ATLANTA — An upcoming national conference on churches and the environment features several well-known evangelical speakers, including some prominent Southern Baptist leaders who will be speaking for first time on the increasingly high-profile theological issue known as “creation care.”
The gathering is scheduled May 13-15 at Cross Pointe Church near Atlanta, where former Southern Baptist Convention President James Merritt is senior pastor. Merritt is scheduled to speak, along with other Southern Baptists including Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; Ed Stetzer of LifeWay Research and Mark Liederbach, professor of ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.
Merritt’s 26-year-old son, Jonathan Merritt, is organizing the gathering, called the Flourish National Church Leaders Conference on Creation Care.
While still in seminary, the younger Merritt spearheaded A Southern Baptist Declaration on the Environment and Climate Change, which was signed by 550 Southern Baptists, including the SBC president at the time.
Other Southern Baptist leaders quickly distanced themselves from the initiative. A Baptist Press headline declared “Seminary student’s climate change project is not SBC’s,” while Richard Land, head of the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, released a statement explaining why he did not endorse the statement.
Land said Southern Baptist public-policy advocacy “is most effective when it is supported by the broadest possible consensus among Southern Baptists.” He cited a 2007 SBC resolution that urged Southern Baptists “to proceed cautiously in the human-induced global warming debate in light of conflicting scientific research” and to support only policies that “improve the stewardship of the earth’s resources without resulting in significant negative consequences” on the economy.
During that time Merritt met Jim Jewell, who has worked more than 30 years with Christian causes and organizations including World Vision, Trinity Forum, and Prison Fellowship; and Rusty Pritchard, a volunteer lay leader for three decades who taught environmental studies for seven years at Emory University in Atlanta.
Last year Jewell, former CEO of the Evangelical Environment Network, and Pritchard started Flourish, a ministry aimed at helping churches and families build environmental stewardship into their Christian commitment and witness. The May conference is the organization’s inaugural event, but plans include a quarterly magazine, web-based communications and other resources.
A 2008 Barna poll found that 90 percent of evangelicals said they would like to see Christians take a more active role in taking care of the environment, but two-thirds believe the media has over-hyped the story and most are skeptical that humans are a primary cause of global warming.
Jewell says part of the problem is that calls for environmental stewardship in the past have come largely from secular voices with values contrary to the Bible. Moreover, they have focused only on political action to combat climate change.
That prompted some evangelical leaders to overreact, he says, by telling followers that even modest care for God’s creation is misplaced concern and has nothing to do with preaching the gospel.
The intent of Flourish, he says, is to bridge the chasm between those who prescribe only political solutions and those who would do nothing at all.
Jewell says there are plenty of good reasons for Bible-believing Christians to care about the environment.
For one thing, he says, Christians are called to be the very best citizens, and one way to do that is by rolling up their sleeves to improve their local communities by planting trees, working for pedestrian and bike paths or cleaning area watersheds.
Another is that Christians are called to love others, and research shows that interrupting delicate balances in the environment through pollution most hurts the needy.
Reducing dependence on foreign oil is important not only for national security, he says, but it also helps stop enriching regimes that restrict Christians’ religious freedom.
There are also practical benefits. Jewell says churches can save a lot of money through energy-saving changes, which in turn can be used for programs and missions of the church. Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, for example, where former SBC president Jack Graham is pastor, undertook an environmental retrofit in 2006-2007 that saved the congregation more than $1 million in water and utility bills.
Jewell says environmental problems, like all others, are at root the result of sin, and Christians recognize the ultimate solution to conquering sin is faith in Jesus Christ. For that reason, he contends that creation care is important enough to be a major focus of the church, rooted in scripture and religious tradition instead of simply reacting to modern trends.
Other scheduled speakers at the Flourish conference include Chris Seay, pastor of the Ecclesia Christian community in Houston; Joel Hunter, pastor of the Orlando-area Northland Church and author of books including A New Kind of Conservative; and Andy Crouch, senior editor at Christianity Today International.
“A new kind of evangelical conversation about God’s creation is beginning, and Flourish will be one of the milestones,” said Crouch, author of Culture Making. “Those who attend will be on the leading edge of a significant new movement that I believe will, and must, shape the church and our culture for generations to come.”
Jonathan Merritt told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution he hopes the conference will be a starting point for change in how churches think about their God-given responsibility to care for the world.
“I think it’s going to be a primary touchpoint for the church to get involved in the 21st century,” he said.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.)