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Environmental Movement Finds New Supporters Among Evangelicals

BY Admin  August 22, 2008 at 3:05 PM EST

Prestonwood Baptist Church; courtesy photo

With a
congregation of more than 26,000 people and more than 1 million square feet of
space, the Plano, Texas-based Prestonwood
Baptist Church’s
utility bills topped $2 million a year. But that started to change in 2006 when
the church had its energy use audited.

Members soon
curtailed the church’s energy use by 40 percent, resulting in more than $2
million in savings over the next two years. But according to Executive Pastor
Mike Buster, the reasons for Prestonwood’s transformation go well beyond the financial.

“The Bible
and Jesus say let nothing be wasted,” Buster said. “We are not only
to be good stewards of our financial resources, but also of the earth.”

Prestonwood is one
of a growing number of churches around the country taking a closer look at the
impact of their energy usage on the environment.

“The
vision [is] that we would exercise our God-given responsibility to be stewards
of the earth, which means to care and protect,” said Richard Cizik, a vice president with the National Association for
Evangelicals. “You can’t have that responsibility and ignore what
is happening to the earth.”

The NAE has urged
its more than 45,000 churches to reduce their energy consumption by 25 percent.

The association estimates if the 300,000 houses of worship across
America
cut energy use by 25 percent, it would eliminate 5 million tons of greenhouse
gas emissions — the equivalent of taking 1 million cars off the road — and
would save nearly $500 million.

The government has also seen this potential, ordering the
Environmental Protection Agency, along with the Department of Energy, to
develop Energy Star for Congregations, a program that has worked with more than
1,500 congregations in the last two years to reduce their energy use.

“Despite their own relatively lower energy use,” Jerry
Lawson, national manager of Energy Star, wrote in an e-mail, “we consider
congregations a very important market segment because they are highly
influential in how their members look at environmental stewardship in their own
homes and businesses — and the faith community is increasingly involved in the
community and national energy policy discussion as a religious issue of
stewardship.”

A growing environmental movement within evangelical churches
has sparked some concern among congregation leaders about a loss of focus on
their more traditional issues, such as abortion, marriage and abstinence
education.

In a letter written last March to the NAE, these concerns
were spelled out.

“We have observed that Cizik and others are using
the global warming controversy to shift the emphasis away from the great moral
issues of our time,” 25 conservative Christian leaders, including
James Dobson, Don Wildmon and Tony Perkins, wrote, “notably the sanctity of human life, the integrity of marriage
and the teaching of sexual abstinence and morality to our children. In their
place has come a preoccupation with climate concerns that extend beyond the
NAE’s mandate and its own statement of purpose.”

Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family, also signed the
letter. “God would want us to take care of our environment,” he said.
“What concerns us is whether it will be exaggerated out of importance as
the issue, over life and marriage.”

But for leaders of
churches like Prestonwood, they see environmental awareness as part of their
faith.

“If we can
avoid putting pollution in the air, if we can be part of the solution, as
Christians we should,” Buster said.

He cautions,
however, against an overemphasis on their energy reduction.

“Churches are
not to be focused on the environment,” Buster added. “It’s a byproduct
of being a good steward. We have to be careful to be focused on what the church
is created to do. We’re much more focused on people than on trees.”

Other evangelicals
note that, though the movement has gained increased traction within the last
two years, the model for environmental stewardship has been present for some
time.

“What’s
happening is people who have a fair amount of prominence have given people
permission to talk about these things, and they’ve been ready for quite some
time,” said Cal DeWitt, an environmental studies professor at the
University of Wisconsin-Madison and co-founder for the International
Evangelical Environmental Network.

For the National
Association of Evangelicals’ Cizik it comes down to a question of faith,
saying, “This is not just an environmental issue. Or a scientific,
political or economic issue. Of course it’s all of these, but it’s more
fundamental than all of that. It’s a moral and spiritual issue.”