There is a growing environmental awareness even among evangelical Christians, despite the fact that this demographic — at least since the Reagan era — has been identified with mostly conservative causes.
The movement is called “evangelical environmentalism,” “stewardship of creation” or “creation care.” Some Christians believe that while humans may have dominion over the earth, that doesn’t mean that they are free to destroy it in order to gratify their impulses, with no thought of the damage they may do to future generations or their own relationship with the Creator.
For example, in 2006, a group of U.S. evangelical leaders launched the Evangelical Climate Initiative, calling on Christians to push for legislation limiting carbon dioxide emissions. In 2007, the conservative Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution affirming the need for Christians to care for God’s creation. Birmingham’s Samford University, another conservative Baptist institution, now celebrates Earth Day and, in 2001, established the Vulcan Materials Center for Environmental Stewardship and Education. Many smaller organizations have sprung up nationwide, including the Evangelical Environmental Network, Care of Creation and Restoring Eden.
One of the stars of this movement spoke recently during Sunday morning services at the Trinity United Methodist Church in Homewood.
A former emergency room physician, Dr. Matthew Sleeth is now the executive director of Blessed Earth, an environmental non-profit based in Wilmore, Ky., and the author of the books Serve God, Save the Planet and the forthcoming The Gospel According to the Earth: Why the Good Book is a Green Book.
Sleeth, in the old tradition of the testimony, told the congregation how he found faith in Christ. The twist? The story of his faith is intertwined with the story of his desire to help save the earth.
However, like all Christian testimonies, new or old, Sleeth’s story is marked by a restless hunger to spread the name of Christ and to proclaim faith in God as the necessary condition for any lasting change, personal or environmental.
According to Sleeth, he was once a successful emergency room doctor and had a cushy lifestyle. He and his wife Nancy, who have now been married 30 years, had two school-age children (a boy and a girl) and a house on the Maine coast. “Push a button and your garage door goes up,” Sleeth said. “It was a nice life.”
But Sleeth was worried about the ecology, at least in part because of what he was seeing in the hospital. “I had seen a shift in diseases,” he said. “In one week, I saw three women in their 30s with breast cancer, and all three are dead now.”
He was also seeing things in the natural world that troubled him. “There were no elms on Elm Street, no chestnuts on Chestnut Street and no caribou in Caribou, Maine,” he said.
At the time, however, Sleeth was not religious. “I had no belief in God,” he said. “I had a secular, humanist worldview.”
One February, Sleeth and his family fled the brutal Maine winter for a vacation on an island off the coast of Mexico. Sleeth and his wife were sitting outside one night after the kids went to sleep, looking at the water and enjoying the warm breezes.
“What’s the world’s biggest problem?” his wife asked him suddenly.
“The world is dying,” Sleeth said.
“What are you going to do?” she asked.
“I had no answer,” Sleeth told the congregation.
The answer would not come until one night in the patient lounge at the hospital when Sleeth found an orange Gideon’s Bible among some magazines on a coffee table. He took it home and began to read it.
“I was profoundly affected when I was confronted with Jesus Christ,” Sleeth recalled. “Judge not, lest you be judged,” he said, quoting a verse from the Book of Matthew. According to Sleeth, he applied this verse to himself and his environmental concerns. “How much of the problem or how much of the solution am I?” he wondered.
This was in 2000, and Sleeth made major changes. He and his family moved into a smaller home and drastically reduced their use of fossil fuels and other energy. “More important, my wife, son and daughter all came to Christ,” he said. Sleeth’s wife also became an author, publishing a book of eco-tips called Go Green, Save Green.
During a question-and-answer session in Trinity’s Fellowship Hall after the service, Sleeth was asked what sort of attitude he found regarding the environment as he traveled to churches, particularly evangelical churches. “My experience the last four years, during about 850 speaking engagements, is you can’t put God or the church in a box,” he said. “I’ve been to churches that are very conservative that are way out on the edge of green, and the other way around. God surprises us.”
He was also asked what he thought was the single biggest threat to the planet. His answer went to the heart of his philosophy, and perhaps close to the heart of the creation care movement. “We need to believe the Bible more, and to have more people sacrifice their lives for Christ, and that would make the changes we need,” Sleeth said. “If you ask me whether I would rather somebody change a light bulb or find Christ, that’s easy. If they find Christ, they’ll say, ‘I can do that.’”
Dr. Dave Barnhart, Trinity’s Minister of Outreach,said he believes that Christians will continue to speak out regarding the environment. “It's heartening because it's not just left-wing churches, or one particular political orientation,” he said. “People are becoming more concerned about good stewardship. You hear a lot about stewardship in churches, usually about money, but stewardship of the earth really goes to the core of that issue.”
You can learn more about Dr. Matthew Sleeth online at www.matthewsleethmd.com. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org