Evergreen Baptist Church is participating in what Pastor Ken Fong calls the revolution of justice and hope.
Fong is the senior pastor of the Los Angeles-area church, and he was a featured speaker at the New Baptist Covenant II in Atlanta in November.
What might have surprised some listeners during Fong’s address was his revelation that this revolution has inspired his church to plant trees.
Yes, plant trees.
“One of the things that God has woken our church up to is the deforestation of this planet,” Fong told his listeners. Citing data on deforestation’s environmental (global climate change) and economic (poverty) impact, Fong said his church has been responsible for planting nearly 100,000 trees in the past two years.
What does planting trees have to do with God’s revolution revealed in the person and work of Jesus?
“We have to go all the way back to ask the question of what is the basic understanding of the Gospel,” Fong told EthicsDaily.com. “At Evergreen, we talk about a four-chapter story. Too much preaching and teaching focuses on chapters two and three, but we have to reboot that understanding.”
Fong said he tells his church that chapter one is about the creation and the shalom of God. Chapter two is sin and evil. Chapter three is the coming of the solution: Jesus. Chapter four is the revolution of justice and hope.
“Dispensational theology hasn’t helped Baptists here,” Fong said. “The attitude has been: ‘The trumpet sounds and we’re out of here!’ But what book makes sense without a beginning and an end? The story doesn’t end when I ask Jesus into my heart; it ends when the shalom of God is restored.”
Fong’s is a holistic theology that views all of creation as benefiting from the redemptive work of Jesus.
“We have to get our theology right,” Fong said. “We’ve lost our connection to the creation. I often ask people, ‘When is the last time you actually touched the earth?’ God called the creation good. Romans tells us that the whole creation groans in expectation. We’ve lost touch with the soul of God.”
This isn’t pantheism dressed up as environmentalism, though. Fong’s approach to environmental work is utterly Christ-centered and evangelistic.
“Creation care is part of the revolution,” Fong said, “because the creation is to be a beneficiary of the redemption provided by Jesus. All of creation has been subject to human sin, and the journey from chapter three to chapter four, the hero’s journey, is the setting right of what is wrong and the pursuit of the shalom of God.”
Fong’s church understands salvation as the first step in a Joseph Campbell-like hero’s journey. Campbell, whose interview with Bill Moyers was made into a PBS documentary called “The Power of Myth,” was a professor of English who became fascinated with mythology, particularly the hero’s journey.
“Each of these journeys begins with an average person being captured in his or her imagination,” Fong explained. “The Gospel story captures our imaginations, and then there is a call to leave home, to stop pretending all is well, to face problems, to overcome obstacles and to participate in a revolution of good. Christians are sent together to heal the creation.”
To do their part, Evergreen has partnered with the Eden Reforestation Project, a 501(c)3 nonprofit that plants trees around the world.
A large part of the work is done in Ethiopia and Madagascar, and it’s in those places that Fong says the Gospel is evident in actions, not just doctrines.
“Working on the environment is doing evangelism,” he said. “Tribes and villages are seeing the benefits: the return of old growth trees, the return of wildlife, clean water and even cash economies. Forty percent of the money we give to Eden goes to pay indigenous people to do jobs that are brand new because of the work Eden does. Eventually, they ask what our motivation is. We tell them, ‘This is what God is about.'”
It costs about 10 cents to plant a tree. The price is so small that everyone at Evergreen can wrap their brains around it.
“I’ve had children tell me, ‘Pastor Fong, we found a tree on the ground,’ when they find a dime,” Fong said. “It’s simple economics.”
Fong said he was inspired to get involved in justice issues in 1990 when he attended a conference about classic social justice issues: environment, human trafficking and racial reconciliation.
“I decided to get outside my circle, so I started working in a secular drug rehab program,” he said. “I couldn’t not talk about it to my church. The stories became the illustrations for my sermons, and people realized I wasn’t asking them to do something I wasn’t already doing. I didn’t even have to ask. We model the revolution in our actions.”