At a time when activists need all the help they can get, a movement of young Christian foot soldiers is preaching the green gospel, and pushing their parents to do the same.
The Sunday before Christmas, Cross Pointe megachurch in Duluth, Georgia, was hopping. Its massive, three-tiered parking lot was filled to bursting with SUVs and pickup trucks. Inside, teens slouched and flirted by the pool table in the young adults’ wing, while their buttoned-up parents milled around the church store, perusing books with names like How to Be a Winner and Influence Anybody. Grade-schoolers skipped off to Sunday school rooms, each one named after things that were supposed to appeal to kids: Cavity Central Candy Store, Ice Cream Shoppe. The worship band was warming up: screaming guitar solos and thunderous bass lines, the scariest version of “Carol of the Bells” you’ve ever heard.
Leading me through the mayhem was Jonathan Merritt, a 27-year-old seminary student who works part time in Cross Pointe’s young-adult ministry. I wanted to pause to take it all in, but we were pressed for time before the 9:30 service, and there was something Jonathan wanted to show me: the church’s new sustainable, fair-trade coffee. Merritt, who has dark hair and neat facial hair, poured himself a splash and said, “I hate these Styrofoam cups. We’re moving toward something recyclable.”
Merritt is the driving force behind Cross Pointe’s coffee revolution, but he’s also taken the lead on some of the more dramatic environmental improvements in this most unlikely of places. He replaced the old energy-gobbling air conditioners with more efficient units, saving the church tens of thousands of dollars a year. He had waterless urinals installed in one of the men’s rooms. And this past year he created a meandering, mile-long nature trail in a patch of long-neglected woods filled with live oaks and tulip poplars.
Greening Cross Pointe has not been easy. The building itself is cavernous—previously it housed a weapons factory that made missiles for the first Gulf War—and saving the planet was not high on the agenda of the largely conservative congregation. Then there was Jonathan’s dad, James Merritt, Cross Pointe’s pastor of seven years. Until a few years ago Pastor Merritt thought environmentalism was “something liberals did.” Now he drives a hybrid. “Jonathan really opened my eyes,” he says. “I began to realize that I had for the wrong reasons blown off the whole debate.”
Over the past few years prominent evangelical leaders have begun to speak out about what is sometimes called “creation care”—the idea that the earth is a gift from God, and Christians are called to protect it. The movement gained some traction when celebrity pastors like Rick Warren and Ted Haggard (pre-sex scandal) joined the cause. But Jonathan Merritt believes that the real force of change is the younger generation of Christians, who are more politically engaged and, perhaps more important, less concerned with the culture wars than their parents. “To polarize it in such a way that the right is the God party and the left is the green party, those are our parents’ battles,” says Merritt. “We don’t believe those things are mutually exclusive. In fact, we go a step further and say those things belong together.”
Renowned scientist and writer Cal DeWitt, who has lectured about environmentalism at more than 100 Christian colleges, says the attitude change that Merritt has observed is widespread. He attributes the shift to younger Christians’ willingness to square science with theology. “The most amazing thing is happening within the Christian community,” says DeWitt. “It’s the integration of environmental knowledge with knowledge of the Christian faith. There’s a rediscovery of a biblical understanding of nature.”
Pastor James Merritt is influential in evangelical circles—before leading the congregation of 1,500 at Cross Pointe, he headed the Southern Baptist Convention. His style is informal. The day I met him, he preached wearing a kind of toned-down Christmas sweater (green argyle, no reindeer). Around the church he greeted most people with a friendly “Hiya!” and a clap on the shoulder. He comes off as genuine and approachable.
In the church green room, right before he took the pulpit for the early service, his assistants worked efficiently around us, attaching the pastor’s body microphone and testing the sound system. Pastor Merritt and Jonathan took turns answering my questions, sometimes finishing each other’s sentences. The two are obviously close, but there have been some tense moments over the years. When Jonathan had what he calls his “green conversion” in 2006 during a seminary class discussion about the role of God in nature, his dad was skeptical. Jonathan recalls him saying, “Don’t you think God is sovereign and that he created a world that we couldn’t harm?” Gradually his dad came around. “I began to see the need for stewardship,” says Pastor Merritt. “I used to loan my sons my car. I think God has similar expectations for the earth.”
The two still don’t see eye to eye on everything. Jonathan believes humans have caused climate change; his dad is not so sure. But Pastor Merritt doesn’t often wade into the science or politics of the environment. Instead, he advocates “a practical, biblical lifestyle.” For the most part, the congregation has been receptive. “People know where I stand on gay marriage and abortion,” says Pastor Merritt. “They know this doesn’t bleed into any of those issues.” His rhetorical strategy: “You start from a Genesis 1 perspective. That seems to alleviate fears. Lets people relax and not have their guard up.”
Jonathan didn’t have his “green conversion” till he entered seminary, but his friend Anna Jane Joyner, 25, also a child of a megachurch pastor, had hers while studying abroad in New Zealand. There she lived in a house full of outdoorsy Kiwis, Europeans, and Americans. “A big part of their ethic was caring for the environment,” she recalls. When she got back to the University of North Carolina, she switched her major to environmental studies and wrote her senior thesis about the burgeoning earth stewardship movement among evangelicals.
Like Jonathan, she was eager to share her new passion with her dad, Rick Joyner, who, besides serving as pastor at his church in Fort Mill, South Carolina, heads Morning-Star Ministries, an international network of churches. (He’s something of a polarizing figure in evangelical circles, having written controversial books about end-times theology.) Their first talk didn’t go well. “It was a huge crisis in our relationship,” she recalls. “He felt like I was succumbing to a more liberal worldview.” Pastor Joyner bristled against her dismissal of all things corporate. But eventually they reached common ground. Pastor Joyner knew more about environmentalism than Anna Jane had thought. “As a young man I was far more liberal than she ever was—I was a hippie!” says Pastor Joyner. “She reawakened a lot of this in me.”
Anna Jane convinced her dad to let her teach a creation care class to 50 teenagers. The students were open to the material, but some parents called with concerns. “They associated environmentalism with hippies and drugs,” says Anna Jane. “ ‘Are you going to teach my kids the Gaia theory?’ ” But, like Pastor Merritt, Anna Jane and her dad have figured out how to make her ideas palatable. Connecting environmentalism to the antiabortion movement is particularly effective. “The overwhelming majority of our church is seriously pro-life,” says Pastor Joyner. “Well, creation is life, too.”
At the same time that environmentalism is gaining a foothold in some of the nation’s largest evangelical churches, Christian colleges are going green at breakneck speed. Two years ago Anna Jane Joyner helped to found Renewal, a nonprofit aimed at uniting environmentally minded Christian college students across the nation. In its first year Renewal organized several leadership retreats, a nationwide day of service, and a day of prayer. This spring the group released a report documenting environmental activism on 52 Christian campuses in the United States and Canada. The findings were impressive. In 2008, at Pennsylvania’s Eastern University, students toured a mountaintop removal mining site in Appalachia and then drafted a petition to erect a wind farm as an alternative to coal mining. Students at Michigan’s Calvin College held a three-day summit to discuss restoring the state’s most polluted watershed. Campus chefs at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago strive to buy local food. Students at California Baptist University worked with Habitat for Humanity in 2008 to build Riverside County’s first LEED-certified home.
Some students aren’t satisfied with greening their campuses—they’re hoping to reform federal environmental legislation as well. This past fall, with the help of an environmental ministry organization called Restoring Eden, groups of Christian college students traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby for climate legislation in advance of the climate talks in Copenhagen. Kate Kirby, a senior at Gordon, a small conservative Christian college in Massachusetts, went on a lobbying trip in November. Never having done any political work off campus, she was nervous going in. The night before the students were scheduled to hit Capitol Hill, Restoring Eden leaders prepped them, reminding them of their main talking points. They recommended the students mention their faith and identify specific Bible verses that speak to the importance of earth stewardship.
The next day Kirby went to the office of Olympia Snowe, a senator from her home state of Maine, and found Snowe’s staff receptive. “I mentioned my faith, since that makes my point of view unique, and it blows down some stereotypes,” she says.
Some young evangelicals believe blowing down stereotypes might be just what the Christian right needs. Case in point: Ben Lowe, who, with Anna Jane, cofounded Renewal and who is currently running for U.S. Congress. Lowe, 26, is campaigning as a Democrat in Illinois’ 6th district in Chicago on what he calls “a consistently pro-life ethic.” Like Anna Jane, Lowe defines “pro-life” broadly. “I think abortions are tragic. But that also means I am pro-environment, against the death penalty, and pro-healthcare reform. That’s one way I’m different from other Christian politicians.”
One of those other Christian politicians is Lowe’s opponent, Republican Peter Roskam. The veteran congressman also identifies as evangelical Christian, but his views are more traditionally conservative than Lowe’s. He’s in favor of the death penalty and has spoken out against “the government takeover of healthcare.” During his two terms in office, Roskam has supported some green energy initiatives, but not measures that would require consumers to lower their fuel consumption. He voted against the Waxman-Markey climate bill and in 2006 referred to climate change as “junk science” during a debate. The district has historically voted Republican, but Lowe, who ran uncontested in the Democratic primary and has already drummed up support at Christian colleges and some churches, thinks that constituents who are frustrated with Roskam’s unyielding conservatism might be ready for a change.
After the service at Cross Pointe, I flagged down Jonathan. We sat at a table in the kids’ wing. Every once in a while a kid in his or her Sunday best would wander by and Jonathan would reach out for a high-five. He was talking excitedly about a phone call he’d received from an 80-year-old church member who wanted to know where she could find compact fluorescent lightbulbs and how she should properly dispose of old paint. Hallelujah.
That an octogenarian embraces creation care is especially rewarding for Jonathan, since one of the things that irks him about the green movement is its faddishness. “I think that by building a theological foundation, environmentalism becomes something that’s unchanging,” he says. “It can make the green movement just a little deeper than it is now.” That got me thinking about what he had said earlier about how the right got God and the left got green. As thinkers like DeWitt and biologist E.O. Wilson have pointed out, the split was a construct of the political realities of the past three decades rather than a genuine philosophical divide.
But Jonathan is used to the sparring. In fact, he’s found that it’s often the moments of conflict that are most productive. Some Cross Pointe members still think the nature trail, recycling bins, and green urinals smack of a liberal political agenda they don’t support. In front of the whole congregation one recent Sunday, a man angrily accused Jonathan of being like Al Gore—too strident, too political. Jonathan shrugs. “I’m not afraid to engage people on a political level.” At times like these, he thinks back to those tense, early conversations with his dad. In defending his beliefs, he also deepened them. “I think faith is a lot messier than we give it credit for,” he says. “In its messiness, faith is real.”
Kiera Butler lives in Berkeley, California, and is an associate editor at Mother Jones.
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