January 16, 2010
By William Yardley
The New York Times
MILLWOOD, Wash. — State auditors told Millwood Community Presbyterian Church last summer to close its farmers’ market on the church parking lot or the lot could no longer be claimed as tax-exempt. Without hesitation, the church kept the market and paid the $700 in annual taxes.
Money is tight, but the locally raised beef and vegetables and, most important, the environmentally minded customers had become central to the 90-year-old church’s ministry.
“It’s like we’ve got more going on in our parking lot than we do within the walls of the church,” said the pastor, Craig Goodwin.
Across the Northwest, where church attendance has long been low but concern for the environment high, some church leaders and parishioners are ringing doorbells to inform neighbors — many of whom have never stepped inside the sanctuary down the street — about ways to conserve energy and lower their utility bills. Some view the new push as a way to revitalize their congregations and reconnect with their nearby community.
Religious leaders have been preaching environmentalism for years, and much attention has focused on politically powerful evangelical Christian leaders who have taken up climate change as a cause. Yet some smaller, older and often struggling mainline churches are also going greener, reducing their carbon footprint by upgrading basement boilers and streamlining the Sunday bulletin, swapping Styrofoam for ceramic mugs at coffee hour and tending jumbled vegetable gardens where lawns once were carefully cultivated.
“I’ve never been good at door-to-door evangelism,” said Deb Conklin, the pastor at Liberty Park United Methodist Church in Spokane, Wash., where an aging and shrinking congregation of about 20 people worships on Sundays. “But this has been so fun. Everybody wants to talk to you. It’s exciting. It’s ministry.”
Several mainline church leaders in the Northwest said environmentalism offered an entry point, especially to younger adults, who might view Christianity as wrought with debates over gay rights and abortion.
A study released in December by the Barna Group, which more typically studies trends among evangelicals, said that older, mainline churches faced many challenges but that their approach to environmental issues was among several areas that “position those churches well for attracting younger Americans.”
“We actually encourage it as a way to get people into the churches,” said LeeAnne Beres, the executive director of Earth Ministry, a Seattle group founded in 1992 that has guided many area congregations through environmental upgrades over the past decade but has recently emphasized more direct political action for pastors and parishioners. “That is what people are interested in, and I don’t see anything Machiavellian in that.”
“It’s fertile ground,” Ms. Beres said, “and these are issues that people are predisposed to care about here in the Northwest.”
Several pastors said they had worked to ground environmental activism in religious teaching and more traditional areas of ministry, particularly social justice, to distinguish it from secular environmentalism. That might mean discussing the impact of climate change on people in countries susceptible to rising seas or on other species, what Hunt Priest, the rector of Emmanuel Episcopal in Mercer Island, Wash., called “the web of creation.”
“For a little while some people forgot this was a spiritual issue,” Mr. Priest said, “and we’ve reclaimed that now. I think we got caught up in things like changing light bulbs and saving paper and having the power company come out and do an audit.
“All important, but for us it needs to be about how we live our lives as Christians now that we know more about what we’ve done to the environment.”
Mr. Priest, who recently joined Ms. Beres and other pastors to lobby staff members of Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both Democrats of Washington, for a cap on carbon emissions, said he was wary of viewing environmentalism as a “church growth program.” He noted that while some mainline churches had reported increased attendance as they emphasized the issue, Emmanuel’s congregation, now about 250 families, had declined even though the church had been active on environmental issues for more than a decade.
Still, he said, concern for the environment “can be a spiritual growing edge.”
“Greening a congregation,” as some call it, is not always easy. At Westminster Congregational United Church of Christ near downtown Spokane, built in 1893, the congregation has about 200 people, down from 2,000 a few decades ago. The pastor, Andrea CastroLang, said the church recently had an energy audit and that while it has made some of the proposed changes, including upgrading the boiler, some were impractical for the soaring, heat-leaking sanctuary.
“They were like, ‘It’d be really great if you could lower your ceiling,’ ” Ms. CastroLang said. “We said, ‘We can’t do that.’ ”
Food is at the forefront of some local efforts, and it is central to the changes under way here at Millwood Presbyterian. In 2008, Mr. Goodwin, the pastor, and his family experimented with eating only locally grown food. Mr. Goodwin, who blogged about the experience, said that he had not been particularly environmentally minded in the past and that the shift came as he tried to help his church engage more with the modest neighborhood surrounding it. The congregation, once 1,700 people, had shrunk to 420 five years ago but has since risen to about 500, he said.
Mr. Goodwin said the farmers’ market, originally conceived by a teenage girl in the congregation, Kelly Hansen, was part of what he hoped would be environmentalism at a basic level, what he called “place making,” with the church a shaping force.
“We’ve been trying to sort out how we flesh out a future in this community,” Mr. Goodwin said. “Instead of ‘How do we get people in here?’ It became ‘Let’s get ourselves out there.’ ”