March 2011
Caring for God's Creation

Greening Our Faith – Putting Belief into Action

More and more people believe that protecting Creation is a religious value. And yet, congregations have not taken many of the basic steps to develop an ongoing environmental ministry.

Why? For some, the issue is inertia. For others, there are competing priorities for time. But for many, the issue is knowledge – knowledge about where to start, and what to do. In response, we’d like to offer a range of opportunities for environmental engagement available to all houses of worship.

Worship provides an important opportunity to deepen people’s connection to God in and through Creation. Worship committees can use seasonal, local greens to decorate the sanctuary, include hymns, prayers, and readings that make meaningful reference to Creation, and encourage clergy to preach on the relationship between faith and the environment. Congregations can integrate images and sounds of Creation into their worship services in creative ways, and many congregations can worship outdoors during certain times of the year. Increasingly, congregations are designating certain Sundays – most notably an October Sunday dedicated to St. Francis, or an April Sunday close to Earth Day – as a time for an annual ecological observance. Many church leaders are advocating for a liturgical season of Creation, which would provide a six to eight week period during which worship would be particularly Creation-focused. The environment provides an important opportunity for churches to make their worship newly meaningful, and to offer a new way to express wonder, awe, and gratitude at the scope, beauty and vulnerability of God’s good earth.

Religious Education
How many members of your congregation can name three Bible passages that are relevant to the environment? How often has your Sunday School taught children about the beauty of Creation? When has your confirmation class learned about what their faith teaches with regard to the environment? For most churches, the answer to these questions is “never.”

There are many excellent secular environmental education resources, any number of which can be adapted for use in religious settings. Using these resources can be a good way for churches to start educating their members about the environment.

Spiritual Practices
Churches have wonderful opportunities to organize hikes, congregational gardens, reflection days, or retreats that give their members the opportunity to connect more deeply with God through Creation, and to discuss their outdoor spiritual experiences with the fellow parishioners. These activities can be highly enriching, and deserve serious consideration as a regular part of a congregation’s spiritual practice.

What is the highest fixed cost for most congregations after personnel? And how does the average congregation make its greatest negative environmental impact? The answer is energy use, which makes energy conservation, and the use of renewable energy, a prime focus for many congregational efforts. An energy audit is often one of the best investments that a house of worship can make, as it identifies opportunities for financial savings and greenhouse gas emissions reductions.

Renewable energy – energy generated from an environmentally renewable, clean source, is a tougher challenge. Currently, renewable energy carries a cost premium, and solar power – attractive to many – is very expensive. But some congregations purchase a portion of their energy from renewable sources, offsetting the cost through savings gained from conservation.

Food and Water
One of the most important environmental choices for the average US citizen is their choice of food. Toxic waste and pollution due to industrial agriculture create enormous environmental problems, and livestock production produces significant greenhouse gas emissions. [1] Churches can model a better alternative by offering vegetarian options at mealtime, and serving organic, locally grown fruits and vegetables during coffee hour, along with Fair-Trade coffee or tea that protects the environment and the rights of workers.

Water conservation offers another opportunity for congregations to put their beliefs to work. Installing faucet flow regulators on all sinks, using the dishwasher only when it is full, using toilet tank flow regulators, and using landscaping practices that conserve water can reduce a congregation’s water use by tens of thousands of gallons annually.

Green Purchasing and Waste Reduction
Most congregations can reduce the amount of waste they produce by more than a third by increasing recycling, reducing paper consumption, and managing food-related waste. Using Green Seal Certified cleaning and maintenance products can reduce a church’s use of toxic materials, while protecting the health of children and maintenance workers. Many groups – such as Coop America and the US Communities ™ Program – offer cost-effective opportunities for churches to buy ‘green’ products at affordable prices.

Environmental Justice Education
Most people are not aware of the disproportionate impact of pollution on minority and poor communities – and are moved with concern when they discover this. Conducting educational programs such as a film screening of documentaries like Fenceline or In the Light of Reverencecan prepare people for action. Conducting a local environmental health and justice tour, where members can see an environmental justice community firsthand, is another powerful way to raise awareness.

Meeting Local Environmental Justice Leaders
A growing number of citizens in environmental justice communities are stepping forward to offer leadership. Connecting with these leaders is a key step in developing a strong environmental justice ministry. Meeting with these leaders enables congregations to understand the issues from the community’s perspective, and to focus their advocacy in a direction that supports the community’s goals.

Environmental Justice Advocacy
Advocacy is a fundamental part of seeking environmental justice. Whether through letter writing, meetings with elected officials or regulators, or other methods, congregations can make an important contribution to a healthier environment for vulnerable communities.

In recent years, it has become an increasingly accepted theological norm that caring for Creation is a Christian value. The challenge now lies in the realm of implementation – putting belief into action. The steps described here can help churches move towards this important goal and become leaders in relation to one of the most critical challenges facing the human family. You’ll find more information about all these activities at

The Rev. Fletcher Harper, an Episcopal priest, is Executive Director of GreenFaith, an interfaith environmental coalition. Under his leadership, GreenFaith has developed innovative programs linking religious belief and practice to the environment. An award-winning spiritual writer and nationally recognized preacher on the environment, he teaches and speaks at houses of worship from a range of denominations in New Jersey and nationwide about the moral, spiritual basis for environmental stewardship and justice. A graduate of PrincetonUniversity and Union Theological Seminary, he served as a parish priest for ten years and in leadership positions in the Episcopal Church before becoming GreenFaith’s Executive Director.

Interfaith Resources for Environmental Stewardship

This article is part of the March 2011 Vestry Papers issue on Caring for God's Creation