and “Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology”), I’ve increasingly been inspired to rethink creation care as an integral aspect of the relationship of the Holy Spirit to the world. And Pentecostals have helped me so much in that respect.

In my experience, there are three main aspects I appreciate about the Pentecostal tradition. First, Pentecostals believe that Pentecost hasn’t expired; they believe the Spirit lives on, so to speak. And with that, that the Spirit is alive in the church and the world, even the natural world.

Second, Pentecostals care deeply about the marginalized -- women, people of color, the nonprivileged, the uneducated. Pentecostalism is a movement of Holy Spirit people liberated from the trap of oppression.

Third, and finally, Pentecostals are an emotional people. They cry. They weep. They can feel. Go into any Pentecostal church service and you’ll find a box of Kleenex. Pentecostals are still able to be moved.

And I think the Holy Spirit is trying to move the church of Jesus Christ. I believe wholeheartedly that when God’s Spirit is present in the life of a church, it should know how to cry, how to lament, how to repent.

As a Pentecostal, I can’t look at my greed, the injustice of my decisions, the garbage that I created, and not be brought to Spirit-led tears. I’m a Pentecostal because I am open to the Spirit breaking my heart. I want to be open to hearing the Spirit show me I’m selfish, that I’m the problem, that I must repent.

So yes, God’s Spirit moves us to repentance -- the kind of repentance that is needed for real life-change in the 21st-century ecological crisis. I think of it this way: “repentance” is a word meaning to change one’s mind. Repentance is a kind of “good grief” that occurs when we’ve drawn near to God, to borrow from the prophet Charlie Brown. It’s a deep and lasting change within our minds, hearts and imaginations when we touch God’s terribly deep mercy.

Be careful: repentance is not what some religious people have supposed. Repentance does not, as they suggest, bring us closer to God. Rather, repentance is a byproduct of being drawn near to God. Repentance isn’t a moral magnet that draws God to love us more than he has. Mostly, repentance is what happens when we’ve realized that God loved us before a lick of change ever happened.

God is creating a new generation, a generation of Pentecostals who believe that being filled with God’s Spirit does not require us to turn off our brains, or put our heads in the sand, or ignore the great social issues of our day. A generation is rising that sees God’s Spirit as moving us back into the realm of the real world, where there are real pains and real struggles and real issues.

For us, we resonate with the words of Pietist theologian and pastor Christian Blumhardt. He once said that every Christian will undergo two conversions.

The first is conversion to God.

The second is conversion back to the world.