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Churches and CFLs

Copyright © 2007, Eco-Justice Ministries

This is a preliminary draft document. Your comments and experiences will help us develop this resource dealing with compact fluorescent light bulbs, as well as future resources on other topics. Please send your comments to -- and please check back for updated versions of this page.
Most recent update: 8/17/07

At the core of our work, Eco-Justice Ministries believes that religious institutions -- and specifically Christian churches -- have powerful and distinctive gifts to offer in addressing the world's great needs. In this time of ecological and social justice crises, churches must claim their ability to act "as church" in providing moral leadership and the encouragement that comes from an intentional faith community.

For churches, the list of "what we can do" includes worship and prayer, and the nurturing influence of a trusted community of friends. "The Church" must speak to its members and its community based in the power and opportunities that come from its organizational life.

Eco-Justice Ministries will be developing a series resources to help churches act faithfully and effectively "as church" with regard to several specific issues and programs. We will be selecting those topics based on their direct impact, and on their ability to move people toward deeper levels of commitment and transformation. (An Eco-Justice Notes on Do-Be-Do-Be-Do explores that interplay between what we do and how we understand ourselves in the world.)

In many congregations, an entry point for dealing with environmental concerns is the encouragement for members to change light bulbs from incandescent to compact fluorescent lights (CFLs). Changing light bulbs is a broadly affirmed practice for reducing energy consumption, and thus reducing the emission of climate-altering greenhouse gasses.

Eco-Justice Ministries affirms these efforts by congregations. We profoundly hope that these church programs will go deeper than an informational program calling on individuals to change a few bulbs. We hope that the programs and strengths of church institutions will be brought to bear in creating a program that saves energy and changes values, too.

When approached carefully, a program that calls on church members to change light bulbs can be a significant step in a transformational process. The practical step of installing some CFLs can help people come to new understandings of their relationships with many parts of God's creation, and it can invite them into new ways of living faithfully and gently as part of the earth community.

To replace a significant number of incandescent light bulbs with CFLs, as a means of reducing the carbon emissions of the congregation's facilities, and of the members in their homes.
To develop a theological and ethical perspective within the congregation which stress the need to care for God's creation.
To build a basis for further environmental efforts, through the development of
(1) strategic frames of reference which are not limited to CFLs or climate issues;
(2) congregational leadership and communities of support; and
(3) positive experiences that deepen personal commitment.
To build a commitment to the church as an institution which deals with relevant social issues, and which is transformative of individuals, communities and society.

These suggestions -- which will continue be refined and expanded -- point to ways that church programs and leadership can strengthen a "change your light bulbs" campaign.

  • As a very first practical step, change the bulbs lights at the church. Before asking members to put in CF lights -- or in parallel with that request to families -- be sure that all of the appropriate bulbs in the congregation's building and grounds are swapped. Your entire program will not ring true if you're asking people to do something that isn't happening at the church facilities, too.

    Make sure that your members know that the bulbs have been changed at the church, and use that announcement to describe the moral basis for changing to CFLs which will be at the heart of your campaign. You can also use that announcement as an opportunity to talk about the finances of the project (we spent this much, and we'll save this much in the future) and the environmental impacts of switching to CFLs.

    Hint: some experts say that it can be most persuasive to describe the environmental impact in terms like, "If we had not replaced those bulbs, we would have been causing this much more climate-altering pollution every year."

  • Bless the effort in worship. Pray over the light bulbs that will be distributed, or consecrate the forms where people have pledged to replace bulbs. Make it clear that this is holy work, and needs to be blessed just like the Thanksgiving food offering, or the team that goes on a mission trip. Just as the Sunday morning offering is often blessed both as important financial support and as a symbol of larger commitment, the bulbs can be blessed as a good work in saving energy and as a commitment to look carefully at our use of energy.

    In addition, you might give people a prayer that they can say as a family when one of the new bulbs is being installed. Let them bless the project within their own family and their own home.

  • Preach! Have a sermon -- or several -- that puts the light bulb project into a theological and ethical context. Committing a worship service to this theme provides religious and factual information, and is an indicator that this project is important to the life of the congregation, and the community.

    Please note that this sermon will be far more effective if it has ties and grounding to themes that are often lifted up in worship. (See our article on "3 layers of environmental preaching" for more details.) A pastoral sermon about the ways small actions can keep us from feeling powerless is just as appropriate as an ethical sermon on the responsibility to address global warming.

  • Speak from the wisdom and witness of your own faith tradition. If possible -- and if it would be helpful in your congregation -- publicize denominational statements and policies which speak to climate change and energy issues, and which call on churches to take action. If, however, there is a simmering conflict or distrust about denominational resolutions, be willing to keep this information quiet.

  • Engage several key people to endorse the effort. The minister, of course, must be a strong advocate -- but she/he must not be the only leader. Involve the members of a "green team" or the social action committee. The credibility of the campaign will be greatly enhanced if "surprising" church leaders are visibly involved, too: the chair of the stewardship campaign, or a prominent deacon, who may not be seen as "one of those environmental people."

    Note: Prominent leadership from somebody who is seen as "an extremist" on the issue may be counter-productive. Make sure your core leadership is seen as "reputable" by a wide range of church members.

  • Speak to the interests and concerns of a diverse group. Some people -- committed environmentalists and "techies" -- will be motivated by knowing how much of a difference they can make. ("Save 1,000 pounds of CO2 over the lifetime of a single bulb!") Most materials about changing to CFLs take this approach.

    Other members will be more interested in knowing that this newer technology isn't a fad. They do want to act -- but they want to do what is most reputable, not necessarily what is most effective. Tell them that CFLs are a well-established product, and that changing to CFLs is the most widely recommended way for individuals to start reducing their impact. Let them know that this recommendation comes from government agencies, utility companies, churches and environmental groups.

    Still others may be motivated most by a theologically and biblically grounded call to care for creation. The pollution from our excessive use of electricity is damaging God's beloved Earth, and our use of different light bulbs is a faithful way to bring some healing. Some form of this explicitly religious message may be helpful if the CFL project is to point church members toward deeper levels of transformation.

    Combine aspects of these different messages into a statement that is compelling for your congregation.

  • Connect with the educational ministries of the congregation. An adult class can go into depth about the light bulb project, and the related issues of climate change. If there's an ongoing Bible study class, see if these matters of stewardship can be tied into the study texts in a responsible way. With school-age children and youth, classes can connect with and build on the environmental education they get in school. Kids in the Sunday School can be ambassadors to their parents in publicizing the campaign, and in making sure that the CFLs are actually installed.

  • Use the publications of the church to share information. Keep the campaign visible though the Sunday bulletin, the newsletter, the website, and bulletin boards. But use those written messages only as a support to the vibrant in-person leadership of the cause. Printed materials, alone, will not generate a strong response.

  • Let people see how many other folk are taking these steps. People are much more likely to make a commitment when they know that others are also involved.

    In worship services, have people stand who have installed CFLs at home. Create a "thermometer" that measures progress toward an established goal, whether of bulbs replaced or of families taking part. Be sure to keep the chart up to date, and actively push people to participate in reaching the target. Celebrate when you reach, and surpass, the goal.

  • Engage specific groups within the church. Get the support of the women's fellowship in leading the campaign. Start up some friendly competition to see which fellowship group can swap in the most bulbs. In many churches, the youth group sells CFL bulbs as a fund-raiser.

    About that fund-raising approach:

    1. It is especially important to be sure that the folk who buy a bulb to support the youth actually screw it into an often-used fixture at home. They may treat their purchases primarily as a donation, and be less inclined to follow through in using it appropriately.
    2. For fund-raising purposes, it may be most helpful to specialize in hard-to-find bulbs: 3-way and dimmable ones.

  • Be sensitive to the high initial cost of these bulbs. For some people in your congregation, it will be a budget-breaker to buy one new bulb, let alone a lot of them. For people who are renting their home, or who may be moving soon, there's a steep cost to installing bulbs that they won't take with them. Perhaps your congregation can create a special fund that will provide a reasonable number of free bulbs to people in the church and community. Those who contribute to the fund will be helping to stress that changing to CFLs is something that everybody should do.

    In some churches with a strong commitment to economic justice, discussions and action about these economic issues may engage a constituency that has not seen "the environment" as a compelling concern. Be careful that the important questions about economic systems does not distract from the immediate campaign to change many light bulbs. Consider developing a "next step" program that moves beyond light bulbs to look at systemic questions.

  • Spread the word -- within your church, to other churches, and to the secular community. Put out press releases, and encourage members to tell their friends what your church is doing. Toot your horn as a way of encouraging others to be concerned, and to act effectively. Use your publicity to put out a double message that calls for energy efficiency and that names the positive role of churches.

A few warnings: There are things which can be done in the campaign to have people change light bulbs that are very well intentioned, but which may hinder longer-term and deeper efforts toward personal and social transformation. Think carefully about the subtle and psychological impacts of your project.

  • Don't focus on the new bulbs as a way to save money. The emphasis of the campaign should be on the ways that we can reduce our damaging impacts on God's fragile creation. It is nice that doing so can reduce some long-term expenses (a case of "doing well while doing good"). If too much emphasis is placed on the financial side, though, it makes it harder to lift up other matters of environmental stewardship which don't have a monetary pay-back. Stress that faithfulness calls us into responsible behaviors, and that we can then -- and only then -- evaluate how the costs shape our options for action.

  • Don't suggest that changing light bulbs is enough. It is a good first step in reducing our "carbon footprint", but it is not sufficient. Tell your church members that "we need to reduce our energy use in many ways -- these light bulbs are a great way to get started on that." Your campaign can backfire if church members think they have done all they need to do by swapping a few bulbs. Make it clear at every stage of the campaign that more is needed.

  • Don't confuse technology and God. Ultimately, we are saved by the grace of God, not by human ingenuity. Take a hard look at what you are communicating if the environmental programs of your church speak only of technological solutions -- of energy efficiency and renewable energy -- and do not speak about the need to change our lifestyles and values.

    Eco-Justice Ministries strongly believes that -- at its core -- the Earth's deep ecological distress is a human problem. (See the Eco-Justice Notes on Locating the Problem for a more developed presentation on the difference between seeing a human problem and an environmental or technical problem.) We really have to deal with sin and broken relationships, more than ignorance and broken technology. The real solutions are to be found when we bring ourselves into a more appropriate relationship with God and with all of God's creation. Our use of more appropriate technologies can be a part of that transformed relationship. If we only look for technical solutions, we are not addressing the real problems.

These suggestions draw on insights gleaned from the experiences of many congregations on a wide variety of issues. They also draw on the book Fostering Sustainable Behavior: an introduction to community-based social marketing by Doug McKenzie-Mohr and William Smith.

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