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The Green Gospel

Evangelical Christians have started to hear a new sermon from the pulpit: conservation. Not everyone within the church is happy about it.

PASTOR JOHN BOUWERS is swaying with his eyes closed and hands raised to heaven. He’s leading Sunday morning prayer at the Meadowlands Fellowship, a Christian Reformed church in Ancaster, Ontario. Today’s sermon is about humility, the importance of a close-knit and caring Christian community, and building bridges outside that community.

As he speaks to the congregation, Pastor John bobs up and down for emphasis, gliding in a semi-circle to face each set of pews. The church is filled with young families, and after the final hymns, kids release their pent-up energy, yelling and running through the streaming sunlight. Pastor John chats with parents and other members to catch up on the week.

Built in late 2005, the facility blends perfectly into its suburban surroundings, the nondescript big- box developments that dot this far- lung community atop Hamilton’s escarpment. But appearance aside, the differences could not be starker. Powered by a cutting-edge geothermal system designed to absorb energy from the solar-heated ground, Meadowlands heats and cools itself independently: no natural gas, no electricity. The church also boasts energy-efficient lighting and waterless urinals. Put simply, it is one of the most innovative churches in the country.

As for Pastor John, he’s more than a pastor. He’s also a professional engineer well versed in renewable forms of energy; he even owns a solar-powered, off-the-grid cottage in eastern Ontario.

“My hope is that churches will act as a catalyst for environmental issues,” he tells me. “When I think of the environment, I think of the love of God and His creation, but also the love of my neighbours in the broad ecosystem in which we live. We all share the same atmosphere.”

The mood seems to be catching. After years of viewing environmentalists with suspicion, if not outright hostility, evangelical Christians have begun to embrace conservation. Green-tinted campaigns, from youth-based carbon reduction initiatives to major climate change conferences, are popping up in churches across North America. “Stewardship” is the word adopted to describe this change of heart. Tracing their concerns back to Genesis, eco-evangelists see themselves as wards of God’s creation and responsible for its care.

“We look at the earth by going all the way back to the beginning of the Bible, where it says that God created his altar and it was beautiful,” Pastor John says. “Christians may speak in a different way about the environment, but that won’t stop us from working with other purely secular groups for the good of the earth.”

Religious values, he believes, can be an important source of wisdom for healing the planet, and make faith-based groups important players in re-envisioning the way we live.

THE EFFORT TO CONCEIVE and build Meadowlands was spearheaded by Dr. Henry Brouwer, a professor of chemistry and environmental science at nearby Redeemer University College. For Brouwer, an energy-efficient church was the most pragmatic way, as a Christian and member of Meadowlands, to express his commitment to the environment. By 2002, the need for space was urgent. Due to crowded conditions at other community churches, the congregation was conducting prayer services in a local high school cafeteria. With unanimous support to focus on “environmental stewardship,” Brouwer headed a committee to coordinate construction of what would be Ontario’s first geothermal church.

Brouwer looks genuinely surprised when I ask him how he reconciles his faith with his research.  “I’ve always been concerned about energy issues and our effect on the environment. I try not to separate it from my faith because the reason you do something has to be shaped by what motivates you—it’s why you do it.”

Of course, saving money was also a major consideration. The group received a $54,000 grant from the now-defunct Commercial Building Incentive Program offered by Natural Resources Canada. It cost the congregation almost $70,000 more to build the facility, but Brouwer insists that its energy savings will pay them back within five to ten years of lowered utility bills. (In 2006, Meadowlands’ first full year of operation, costs were roughly half what they would be for a conventional energy system.)

With his closely trimmed grey beard and thick glasses, Brouwer is the classic portrait of a mild-mannered professor. When discussing climate change, he speaks slowly, ensuring each assertion follows from the last. But when the subject turns to faith, Brouwer’s tone quickens: “Christians need to be concerned about these issues. John 3:16 says ‘God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.’ It doesn’t say people, it says world. It’s about the entire cosmos.”

There’s a hint of frustration as Brouwer emphasizes this, suggesting multiple attempts at convincing skeptics. For evangelical Christians, the hurdles in the way of identifying with environmental awareness are high. The evangelical movement is often described as fundamentalist because of its tendency toward “biblical inerrancy”—literal readings of the Bible and a rigid belief that scripture is infallible.

Environmentalists bristle at biblical inerrancy, and for good reason: the more literally Christians interpret the Bible, the less likely it is they will accept scientific explanations for natural events. Believing the Bible is never wrong not only cuts off further inquiry, it also results in a score of related theological quarrels.  Old school evangelists, for example, regard environmentalism’s reverence for the earth as a modern form of paganism, where “nature worship” supplants worship of God. They also dispute the evolutionary worldview that underpins most environmental ideals, a view where humans are not dominion-holders but one life form among many.

Beliefs related to Christ’s Second Coming can also get in the way of addressing environmental concerns. While a Day of Judgment is anticipated by all evangelicals, some are a little too eager for the event. Drawing on the Book of Revelations, these “end-time believers” insist that faithful Christians will be “Raptured” to Heaven while non-believers will bear the brunt of God’s wrath on a scorched and decimated earth. If you and your loved ones will be whisked away in a soon-to-arrive Rapture, why worry about climate change?  It’s no surprise, therefore, that the environmental community has long been distrustful of faith groups.  Many environmentalists in fact nurse a suspicion that religion, particularly Christianity, is to some degree responsible for many of the world’s environmental problems. In 1967, American historian Lynn White published an article in the journal Science called “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” in which he singled out Christian-based culture as the main culprit. Writing during the infancy of today’s environmental movement, White argued that the belief that man was created in God’s image—and thus superior to all living things—contributed to Western society’s exploitative, even “contemptuous” attitudes towards the earth.

The relationship between the two camps changed dramatically in 2002, when British scientist Sir John T. Houghton, co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change working group and a committed evangelical Christian, organized a climate forum in Oxford, England. The landmark event brought together eminent climate scientists, policy-makers and Christian leaders from six continents. Among the many evangelical converts to a “greener” consciousness, none would prove more controversial than Richard Cizik.

Cizik is the vice president for governmental affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) in the U.S, one of the country’s most politically conservative religious advocacy groups. The NAE is the voice for thousands of evangelical denominations, churches, and related organizations. The Oxford conference not only changed Cizik’s mind (“I realized all at once, with sudden awe, that climate change is a phenomenon of truly biblical proportions”) but put the NAE on a mission to save the planet from global warming.

Cizik’s decision to join forces with scientists and environmentalists—a commitment which culminated in 2003 in a manifesto urging NAE members to adopt eco-friendly living habits—rankled powerbrokers on the religious right. Christian leaders such as James Dobson, chair of Focus on the Family, and Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, were among several leaders who, in March 2007, signed a letter to the NAE complaining that Cizik’s focus on global warming was a “divisive and dangerous” distraction from the “great moral issues of our time, notably the sanctity of human life, the integrity of marriage and the teaching of sexual abstinence and morality to our children.”

Cizik, a pro-Bush conservative opposed to abortion, gay marriage, and stem-cell research, argues that, far from a distraction, global warming is one of the most important “pro-life” challenges facing evangelicals. “Take heed,” he says in an interview, “It was by and for Christ that this earth was made, which means it is sinfully wrong—it is a tragedy of enormous proportions—to destroy, degrade, or despoil it.”

But while eco-friendly interpretations of scripture like Cizik’s are gaining ground—in 2006, eighty-six U.S. evangelical leaders signed the Evangelical Climate Initiative calling for federal legislation against global warming—the old ideas aren’t going anywhere. In fact, they may be stronger than ever. One disturbing example is the growing tendency among some preachers and televangelists to link their end-time prophesy with current political and natural events.

In these scenarios, catastrophes related to climate change are interpreted as confirmation of Christ’s awaited return and the end of the world. Cizik has made great strides to discredit these beliefs. In an interview for the Canadian documentary, The Great Warming, he insists that to tolerate “the destruction of the Earth in the name of encouraging the return of Jesus Christ is a violation of all that God has taught us.”

But it can be difficult for those sitting in the pew to ignore the loudest and most extreme voices from the pulpit. In Canada, those voices are perhaps best represented by Dr. Charles McVety, president of Canada Christian College and the Canada Family Action Committee. McVety believes the creation care movement is infecting the Christian Church with pagan precepts, and that evangelical churches like Meadowlands should concentrate on serving God, not the earth.

Calling it “Earthism”—also the title of his upcoming book on the topic—McVety accuses church leaders like Cizik of “extensive theological distortions” and of using global warming to blasphemously “trump all other issues, including spiritual concerns.” The result, he maintains, is exactly the apostate faith predicted in Revelations as a sign of the apocalypse. “The seductive earth movement has crept into our churches as a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” he writes on his website, “leading us to trust and focus on the creation over the creator.”

McVety isn’t entirely unsympathetic to environmental concerns. He mentions, for instance, that his campaign bus is a hydrogen hybrid. But he believes that “Al Gore’s media campaign” has pushed climate-worrying to absurd lengths. “No doubt we have to be good stewards of what God has given us,” McVety concedes over the phone, “but this issue of global warming is just utter nonsense. The global warming movement has wandered away from science and into the realm of spirituality, because you need a leap of faith to believe in this stuff.”

Some climate change skeptics might agree. But McVety’s complaints can easily be read as another example of the religious establishment’s long-standing opposition to scientific (and, by extension, environmental) arguments. Solving the anti-science bias promoted by people like McVety—or devout Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, who famously asked in 2003 whether global warming was “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people”— has become eco-evangelism’s greatest challenge.

, Brouwer knows that, when talking to the public about environmental issues, complex terminology can be off-putting. The key, he says, is to keep things simple. “I’m trying to get people to understand the science at a fairly elementary level,” he says, “so that they begin to take ownership of it.” The slow and steady approach is especially important with the more skeptical members of the church, who often possess a visceral distrust of science. “It needs to become part of their thinking and that takes time.”

At Ancaster Christian Reformed Church, near Meadowlands, we can see Brouwer’s philosophy at work during a lecture on climate change.  His slides are projected onto the overhead screen behind him. He lists some current examples of Christian stewardship (like KAIROS, a Canadian multi-faith organization) but his lecture is mostly loaded with excuses used by Christians who have turned a blind eye to environmental concerns. He makes special reference to preachers in the U.S. who have synthesized Christianity with patriotism and capitalism, combining the “Gospel of success” with an ideology of decreased government regulation. In their eyes, Brouwer argues, “any view that is critical of capitalism and the American lifestyle must be ungodly.” These high-profile leaders have greatly influenced opinions not only within the U.S., but in Canada as well. It’s their deep-seated skepticism that pervades the arguments of naysayers like McVety, even though Brouwer concedes Canada’s Christian community is far less politicized.

Brouwer’s lecture ends with a flurry of ruffling coats and a few sighs of relief. But some younger members approach the front with questions: “The climate has always changed without human influence, so how is this different?” or “Is this some socialist scheme cooked up by Al Gore?” Brouwer considers these reservations a healthy response for anyone confronting an overwhelming scientific issue like climate change. What’s important, he suggests, is that members understand that the implications of pollution extend beyond just the environment. “I try to get them to see that as Christians we have a responsibility to our neighbours and adding an excessive amount of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere has the potential to affect others, including the poor that we try to help in third world countries.”

Christians must view stewardship as an expression of their faith, he argues, using it to assess their lives, their values, and their impact on those around them. “Science helps us understand what happens to the chemicals we put into the environment,” he explains, “but it can’t answer the bigger question of what we should do with that information.  That’s where your faith comes in.” According to Dr. Randy Haluza-Delay, professor of sociology at The King’s University College in Edmonton, faith communities provide uniquely fertile ground for such environmental motivation. “The environmental community hasn’t really recognized a role for churches due to an old bias regarding whether they can really work with them, or whether they might be part of the problem,” he says. “Church groups may not seem environmental because they’re a part of a much larger social justice framework.”

For Haluza-Delay, this social justice aspect of stewardship is what makes Christian communities such potent allies in the fight to stave off climate change. “Churchgoers are committed to a form of self-development every Sunday at service, actively trying to make their lives better,” he explains. “Social change is never created by individuals alone.  It requires collective action and religious people are already pre-conditioned to act in this way and respond as a community.”

Scientists and environmentalists are beginning to see the potential of this approach. In 1990, an open letter was sent to global spiritual leaders, initiated and signed by thirty-two prominent scientists, including Edward O. Wilson, James Hansen and the late Carl Sagan. The urgent appeal recognized environmental issues “as having a religious as well as a scientific dimension” and sought to “encourage a spirit of common cause and joint action to help preserve the Earth.” The letter affirmed that the global environmental crisis requires more than just a scientific understanding of the issues, but also a committed effort from religious groups to help sustain an environmental ethic throughout society.

Although it has taken some time, religious leaders are beginning to respond. Here in Canada, Rev. Dr. Ted Reeve is doing his best to spread the message to leaders from all faiths. As the national director of the Faith & the Common Good (FCG) initiative, Reeve tries to bring together religion and environmentalism through FCG’s “Greening Sacred Spaces” campaign. The non-denominational group provides practical resources (guidebooks, work- shops, lesson plans, case studies) to churches, synagogues, temples and mosques looking to save energy and reduce their ecological footprint. From simple retrofitting to full-scale energy-efficient construction, the hope is that environmental projects like the Meadowlands become the norm for faith groups throughout Canada.

“Environment, health, economy— all of these issues are interrelated,” says Reeve. “At their core is a spiritual question: Are we being good stewards of the planet so that our children will have a future place to live?”

Not every institution can be as technologically innovative as the Meadowlands Fellowship Church.  But Reeve believes baby steps now will lead to transformation over the long haul. “We’re not cynics,” he says, referring to faith communities in general, “so we have to live in hope that our actions contribute in some way to a better world. That’s what God calls us to do.”

[Note: This piece received an Honourable Mention in the "Science, Technology & the Environment" category of the National Magazine Awards.]

(See rest of Issue 29, Fall 2008)