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“Watershed Discipleship” (Editorial Preface to the Issue)

Author: Dave Pritchett
Published: August 2014

MD 5.2

Article Type: Text Article

Would you risk being baptized in your local river or pond? In many places—such as northeastern Indiana where I used to live—immersing oneself in a local body of water now means exposure to a bath of chemicals and coliform bacteria, particularly after a rain, and at certain times of the year when crops are being sprayed. Most bodies of water in the United States have a fishing advisory that tells consumers how many fish can safely be eaten before health may be adversely affected by the toxic load the fish carry. In less “developed” countries across the world, where there are no environmental regulations, rivers function as a moving trash heap, carrying garbage and dead fish downriver from factories and villages. This failing health of our rivers and the watersheds that feed them is symptomatic of a greater global pathology wrought by industrial civilization.

The language of environmental catastrophe is apocalyptic: a garbage patch of plastics the size of Texas floats in the Pacific; a coal slurry spill into North Carolina’s Dan river evokes Isaiah’s vision of Edom’s streams turning to pitch. Meanwhile, a Coca-Cola plant in India’s Uttar Pradesh guzzles groundwater in return for spewing out toxins affecting local streams and soils.1 In early 2014, Freedom Industries was responsible for the leak of a hazardous coal washing chemical which left residents of nine West Virginia counties without potable water for five days, causing toxicity to the Elk river watershed.2 Every year, the world loses more and more topsoil to the sea due to industrial farming practices and deforestation.3 Details of the destruction are fastidiously collected. Peak oil, peak phosphorus, and peak water coalesce out of data points into pinnacles on scientists’ presentations. If the world has not already passed these peaks, it is surely on the cusp, they say.

This accumulating evidence suggests that humankind needs a drastic change in our way of life. Yet the looming catastrophes prophesied on the lips of our modern science sages fail to elicit change. We continue living like lemmings dangerously close to the looming cliffs of peak oil, peak water, and peak phosphorus. Perhaps we can no longer imagine a form of life without consumption based upon petrochemicals, industrial agriculture, and prepackaged food. We need a revolution of imagination. Yet, Bill Mollison, cofounder of the permaculture movement, reminds us of the “futility of revolutionaries who have no gardens, who depend on the very system they attack, who produce words and bullets, not food and shelter.”4 The change from toxic consumption to regenerative production must thus begin at the local level.

Disciples desperately need resources that will animate a church ready to stand against the tide of ecocidal petro-capitalism. This issue of Missio Dei Journal addresses this need for transformation by integrating ecological and theological concerns under the framework of “Watershed Discipleship.” Coined by theologian Ched Myers, Watershed Discipleship recognizes that environmental theology and ethics are often too disconnected from the everyday life of the faithful. Implicit to this paradigm is the understanding that the watershed—a geographic area drained into a body of water—is the primary unit of ecological systems, and thus the place where disciples can exert the most influence. Since water is fundamental to life, species within a given area are all connected by the flow of water through it. Thus, by invoking the watershed in our Christian discipleship, we acknowledge that our faith is bound to the land, plants, and creatures within it, as well as the water coursing through all of them. Our faith must follow the aquatic contours of the land, first, because we affirm the goodness of the earth, waters, and their creatures. To despoil the land is to spite the Creator—“there are no unsacred places,” writes Wendell Berry, “only sacred and desecrated places.”5 Second, we acknowledge that water issues are justice issues. Access to clean water is foundational to human health and wholeness, and increasingly a privilege of the wealthy.

Watershed Discipleship offers missiology a more holistic attention to context. If “mission is the mother of theology,” then place is the mother of mission—which is to say that mission occurs in particular regions, home to specific peoples and habitat to distinct flora and fauna. By re-placing discipleship in the foreground of the watershed, the church acknowledges that we both influence and are shaped by the specifics of our location. We are always followers of Jesus in a certain place. The climate, topography of the land, and the flow of water over it define that place. Daily losses of unrecoverable species and unique ecosystems caused by the gluttonous consumption of industrial civilization interrogate our idea of discipleship. If a missiology of “re-place-ment” is to mean something, it must cause us to reexamine the ways our livelihoods interact with the watersheds we inhabit.

Second, Watershed Discipleship provides new approaches to transform the ruin of global ecological systems wrought by industrial civilization. If watersheds are the fundamental unit of ecology, re-placement helps disciples perceive the level at which they can affect real change. Because we live during a watershed moment in history—a time when industrial civilization is at its peak and the actions taken by industrial societies in the coming years could affect the globe for centuries—we can act out of love for all the world by acting with integrity in our own unique places. By cleaning and protecting our watersheds, one at a time, we may reverse the steady poisoning of the world.

Finally, by placing ourselves under the tutelage of our own watersheds, we begin to know what it means to be “placed.” The solutions for making life work in an ecological context are already under our feet. The cactus survives drought by catching and storing enough rainwater to survive the dry season. Dryland human communities do the same with cisterns. Ephemeral vegetation thrives on the shady forest floor by leafing out before the overstory does, thereby catching enough sunlight to live through the shady summer. Animal communities depend on these ephemerals for nourishment in the sparse days before spring—historically, many humans have as well. How does the squirrel live through the long winter? Not by importing goods with fossil fuels, but by storing up enough during times of abundance. Followers of Jesus must consider again the “birds of the air,” and the “lilies of the field” (Matt 6:26–29). By doing so, we join the chorus of creation, with each species inhabiting its niche in the world. Understanding the topography and soil, how the birds and foxes make it through winter, or the times when the native flowers bloom—these things teach us what it means to live with integrity, fully integrated in place.

1 “Court Allows Coca-Cola Plant to Reopen in Uttar Pradesh,” The New York Times, India Ink: Notes on the World’s Largest Democracy, June 20, 2014,

2 Ken Ward Jr., “Freedom Industries cited for Elk chemical spill,” The Charleston Gazette, January 10, 2014, After testing of the chemical on laboratory animals, Eastman Chemicals deemed it “hazardous,” according to Evan Osnos, “Chemical Valley: The Coal Industry, the Politicians, and the Big Spill,” The New Yorker, April 7 2014,

3 World Economic Forum, “What If The World’s Soil Runs Out?,” TIME, December 14, 2012,

4 Bill Millison, Permaculture: A Practical Guide for a Sustainable Future (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1990), 5.

5 Wendell Berry, Given: Poems (Berkeley: CounterPoint Press, 2005), 18.

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