Curiously, churches have lagged far behind institutions of higher education and corporations in paying attention to environmental responsibility and sustainability in constructing buildings. In some conservative Christian circles, the recent obsession with creation(-ism) has led to a great deal of talk but very little walk in creation care. In some liberal circles, environmentalism has become a new creedalism, but with little or no impact on the design and construction of church facilities.
Still, the new interest in the stewardship of creation by organizations such as the National Association of Evangelicals and convocations such as the recent New Baptist Covenant is promising.
On the Sunday after Earth Day 2008, the congregation of First Baptist Church in Greenville, S.C., broke ground for an activities and youth ministry center that will be one of the first Leadership in Energy and Development Design (LEED)-certified church facilities in the southeastern United States when it is completed in 2009.
Slated for the “silver” level of certification, the building is designed by Neal Prince & Partners Architects as a “beacon on a hill” overlooking the Reedy Riverwalk, which is part of the city’s Trails and Greenway Master Plan.
Additionally, First Baptist Greenville’s outcome is a hopeful sign for other churches. A highly developed theology of creation is not characteristic of this congregation, nor has it exhibited a tradition of prophetic proclamation of an environmental gospel or even an established practice of environmental responsibility. So, how did it happen that our plan for expanding our facility came out “green”?
The late Jim McClendon suggested that a distinctively baptist vision of Christian faith and practice proceeds from ethics to witness to doctrine, rather than the conventional other way around. In Baptist circles, then, would do well to consider “LEED-ing” by example rather than by arguments from doctrine or bullying from the pulpit.
Donald Phillip Verene, professor of metaphysics and moral philosophy at Emory University, has observed that “in our time … argument has become an intellectual fetish.” Argument has its place, according to Verene, as it can help clarify certain features of claims that are made in intellectual exchanges. However, “argument can never settle anything,” he says, because “for every argument there is always a good counterargument.” For Verene, questioning, not arguing, is the most effective mode of inquiry and engagement.
Readers of Jewish and Christian Scriptures should not be surprised by this approach. Proceeding by questions reflects a mode of divine wisdom from the beginning, as modeled by the Creator in Genesis 3: “Where are you?” (v. 9) and “What is this that you have done?” (v.12).
Human insight into creation, revelation and salvation alike proceed from the question, “Who then is this that even the wind and sea obey him?” (Mark 4:41).
The perspectives of McClendon, Verene and biblical wisdom are all instructive for understanding First Baptist Greenville’s process and outcome.
Our leadership proceeded by asking questions rather than by making arguments: Why build with environmental responsibility and sustainability in mind? Why not?
What is LEED? What does it cost? What does it save? Why go to the expense of certifying? Can we afford it?
What changes in our behavior would be required? What would it mean for our church and for our community and for our witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ to do this with this building in this location?
Not everyone agreed with every answer to every question. Arguments were sometimes necessary to clarify the features of some of the claims made in answering the questions.
At a number of points along the way it looked entirely possible–and occasionally even appeared likely–that our line of questioning would lead us away from sustainability and certification rather than toward it. Our outcome should give great hope to other congregations and communities, because if it can happen here, it can happen almost anywhere!
This year, when the paraments in our sanctuary change to green for “ordinary time,” they will also symbolize a new “green” witness by our congregation. How did it happen?
Verene is right: put questions ahead of arguments.
McClendon was on to something: ethics … witness … doctrine, along the way to the eschatological creation promise of “a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:5).
Jeffrey S. Rogers is senior minister of First Baptist Church, Greenville in S.C. His book on diversity leadership in the church is being published this spring by Abingdon Press.