Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Greener than Green
distributed 6/29/07 - ©2007

An old TV ad promised that a laundry detergent would get your clothes "whiter than white". The "whiter than white" comparison is now being used to sell tooth whiteners. Hopefully, it is only the slogan, and not the product, that is the same!

The language of marketing does point out a valid detail about the way we perceive the world. The contrasts between similar items are far more nuanced than comparisons between things that are quite different.

The newsprint of your daily newspaper is obviously "white" in comparison with the black ink on the page. But put an ordinary piece of office paper next to the newspaper, and the newsprint looks pretty dingy. The page from the photocopier is "whiter than white".

It is not hard to describe dramatic differences between black and white, or the green, yellow and red of a traffic light. We don't need to worry about describing the green as "emerald" or "lime". But we do need a detailed language to deal with more subtle differences. If you go a paint store for a can of green paint, you'll find hundreds of shades and tones of "green" -- pine, moss, celery, jade, and a raft of other poetically-named tints.

What is true of physical colors is also true with our use of color metaphors. A few years ago, it was helpful to refer to churches that were "green", or that were making progress toward "greening" their buildings and programming. Since it was unusual to have a congregation with any sort of environmental awareness, the green label indicated a striking contrast with all those other "not green" churches. Within the last few years, though, concerns about energy, ecology and sustainability have become pervasive enough (praise God!) that we need more subtlety in our adjectives, and a richer spectrum for the many shades of green identities.

As you think about your own church -- or some other church that you know fairly well -- what sort of green does it seem to be? Is it deep green, bright green, pale green, or perhaps just vaguely greenish? How does it compare to other "green" churches?

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A decade ago, churches were fairly remarkable if they had a recycling program, or if they took intentional steps to conserve energy or water. Few congregations included environmental topics in their worship, education, or political advocacy efforts. It didn't take much to stand out from the crowd. The churches that were doing something -- anything -- could take pride in their unusual accomplishments of "being green."

But times change, and the success stories of a few years ago don't seem so surprising. As environmentally responsible programs become more common in church and society, some settings are revealed as "greener than green", while others appear very pale.

As environmental responsibility becomes more common, it is no longer appropriate to boast about everyday practices. Remember the words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount: "For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?" (Matthew 5:46-47)

If you recycle paper and cans at your church, what reward do you have? Does not even the local grade school do the same? And if you install compact florescent light bulbs, what more are you doing than others? Does not even the US Department of Defense do the same?

I know that in many churches, making the shift from doing nothing to doing something is difficult. Getting started takes a lot of work, and those successes do need to be celebrated. But we're no longer at a point where weather stripping the windows or observing Earth Day is exceptional, or matter of green pride. Following commonly accepted business practices (like reducing energy consumption) and meeting community standards (like conserving water in a time of drought) should only be seen as an essential starting point.

As I work with congregations, I'm starting to refer to three categories of "green churches". The dividing lines between these groupings are not precise, and there will be churches which are strong in one area of their programming but weak in others. Still, it is helpful to recognize some significant degrees of distinction in the depth of green.

  1. At a base level, we should now expect all churches to meet community standards, and to do the commonly accepted things in environmental responsibility. Reducing energy use is a matter of good financial stewardship, if nothing else. When most of our members practice recycling at home and the office, it is glaring if we don't do it at church. Keeping up with the normal practices for business and government agencies is the very least that we can do if we're to call ourselves "green."

  2. Leadership churches have moved beyond commonly accepted practices, and also are doing things that other churches or institutions are not doing. Leadership churches implement energy-saving features, even when there is not a short-term financial benefit -- installing solar panels on the roof, or putting in a super-efficient heating system. They provide education and moral leadership, both within the congregation and the broader community -- showing and discussing films like An Inconvenient Truth, or working to address issues of environmental racism. Environmental responsibility is seen, and named, as a moral imperative.

  3. Transformational churches are the deepest shade of green. Where leadership churches look at innovative technologies and practices, transformational churches take on social systems and worldviews. They might resist consumer culture with a deep call to voluntary simplicity, or challenge the structures of economic globalization which encourage the exploitation of God's creation -- humans and the rest of creation alike. They call us into an ecological spirituality that affirms a new type of relationship with our communities, the earth, and with God.
There is a profound difference between being some shade of green, and not being green at all. In today's world, we must insist that all churches -- and all institutions -- be "green" to some degree. All of us must engage in the most basic levels of environmental responsibility. It is no longer appropriate to waste resources, pollute or exploit the earth.

But we can not be comfortable or proud simply because there's a vague tinge of green in our programming and practices. Let us work to make our churches "greener than green." Let us move beyond the basics into the realms of leadership and transformation.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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