10 Eco-Friendly Switches You Can Make at Your Church to Help the Planet

by - Saturday, April 13, 2019

There is a standard narrative going around right now that if you are a Christian, you don't believe in Climate Change.

There isn't much truth to the assertion, and one of my favorite climate scientists Katherine Hayhoe is fighting for the climate as a Christian woman (she's the best- look her up).

When you think about it, even if you didn't buy into Climate Change, Christian churches should be highly motivated to take care of the environment. It's the first gift God gave us! Taking care of it was the first job God gave us!

We are tasked as the Earth's stewards.

We can see that fossil fuels are bad for the planet and our bodies.

We can see that animals are grossly mistreated in mega farms, abused, and deprived of the life God gave them.

We can see that overconsuming cheap goods has led to the abuse of our planet and people  (our brothers and sisters in Christ) all around the world.

We can see that plastics are poisoning our bodies, killing God's creatures, and flooding God's oceans.

The current state of our planet causes me a pain I can't really put words to. It's like being given the most miraculous, beautiful gift in the world and spitting on it. In the end, I don't even think it matters if you believe in Climate Change or not- I want us each to see that we have a lot of work to do as stewards. We are failing.

I know I am not the only one that feels this way. I read stories about nuns standing up against pipe lines or churches starting their own gardens, and I know that more and more people are trying to shift to be better stewards in their own lives and in their church. It can be hard to know where to start, but I have a BUNCH of simple ideas, so something will fit the congregation you are in.

I write about the Christian Church not because they are the only faith addressing Climate Change (in fact, this awesome site has collected responses to Climate Change from religions around the world). I write about Christianity mostly because I am a Christian, raised Protestant, married to a Catholic, and now landing somewhere in the middle as an Episcopalean. I tend to not talk too much about my faith on here, even though it is the central reason why I care about this, but this blog is monetized and makes me (a tiny bit of) money, so I prefer to keep them separate.

 I have seen the conservative and super liberal end, and I truly believe every Christian congregation can connect with protecting the Earth on some level, and I think it has the potential to be transformative for many. I think this is true of all other religions as well, but since I do not practice them, I feel like writing on them would be disingenuous and probably not nearly as useful as advice from someone who knows the traditions inside and out. This is all a long way of saying that if you practice another religion, I would love to collaborate with you on something like this!

Our church is huge and so diverse that one end of the spectrum doesn't have a ton to do with another end. That's too debate another day. The real issue here is that as a group, we are letting our consumer values overtake our Christian ones, so we have to look at our own lives but also our Christian spaces and ask where we need to do things differently. Most of my posts are about what we can do in our individual lives, but I think our church lives can shift (pretty easily) as well.

What I have found, at every turn of writing this blog, is that when we do things that are better for the Earth, they are better for us too. There isn't one choice you can make for the sake of the environment that doesn't also help you. In other words, the day your church is perfect and has the bandwidth to really dig into these may never come. The day you are perfect and feel comfortable standing up for these kinds of changes may never come. But healing can happen in doing, and if we are healing the Earth, we are also healing and growing ourselves.

Now, I am going to throw out a lot of ideas. This is not with the expectation that any church could do all of them; like people, each church has its own strengths and its own challenges. But no matter where your church is, you as a collection of people who care about God and care about God's creation can do something. Let's do this.

1. Start Talking about Environmental Stewardship as a Mission

"And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another-and all the more as you see the Day approaching." Hebrews 10:24-25

Before we go any further, it is worth noting you can't do ANY of this alone. So the first step is to start talking about it. See who bites.

Ask around. Ask to plan a special Sunday lunch to talk about it. More and more people care about these things (and older generations often see a lot of this stuff as common sense), so you may be surprised how many people want to be involved. Brainstorm with a friend (or your preacher) over coffee. This simple step could lead to a million good things, and you will never know if you don't try.

Many church now have a guild or ministry specifically focused on taking care of the environment. At a church nearby in Seattle, they have Creation Keepers, which is supporting a greener ministry. They have set their own goals, and I know they are pretty successful. You could be there next. You could decide your goal is to go on mission trips specifically to serve the environment or to do things in your own local community. Just having the conversation could lead to so many missions.

This mission could look so many ways, and all of them are beautiful:

- Start a Giving Garden. Grow food for the food banks in your neighborhood, so people can have fresh food, but growing a garden also helps local insects (and bees).
- Go on a Beach Cleaning Mission Trip.
- Contact leaders in your region and state to stick up for green initiatives and stand against corporations (especially Big Oil) and their abuse of the planet.
- Run a Environmentalism and Faith bible study.
- Green the church grounds and building.
- Plan a monthly litter clean-up.

Looking for ways to get engaged as a church? I have found a couple of pretty solid online resources- Green the Church is mobilizing black churches to engage in climate change and serve as resources in disasters, Interfaith Power and Light is a interdenominational group working specifically with churches to minimize their energy use, and Greening Congregations has tons of resources for any Washington-based congregation that would like to take better care of the planet (and I bet they can help you find a group working somewhere closer to where you live as well).

2. Plant Three Trees

"He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water, Which yields its fruit in its season And its leaf does not wither; And in whatever he does, he prospers." Psalms 1:3

The church may be complicated, messy, and diverse, but most of us can probably agree that trees are nice.

There are more than 300,000 Christian Churches in the United States. If each one planted three trees a year, that would be nearly 1 million trees added to our planet each year, keeping the air clean and beautiful. This effort could be even more dramatic if you attend a church on a significant piece of land and you could plant many more trees.

Sikhs have recently announced that they plan to plant 1 million trees as a "gift to the planet." With as many people and resources as the Christian church has, we should be able to give a similar gift. Our planet is in desperate need of trees to help regain its health, and this is a simple and positive thing we can do as a group and using the space we have to make a positive difference.

3. Celebrate Zero-Waste Coffee Hour

"For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” Matthew 18:20

Coffee hours are a vital time for snacking and small talking, but like any church get together, it has the potential to make a lot of waste.

At some point, many churches shifted from real plates and silverware to plastic forks and paper plates. I get it! It makes sense, because a church is just a bunch of people collaborating to make it work, and you may not want to spend your labor force on doing dishes. People have things to do Sunday afternoon!

I get it, but it is probably worth it to wash those dishes. Say 20 people use a plastic fork and a paper plate each week. That's 1000 extra items into landfills in a year. The best choice is to use the cups, plates, and silverware that are already in your cupboard. Start a dishes or clean up guild and stop using disposables.

If you just can't make it work, choose items that are recyclable (or compostable). We have a list of eco-friendly party supplies that cover most of the things you need. If you can, at least use your coffee cups instead of disposable ones; very few are recyclable or compostable.

If you want to build morale for it, you could make a poster keeping track of how much you keep out of landfills for a year! My experience is that people actually feel good about doing the right thing and want to help when they see it is making a difference. Posters can be super helpful.

ALSO, if you are at a church where everyone gets those cute little plastic cups for their communion juice (or wine... but we all know I am looking at Protestants right now), that could be the perfect target for change.  There are glass and metal versions of those tiny cups which might be an investment at first, but you never have to buy them again (you may even have some in storage somewhere from pre-plastic days). There are paper cups that would still be disposable without being toxic plastic.

4. Share your Stuff 

"No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money." The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. He said to them, "You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God's sight." -Matthew 16:13-15

Jesus was pretty clear- we can't serve money (stuff) and him at the same time. I would guess that the vast majority of us are living in a prosperity that his disciples could have never dreamed of, and our fixation on possessions causes stress, depression, and distance from him. In other words, we are all Pharisees here, so what do we do about it?

A church can be the perfect place to replace this materialism with generosity and sharing. We get into these weird mindsets where giving is something we do only as "charity" but Christian thinkers (even Billy Graham) often remind us that we should be in a constant state of giving. Our stuff is merely passing through as we need it, and once we no longer do, passing it on can do a lot of good. So we have to get in the habit of sharing, handing over what we have, and turning away from the mainstream.

So how do you actually make this a part of your church's culture? There are lots of ways to work on this!

- Start or Share a Buy Nothing Group. Team up with a few people from your church and start a Buy Nothing group in your neighborhood if there isn't already one. Put a suggestion in the bulletin to join your local one or to tell friends about it. This is an individual thing and you can't officially participate as a religious organization, but you can get the word out.

- Start a Swap. One of my friends has a church that throws a Kid Stuff Swap every six months. All of the parents bring the things that their kids have grown out of and leave with what they need for the next size. It's a public event where anyone and everyone is welcome, and it promotes a multi-generational family culture in their church. Plus it keeps a heck of a lot of stuff out of landfills. If you have a congregation with a lot of families, this might be the perfect swap to suggest.

If you want something that suits everyone, another idea I have heard of is planning a Black Friday swap at your church, where parishioners (and the public) bring items that could be gifts to swap. They have Christmas music and treats to share. Everyone could leave with less shopping to do and having had a lot of fun.

- Launch a Drive. Lots of us have toy drives around Christmas, but you could be on the lookout for what the people who are struggling need year round. People always need toothpaste and socks. Make it fun. Another option is to look at drives as a fundraising opportunity for the church.

5. Plant for Pollinators

"The Lord is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made." Psalm 145:9

Most churches have plant spaces on their grounds, and it seems like every church family has at least one wonderful gardener in it. You can make these gardens even better for the environment by favoring native plants and things that will attract bees. Bees need our help all over the world, both in staying safe and for having good food sources. It's just a question of choosing what plants go in.

Native plants have other benefits- they are usually more hearty and use less water. You can also use mulch to cut down on the need for weeding or chemicals like Round Up (never use RoundUp again- it causes cancer, and we have to know better). If you want to read all about eco-friendly church landscaping, check out this list from Rhino Landscaping.

6.Start a Church Compost

“Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” Revelation 4:11

A banana peel that is thrown in the compost will last one week. It can become part of a nutrient-rich soil that gets used again. If you throw it in a plastic bag, with all of the plastic garbage, that same peel can take 90 years to decompose. And even then, the plastic takes longer much longer to break down, so it won't really become part of the soil (and the soil will be toxic from the plastic chemicals).

Despite all that, compost is not a regular part of American life yet. But a church (especially ones with a parking lot or space) could totally invest in a few compost containers and invite parishioners to bring their green waste from home. If you live in a city without compost, this is a great way to cut down on waste, and is a teeny amount of work. Make sure to pick a composter that has good reviews, so you aren't contending with smells, but otherwise, this small purchase could make a big difference (and help change people's mindsets).

7. Get to Know Each Other Better

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you." John 15:12

This one can be counterintuitive- what does friendliness have to do with eco-friendliness? But what we know, and what we certainly feel in most churches, is that our moment in history is particularly lonely, and people are suffering from simply feeling alone. I suspect that our culture of more screens makes us more endless consumers- even on social media, we consume information, but actually interacting is pretty tough to do. So we buy more, which makes us more stressed, depressed, and lonely, and the cycle continues.

Consumption is replacing connection. It's bad for us, and it is even worse for the planet, because all of the junk we are buying (instead of making, sharing, fixing, or going without) is filling our world with plastic, waste, and CO2.

It's both an impossibly big problem, and a weirdly small one- don't we just need to talk more? To be friendlier? In churches, we can get stuck in our own silos, and not reach out to people outside of our comfort zone, new people (and especially young people) are having trouble connecting.  I think fighting the good fight to build that community stronger and closer is always worth it. Here are a few ideas on how to do this:

- Start home groups. The home group we were in was one of the best experiences I have had as an adult Christian. It is hard to make genuine friendships as an adult, but by simply showing up every week it actually gave the chance for some bonds to grow organically.

- Have a welcome committee. Be intentional about having people who not only say hello to new people in the church, but offer to show them around and who check in with them again when they come back. Once we had someone actually show us where the changing table was at a church we were visiting, and I would have given her a kiss. I didn't, but I would have.

-Just talk to people more. Ask them to have lunch. Take the leap. I personally hate this part, and I just want to be friends with everyone from the start, but if you want more connection and community in your church, there is really no way around it.

The idea here is to think about how to build community and connection in the church and to put that loving and non-judgmental foot first. It doesn't seem like we would be helping take care of the environment by being nice to other people, but all evidence points to it having a pretty profound ripple effect.

8. Localize your Altar Guild (and Everything Else)

"This is the Lord's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes." Psalm 118:23

At our first adult church, we joined the altar guild and partnered up with a sweet angel named Julie. Once a month, we met up at a farmer's market, bought a bunch of flowers (wrapped in newspaper) from our favorite local grower, and arranged big unruly flower pots full of color and joy (all while discussing Game of Thrones).

We lived in California, so we were spoiled with flowers all year long. That's obviously not the case in most places, but shifting decorating and other aspects of the church to things that are reusable or local can minimize waste. Shifting our mindset about how we can contribute while also supporting our communities can make a big difference.

Instead of decorating with new flowers each week, why not get something potted that grows through the season? Or bring flowers from parishioners' homes during the summer? Or make flowers from tissue paper! This is just an easy example, but the shift is really thinking about how to use the resources, skills, and stuff that you already have locally. I love in some churches where people just bake the communion bread at home, or when there are parties to make all the vacation bible school materials. Anything shipped in has wasted fossil fuels to get to you. So if you can think of a way to get it, fix it, or make it locally, you are doing some good.

Jesus talks about how giving what we have, even if it is very little, is enough. Using what we already have is a gift to ourselves and a gift to God.

9. Recycle those Programs (and Print Less) 

and Start Terracycling

"O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom have you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. Here is the sea, great and wide, which teems with creatures innumerable, living things both small and great." Psalm 104:24-25

Depending on your church, your programs can be pretty hefty. If you have them, be sure that you are also recycling them AND using post-consumer recycled copy paper to print on. Have a paper recycling bin at the ready at the back of the church. If you don't really need a program, skip it. If you have a projector, use it. No matter what, this is an easy way to cut down waste.

If you already recycle programs (and you think people would be up for it), consider expanding your church's recycling with Terracycle. Terracycle offers recycling programs for all sorts of things, from shampoo to toothpaste to chip bags to corks. Not many individuals have the space to sort all sorts of recycling in their home, but you could set up a few of these Terracycle boxes in an open space and collect more recycling as a congregation.

Everyone can start bringing these items from home, and as a group, you can cut WAY down on waste. You have to have a pretty green-minded congregation to sell this one, but even if you start with one, people might surprise you.

10. Pray for Guidance and the Heart for Action

“Rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation; continuing instant in prayer.” Romans 12:12

There are so many attitudes and beliefs around prayer, but I think most Christians would agree that it is something we should be doing all the time. I believe without doubt that God is changing hearts and putting us to work each day to appreciate and protect this glorious creation. No matter what the situation is in your church, you can pray for our planet and pray to be lead to the work you need to do to help it.

I know I can have trouble getting my head and words around a new prayer mission, so if you need a resource for ideas, I cannot recommend Climate Caretakers enough. They are a global community of Christians united in prayer and in action to save the planet. They also send me an email once a week with prayer ideas and action items. I love this group so much. Not sure where to start with all of these ideas? Just join Climate Caretakers and read those emails.

10 Eco-Friendly Switches You Can Make at Your Church to Help the Planet

There are other bigger steps to take- power the building with renewable energy, add a public drinking fountain, move to get a LEED certification (some churches are already doing this- look into Interfaith Power and Light), or move your money to banks that don't support fossil fuels (Chase and Wells Fargo both invest your money into pipelines and gas companies).

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