By the Rev. Dr. Brooks Bendt
This post originally appeared on Vital Signs & Statistics, a United Church of Christ blog.
As the Environmental Justice Minister for a denomination, I recently found myself in a quandary over what to make of various statistics and studies. While a highly publicized national study asserted that Christians were not particularly inclined to care about the environment and were actually becoming less inclined, my own denomination—the United Church of Christ—had just received the results of a survey which indicated that our members tended to be notably more concerned about climate change than the rest of the population in the United States. Were we a wondrous outlier? Should we start proclaiming ourselves to be “the Green denomination”?
While self-congratulation would seem to be an obvious destination for someone in my position, the truth is that my own thoughts have fluctuated and evolved in drastic ways over the past couple of months. The national study hit the news about a week before I dived into the study of my own denomination. My initial response to the national study was to believe it. On a visceral level, I wanted to broadly castigate Christians for a ministerial failure of epic proportions. Soon, however, the media discussion of the study became more nuanced and so did my own thinking. An insightful public debate began with one scholar asserting that an inevitable flux of opinion occurs when a movement faces pushback. Various other environmental advocates noted that polling data language about “climate change” or “global warming” is less likely to elicit the same positive responses as faith-oriented language about “creation care.”
In the midst of all of this rich public conversation, I began to sift through data about my own denomination from a survey that we conducted with ecoAmerica. While the results likely skewed toward higher environmental awareness due to the self-selected nature of the survey method, a robust group of 843 respondents from our denomination made us look like card carrying Sierra Club members compared to the rest of the population. For instance, 97% were personally concerned with climate change with 88% being very concerned. This compares with a general population in which 76% were concerned and 44% were very concerned. In other words, those surveyed were two times more likely to be very concerned about climate change than the general population of the United States.
I have had a lifelong battle against seeing the glass as half-empty, so predictably, I became fixated on a different statistic in the survey results. I was disheartened to think that only 51% of respondents said their place of worship is talking with staff and members about climate change. While such a statistic can be taken in different ways, especially when just 10% of the general population is hearing about climate change from faith leaders, I felt dismayed because it indicated to me how little UCC pastors are preaching on climate change despite the leanings of their audience.
I have frequently heard pastors confess that it is difficult to preach on climate change for fear of “rocking the boat.” Yet, the survey indicates this is an issue that is actually less likely to rock the boat, even if there is a vocal minority. As a former church pastor, I know how tough such a minority can be, but let us be honest about this. When it comes to having the courage to preach the gospel, there have been a lot more difficult audiences than this. Moreover, in many cases, the conversation about climate change has already begun in the pews with 86% of respondents reporting that they have discussed climate change at church and 97% reporting that they have discussed it with family and friends.
To balance this assessment, however, let me also give the glass-is-half-full perspective. Perhaps, the critical matter is not whether we are green, but instead whether we are becoming green. It is a continual process, and the good news for my denomination is that we have incredibly fertile ground (as well as a rich history). Our members are ready to the take the institutional church where it needs to go. What remains is to not only proclaim it from the pulpit but to also put it into practice by being a prophetic force in the broader world. I believe we will get there. For the world’s sake, I pray that is soon.