A Vision for Solarpunk Churches

Stained glass solar panel by designer Marjan van Aubel

Forgive me for not having blogged much recently; it’s been a heavy few months, what with 2020 feeling like the world is cosplaying the Book of Revelation. Between plague and war, fire and floods, the future feels precarious. Billionaires have been watching us fighting over toilet paper and have their luxury doomsday bunkers all ready to go, while climate change is now a lived reality for many communities around the world. How we respond to all this is going to be a reckoning for the Church throughout the world. No pressure.

Of course, if we’re honest, many almost welcome catastrophic events as heralds of the End Times. Why worry about melting ice-caps, goes a certain line of thinking, when God’s going to put everything right when Jesus comes again? There are whole theological currents involved in this thinking – Millenarianism and Dominionism and so on and so forth – but it’s hard to see them as comfort for the future when we’re living in the middle of multiple crises, when we’re all trying to ride out a pandemic.

But what if this isn’t the apocalypse? What if this is the new normal? What’s the Church’s role in a changing world? That’s a question that’s been with us since Peter had a vision of the worst dinner ever, and it’s one we’ve got to answer in a world of COVID and wildfires. And it’s rooted in our vision for the world – not just our own congregation, whether or not we should be meeting without masks or whatever – but our vision for the communities we serve and the generations still to be born.

Because I’m a great big nerd, I think about this and my thoughts end up going down a solarpunk route. Solarpunk is an aesthetic, influenced by cyberpunk and steampunk, but optimistically rooted in what the world would look like if we fully embraced renewable technologies and sustainable living. And, because this is my blog and I can write what I want, I think solarpunk can be married to ecclesiology. Here’s what I mean.

Back in 2015, the designer Marjan van Aubel presented a stained glass window that doubles up as a solar panel, with a charging point installed into the windowsill. The window isn’t at the point where it will power your worship band, but imagine integrating this sort of technology into church design, building on an artistic heritage and using it to make a statement. And I don’t know if this tech is commercially available or financially viable, but that’s not the point of the exercise – the point is to imagine and embrace a future where we design our buildings to serve both our local communities and the Global Village, to appreciate that the Holy Spirit is an artist and an inspiration and will help shape our congregations in unexpected ways if we’re open to it.

That may mean rethinking what ministry looks like in the future. Maybe I’ve been watching too many episodes of The Repair Shop, but think about all those technical and practical skills that are represented in our churches, all the carpenters and electricians and engineers we worship alongside. Think about how repairing a friend’s car or their shower or their lawnmower can help support them through a financial crisis. Think about how the fixer movement helps challenge consumerism and conserve resources in a world of austerity and economic pressure. There are lots of skills sitting in our pews, gifts from God that may remain unused because they don’t fit the template. That’s when we need to get radical – why not get a bunch of churches working together to facilitate a pop-up ‘fixer space’? Carrying a set of tools can be just as much a part of worship as carrying a guitar, because sometimes fixing broken things is a sort of resurrection.

And then think of our church gardens, our churchyards, the scrap of grass next to the carpark. A few years ago, it was noted that these spaces were often havens of biodiversity in urban areas, homes to ancient trees and minibeasts. Maybe that’s something to lean into, using these green spaces to encourage bees and butterflies, maybe even develop community gardens. That gives us something to learn from Ethiopian Christians, who have a long tradition of verdant ‘church forests’, deliberately tended as symbols of the Garden of Eden. In a time of global crisis, we have to learn from our brothers and sisters throughout the world.

And I know all this feels a bit pie-in-the-sky, and I know it takes time and money that we don’t always have. I get that; writing a blog post is way easier than putting any of this into action. But there’s something inside me that insists that this is important, that we have to be like the prophets who envisaged a future in which God healed the land, who told their people to seek the good of their cities because there were going to be living there for a while. What if that’s a calling for our generation – not to be first in line for the Rapture, but to be on the front line of all the crises that face us, to meet the challenge of crazy times by dreaming even crazier dreams.

Because, when it comes down to it, I think that’s where Jesus would be.