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I first became aware of James Amadon when friends alerted me to an essay he had written in the magazine of the Evangelical Covenan Church entitled “HIs Eye is on the Salmon.” I was struck by the conviction, compassion, and intelligence with which he communicated his faith. I knew I had to talk with him. So over the past few years we’ve exchanged phone calls and emails. Without fail these connections have relit my own convictions and challenged me to do more. I knew at some point I would want him to be able to share his insights here.

Now seemed the right time. He recently made the hard decision to leave the church he had been pastoring to help launch a new initiative to advance a more integrated Christian faith in the 21st century. If there are to be communities that live out a whole Christian faith, then there will need to be brave people who step outside of their comfort zones to build them. 

James Amadon stands on Rattlesnake Ledge with a small mountain range in the distance and a forested valley floor just behind him.

James Amadon hiking Rattlesnake Ledge near North Bend, Washington.

Nathan: Can you trace your journey from growing up in New Hampshire to becoming the executive director of Circlewood?

James: I grew up in a rural area of New Hampshire in a small town called Lancaster. Church was a huge part of our lives. We lived in town. We went to the St. Paul’s Episcopal Church just around the corner. My dad’s been the organist for over 30 years. My mom helps lead worship. We were just always there. In addition to that, because it was a small church, I went to a friend’s youth group at the local Assemblies of God congregation. These two different church perspectives – one high church that leaned liberal, the other a charismatic congregation that leaned conservative – influenced me going forward.

In addition to that, living in what we call the Great North Woods, where a ten-minute walk took me from my front door into the woods and down to a beautiful beaver pond, well, all that made its way inside me.

As a teenager, I received a call to ministry as an evangelist. While I resonated with this call, I didn’t know what it meant. I admired evangelists like Billy Graham, but I didn’t feel like that was for me. So I left my vocational direction open and began a search for what it meant for me to be an evangelist. What was the good news? What does it mean to share it?

I went to a Christian liberal arts college and studied the Bible, theology, and philosophy. I knew intuitively there was a personal dynamic to faith but I also knew there was more to it than that. When I graduated I was still not sure of my vocational direction. I knew I wanted to go seminary. I ended up at North Park Seminary in Chicago and threw myself into the social dimensions of the gospel. I read everything I could find. I started a Bread for the World chapter which focused on lobbying political leaders on behalf of poor and hungry people. I advocated for the homeless in the city. I had some opportunities to work in these areas but I still had questions – there was still something about the Good News that was missing.

After seminary, I entered pastoral ministry, which was has been wonderful, and started reading agrarian writers like Wendell Berry. This gave me the last piece of the puzzle and helped me to see our faith from the perspective of a connected, interdependent Creation. From there it has been a journey on how to bring the personal, the social, and the ecological aspects of the Gospel together.

Over the last decade I’ve been thinking a lot about that and began looking for churches or places that practiced that sort of integrated version of the faith. I couldn’t find many churches or parachurch ministries that were doing that. There are certainly people and places doing incredible work in one area, maybe two areas, but very few that offered that full integrated vision. That’s when it began to occur to me that maybe this was what I was supposed to do, maybe this is the fulfillment of that initial vocational call – to help people see the Good News in all its fullness, to see how we can integrate the personal, social, and ecological dimensions of the gospel. This is what led me to my current position as the executive director of Circlewood.

Nathan: Please tell me about that transition from the church you were the pastor of to becoming the executive director of Circlewood. How did that transition sharpen your insight into your call?

James: I served as Senior Pastor at Highland Covenant Church in Bellevue, Washington for the last ten years. Stepping down was very, very hard. I loved the people, the work, and the wider community. I would not have left if I had not felt compelled to follow this emerging call.

Thinking about it now, I can see that my denomination – the Evangelical Covenant Church – prepared me in some ways for this, because we read Scripture holistically and we are a very mission-driven denomination. One of our core affirmations is that we are committed to the whole mission of the Church. Now for the denomination that has meant expanding our work in areas of mercy and justice. It has been a little slower for us to the see the ecological aspects of the gospel, but the theological framework is there.

Nathan: This has been a big transition. Your family must also support your call.

James: Yes. They have been incredible. They loved our church. My kids loved that I was the pastor of the church. They were very much loved. In those ways, this has been a real loss for them. As I pursue something different, they have been very courageous, very supportive of me. My wife Emily has been incredible. She understands why I feel compelled to take on this new call. Honestly, I could not do it without their support.

Nathan: Please tell me more about Circlewood and what you are working on and what your goals are in that endeavor.

James: While it is still a work in progress, the emerging vision for Circlewood is “An ecologically-centered church passionately pursuing mission with its people, the poor, and the earth.” We want everyone to understand this integrated vision of faith and life that we have. We want people to love that vision, see the beauty and truth of it, and to commit their lives to following it as best they can. I think if you’re able to lead people into a new vision of Scripture and show them alternative ways of living and believing in the world that this kind of transformation is possible. Out of this vision comes our specific mission: “To transform Christian thought and practice through integrative, ecologically-centered ministry.

Nathan: Is your vision that Circlewood will change people’s vision of the Christian faith and that those people would then bring forth fruit in their home congregations? Or is it for them to plant new congregations?

James: Although at this point we are still developing the specific programming, we know that we want people to see this alternative perspective and be able to translate that into their homes, communities, churches, and workplaces.

Nathan: How would you explain why so much of Christian tradition has overlooked the ecological in the walk of faith?

James: I think there are a couple of reasons. Number one – I think we have incomplete readings of Scripture. I don’t want to call them wrong, but I think they’re incomplete. We’re missing the place of the entire Creation, the whole cosmos, in God’s purposes and work in Scripture from Genesis to Revelation.

The second reason is that within our working theology of the Church, particularly in evangelical churches, we have a really incomplete eschatology, our understanding where God is leading everything. We have a vision of heaven that’s very distinct and different from the earth we live on. The biblical vision is of heaven and earth coming together in a way that brings the physical and spiritual together in a seamless unity.

And I think overlaying all of that is a cultural captivity to materialism that sees the world as raw material. As Christians, we’re often more committed to the American dream as material prosperity rooted in unfettered use of resources rather than the Scriptural vision of receiving the life-giving gifts of Creation and responding with humility, reverence, and care. All of these together are keeping the Church from seeing the complete picture.

Nathan: Is it possible for an established mainstream church to change and begin to have a more complete understanding of the Christian life? My sense is that a lot of Christians who care about what happens to God’s earth are typically in the outer orbit of their church, which itself does not consider Creation a core concern. Can there be effective reformation within existing churches or are new churches needed?

James: I think it’s a combination of all of those things. We definitely need some reformation to be happening. I think that church theologians and historians would say that the Church should always be reforming itself. This is a period in which we have the opportunity to see this. I think there are streams of this happening. There is a growing community of people who want to move the Church in this direction.

It is a mistake to cast aside existing institutions and relegating them to the dust heap and either disengaging or believing we can create something from scratch. In between those paths we need people and places that have a connection to the historic Church and its institutions as they exist but also are focused on a new direction and are working hard to reform those institutions. In addition, we need people and places creating new institutional life that can replace some institutions or completely transform them.

I do think we’re in this stage of upheaval where we’re not quite sure what’s going to be carried forward and what’s going to be left behind.

Nathan: Have you seen any alternative visions of church that have a foot in a more integrated vision of Christianity?

James: Yes. It’s important to remember that this is not a new vision of Christianity but a recovery. When mainstream Christianity has lost sight of this, individuals or communities have felt called to practice a more holistic faith and have stepped forward to create alternatives – from the early church to the various monastic movements to the Reformation to some Anabaptist groups to movements like the New Monasticism, which is a Protestant recapturing of monastic wisdom and practice. There are historic figures and communities that we can learn from that have been doing this for a long time.

In terms of today, it is important to look for people who are making connections between the personal, social, and ecological. They may not be perfect, but what they are doing is important. This is the genesis of renewal. Where are people are saying, “I’m tired of living a fragmented, siloed life. I’m tired of my faith not being able to speak to all aspects of who I am as I live in the world.”

There are communities, people and institutions trying hard to bring together what we’ve torn asunder. I take great hope in that. And I hope that Circlewood can help people in that process of renewal.

Nathan: As we pursue this integrated version of the Gospel, where does the church building fit in? A great deal of church resources typically go towards maintaining the church building. There are a lot of positives to that in terms of having a place to gather and in terms of having an expression of your faith that is clear and tangible in your community. On the other hand, if we’re living in an ecological age, would it make sense to have less resources invested in buildings and more resources invested in the land itself?

James: Ideally, the church is a particular people gathered together at a particular time to help take care of a particular place. The church body needs to ask, “How well are we doing those things? How are we caring for our place, which includes people as all the non-human aspects?” For existing churches that could means assessing use of physical resources. Are we taking care of them? Are our physical resources ecologically sustainable? Are our people living more sustainable lives? Are we seeking to do that together in this particular place?

I think there will be different answers because every people, every time, and every place is particular and unique. But there are churches that are doing several things with their existing properties, things like putting solar panels on the roof or initiating recycling, little small steps that can be taken that can raise that level of holistic care a little bit more

Nathan: Has there been one particular experience or book that has crystallized the convictions that you have in terms of the whole integrated understanding of what God offers us?

James: I think the one book that really set me on this journey was a collection of essays entitled The Unsettling of America. Wendell Berry in general has been a very important writer for me. He is someone who is thinking and writing and living through an integrated perspective. Some of the biblical and theological writers who have helped me develop my thinking and dreaming have been N.T. Wright, Norman Wirzba, and Ellen Davis.

Nathan: Does living out your faith ecologically have benefits for your faith?

James: Absolutely. When I am conscious about my place and role in the wider creation I feel closer to God, closer to our fellow humans, and closer to the incredible world God has created. I begin to experience, if only in flashes, the comprehensive oneness that Jesus speaks about in the Gospel of John. I am given a taste of the shalom that so many of the prophets point to in their scriptural poetry. I begin to feel a deeper sense of personal peace that is set into the fabric of Creation, this deep connection between beings, between God and what God has made.

It’s interesting to me that when I ask people questions like, “What have been the most profound moments of your life or of your faith?” most of them respond with experiences of being in nature. I think that speaks to a deep-seated sense that we are connected and that we need that connection.

Nathan: You said that your early call was for evangelism and that led to the pastoral ministry. What are the implications for evangelism from the perspective of a more integrated Christianity?

James: I think it means that we need an evangelism that’s more holistic and creative, that is looking to draw upon the truth that every human is designed to be connected to God, to each other, and to the rest of Creation. I think this can inspire ways of life that are naturally evangelistic, that draw people to Christ by pursuing this vision of wholeness within themselves, their churches, and their communities. Inviting people into this way of life must also include inviting them to join in lament and repentance for the way we fail to live up to God’s vision for us, and this, of course, is at the heart of evangelism as well.

This is exciting to me; it can draw in lots of different people – people who have rejected the Church, people who are drawn to Creation but not perhaps to established ways of the Church, and people who are interested in community or social justice but haven’t necessarily found a faith community that’s making connections to God from these perspectives.

Having that holistic perspective offers entry points for people to come and explore the Gospel.

Nathan: Well, that’s the first time I’ve gotten excited about evangelism. (Laughter) So much of evangelism as I’ve seen it has been individualistic, self-oriented, consumeristic, and otherworldly. And that hasn’t resonated.

James: Take these categories of personal, social, and ecological. There are many Christians who are able to articulate a personal experience of faith but lack a substantive social or ecological vision. There are other people who have no faith but who are actively serving the poor or know a lot about ecology and are living very responsible and intentional lives. Bringing those people together is like cross-evangelization. Christians have a lot to learn from others. We don’t have to see them as the opposition, or objects to be converted, but as people with whom to engage with about the important questions. What is the good life? What is a whole life?

In that way, evangelism becomes much more about building community and relationships than taking an oppositional approach where I have a message that you need and you have a lack that I can fill for you. I think it can be much more mutual.

Nathan: I would build on that and say that you are offering people life, a life that’s really rich and abundant, rather than having to start from a point of condemnation and offering them a life preserver to get them out of that condemnation. Can you give me an example of what gives you hope for what’s possible for this integrated Christianity?

James: I continue to meet people, particularly young people, who intuitively understand a holistic approach to life and are looking for a church and a faith that can support them and offer them a place contribute. One young woman I know spent a college semester in New Zealand learning about ecological systems from a faith perspective. She is now doing graduate work in hydrology. Another young woman joined the protests at Standing Rock as a way to connect her strong personal faith to the social and the ecological problems of the world. Neither of these women grew up in a church that emphasized caring for the non-human world, but they arrived there anyway. That gives me hope.

Circlewood is in the process of developing its website. If you are interested in learning more about Circlewood or connecting with James, he would welcome your contact by email at jamadon316@gmail.com.

My sons and I have been watching many of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament games, and one of the things I’ve been struck by is the intense teamwork. Recognizing that just one loss will bring their season to a sudden end, the players give everything they have together. They exult in each other’s successes. And they press each other hard to do things right even under tremendous pressure.

Shouldn’t church be the same way?

But when the Barna Group surveyed Christians across the country a few years ago, they discovered that “…only 5% of people say their church does anything to hold them accountable for integrating biblical beliefs and principles into their lives.”

George Barna, the study’s director, said this of those findings:

“One of the cornerstones of the biblical concept of community is that of mutual accountability. But Americans these days cherish privacy and freedom to the extent that the very idea of being held accountable by others—even those with their best interests in mind, or who have a legal or spiritual authority to do so—is considered inappropriate, antiquated and rigid.”

It’s in that context that I describe the first of many features of a whole faith church.

(As background, in Needed – A Whole Faith Church, I asserted that preserving and renewing God’s earth will only become part and parcel of what it means to live a Christian life when churches have a whole faith woven into their worship, theology, and culture. I’m beginning to work out what that would look like.)

Ironically, the first feature I’ve identified does not explicitly relate to God’s earth at all. It’s this simple thing – membership in a whole faith church would not be a casual association but a deep commitment to being a follower of Jesus, to the church, and to other members of the church.

Membership, in other words, would mean something profound in a person’s life.

An article in Leadership Journal included this provocative statement:

“The church should be less like a cruise ship and more like a battleship, says Ken Sande of Peacemaker Ministries. Rather than emphasizing their casual atmosphere and fun activities, Sande says it’s time for churches to raise the bar, to focus on a serious mission, and ensure that every person aboard serves a vital function.”

To get a sense of what that might look like, I’d encourage you to read Call to Commitment by Elizabeth O’Connor. First published in 1963, this book chronicles the beginnings and development of the Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC which attracted considerBook imageable attention for its unusual approach to church life and the devotion of its members to living out that faith together out in their community.

The leading figure in the origin of this church was Gordon Cosby, and one of his formative experiences was serving as a chaplain to the 101st Airborne during World War II. Cosby discovered that the average self-avowed Christian in the unit wasn’t ready to deal with moral pressure and difficulty of any sort. The faith these Christian men expressed loyalty to and the way they lived had been shaped more by the culture of their family and community than by a deep personal commitment to God.

A turning point was when Cosby led a man named Joe to profess a faith in Jesus. Cosby was delighted and anxious to see what a difference that faith would make in Joe’s life. When Cosby checked in with Joe’s commanding officer a short time later and told him of Joe’s conversion, however, he was in for a surprise.

“If Joe’s a Christian, “ he said, “nobody in the company knows it.”

So when Cosby and a tight-knit core of other committed Christians began to come together to form the Church of the Saviour in a house in Washington, D.C., fostering Christian integrity was a critical concern.

The following are key elements of what membership involved at the Church of the Saviour.

Extensive education requirements: A person desiring to be a member was required to take six courses in their School for Christian Living. In addition, as part of the process to becoming a member, a sponsor was chosen for that person who could get to know the member on a deeper level and help the member develop further in his or her spiritual life.

Ongoing growth in faith life: The School for Christian Living offered elective courses to enable people who had become members to continue to grow in their faith. Personal study programs were also encouraged.

Sacrificial commitment: Sacrificial giving was expected and all members participated in a mission group that met regularly not only carry out that mission activity but to also worship, study, and pray.

All members are ministers: Each member of the church was seen as a non-professional minister. For this reason there was a concerted effort to identify the particular ministry gifts of each member and to find ways for those gifts to be expressed in the church. Through an ordination service for laity, the church as a whole confirmed a clear role that the particular member was called to fill.

Powerful vows of membership: The book details the vows that the first members took when the church was launched in 1947. Here are just some of the statements:

“I unreservedly and with abandon commit my life and destiny to Christ, promising to give Him a practical priority in all the affairs of life. I will seek first the Kingdom of God and His Righteousness.”

“I commit myself, regardless of the expenditures of time, energy, and money to becoming an informed, mature Christian.”

“I believe that God is the total owner of my life and resources. I give God the throne in relation to the material aspect of my life. God is owner. I am the ower. Because God is a lavish giver I too shall be lavish and cheerful in my regular gifts.”

Each year, by the way, existing members renewed their membership vows as a way to remind each other of what they are committed to and their commitments to each other.

Living a Christian life: Members were expected to live a Christian life. Here’s how Gordon Cosby put it in one of his sermons:

“It is fundamental to everything which we do as Christians, that we personally develop a style of life which is recognizably Christian. This means that in our family groups, in our businesses and our government offices, when we walk in, a light goes on.”

In other words, a deep commitment to God will lead to a common Christian culture that is expressed by Christians in everyday life decisions 24/7.

The only way a church will be strong enough, however, to be a community of people where God’s ways are lived out in every phase of life (including the cherishing of God’s world) is if being a member of that church really means something.

An early brochure about membership in the Church of the Savior highlighted the danger of being a fully committed member of their church along with other disciples of Jesus: “It is indeed dangerous for if one becomes committed to this way, all life will be different and every sphere of one’s existence involved in the change.”

When was the last time your church described membership as a dangerous thing?

I realize as I write this that a sense of intense mission is one of the things I find missing in the churches my family has visited as we look for a church home.

On the other hand, I realize, too, that intensity and deep commitment to church have too often given birth to cults, abuses, and narrow, harsh interpretations of the Christian way.

Nevertheless, the Bible and many Christian thinkers have long asserted that becoming who God wants us to be happens best and most thoroughly when we are in close, committed, loving fellowship with others.

And for everything else in a whole faith church to work, that closeness, that commitment, that willingness to be accountable to each other must be present.

This is a leap of faith we must be willing to take.

It’s a pleasant surprise anytime I read a news story with good news.

So I was delighted yesterday to read an article in the New York Times (“Gaining in Years and Helping Others to Make Gains”) that highlighted the stories of the six winners of the Purpose Prize, an award given to Americans 60 years old and above who are making a positive impact on the world.

It’s an inspiring article worth reading just for its own sake and for thinking about as you and I consider what we will do with our experience and skills as we get older. Do we head to the beach and the golf course or do we invest as much energy and time as we can back to our communities as long as we can?

What struck me were the stories of two of the winners. Elements of their stories resonated with my growing conviction that Christianity needs a new reformation.

One of the winners is the Reverend Richard Joyner. He is 62 and the pastor of the Conetoe Baptist Church in a rural part of North Carolina. The Purpose Prize award is to recognize the impact of his founding of the Conetoe Family Life Center. Here’s a brief section of the article that describes the Center and its impact:

The center uses its 25-acre garden to improve the health of the congregation members and to increase the members’ high school graduation rates.

“It’s not easy getting people in the South away from fried chicken and sweet tea,” Pastor Joyner said.

In 2005, Pastor Joyner had faced too many funerals at his church of 300 congregants. In one year alone, 30 under the age of 32 had died. Most of the deaths were health-related, stemming from poor diet and no exercise, he said. His own sister and brother had died of heart attacks.

So he founded the center which offers after-school and summer camp programs for children 5 to 18. The youths plan, plant and reap the produce, which, in turn, they peddle at farmers’ markets, roadside stands and to local restaurants. They also maintain beehives to produce and supply honey to low-income neighbors. The income they earn goes to school supplies and scholarships.

Getting involved with farming was not easy for Pastor Joyner. “I was a sharecropper’s son, and we experienced a lot of racism,” he said. “I never wanted to ever have anything to do with farming.”

But that changed. “The eyes of the youth have helped me to see the land in a different perspective,” he said. “Land is the soul. Farming gives these youth, who are struggling, the power to grow something that impacts the health of their family.”

“As healthy eating and exercise have become routine, people in the community have lost weight, emergency room visits for primary health care have dropped by 40 percent, and the number of deaths have dwindled. The youth are enrolling in college and finding jobs.”

What does this story tell us about the relationship between our love for our neighbor and how we care for the land and raise food?

And think about this from another angle – could Pastor Joyner have continued in good faith to preach salvation from the pulpit while ignoring the health problems of his congregants and community members? Could he have ignored the connection between what is done with the land and the food that comes from the land with the health of people around him?

Being completely filled with filled with God’s love compels us to treat God’s earth with love and patience and self-control. This, in turns, requires us to raise food differently and eat differently. And that, in turn, gives us abundant life, both physically and socially.

This awareness needs to be an essential element of what Christians are aware of and what our hearts are full of. This needs to be an essential element of how we as Christians live.

One of other Purpose Prize winners is 76-year old Charles Irvin Fletcher. This former microwave systems engineer has long been interested in the potential healing value of equine therapy for children with disabilities.   To implement the insights he had about how the therapy should be done, he established SpiritHorse International in Corinth, Texas in 2001. Here’s what the article describes:

His ranch is now home to 31 horses and ponies, and is the headquarters for a worldwide network of 91 licensed therapeutic riding centers that serve children with disabilities in the United States, South America, Africa, and Europe.

At Mr. Fletcher’s ranch in Corinth, roughly 400 children with disabilities, some as young as nine months, receive free weekly riding sessions on ponies with names like Buttercup and Peter Pan. The riders have a variety of medical conditions, including autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis and spina bifida. 

More than 5,000 children have been helped through the network since the gates opened.

“I believe that horses can feel spiritual messages,” Mr. Fletch said. “They can feel love. They can feel gratitude. They can feel approval, and they transmit those very simple feelings to the children.”

He added, “The reason this therapy works so well is that children with disabilities also have a very open spirit, and the horses sense it.”

Is there anything in conventional Christian theology and instruction that would prepare us for this? Is there anything we hear in church that would remind us that we share an amazing world with amazing creatures with spirits of their own?

What adds an interesting dimension to this story is that Charles Fletcher is all about science. He is an engineer by training. His unique approach to equine healing is based on his commitment to science and measurable outcomes. Yet, he matter-of-factly points to the spiritual connection between horses and people as one of the fundamental reasons why equine therapy works.

This world and its creatures are, I am convinced, part of God’s story.

And an important, irrevocable part of our right place in the world is to be the shepherds of God’s earth even to the point of service and sacrifice. That service and sacrifice is to be part of our story. 

But too often it isn’t, and we miss opportunities to bring life and healing and beauty into this world and in doing so to honor God.  And in part this is because the Church has a very large blind spot when it comes to how we think about God’s earth.

Now more than ever that must change.