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God's green church
Eco-friendly design good for church and creation, religious leaders, scientists say

By Melanie B. Smith · 340-2468

Imagine a Garden of Eden never gone awry.

We would worship God under a tree or simply beneath the stars.

If we needed a house of worship for shelter, a brush arbor or a cave would suffice.

Today, though, as we sing "This Is My Father's World," we in United States sit in climate-controlled buildings flooded with artificial light. We ignore any twinge of guilt in asking God to bless offerings to cover big utility bills.

Is there any other way?

Backers of "green" buildings believe so.

They think that churches, like homes and other buildings, can be much more energy efficient and environmentally friendly. Structures can use design, technology and simple sense to reduce environmental harm, according to the proponents of green, or sustainable, design.

Sunday is Earth Day, and religious groups are calling attention to changes congregations can make to show love for God and his creation.

Theology backs the concepts. For Christians and Jews there's the Genesis record of God telling Adam to "have dominion" over the earth and to "dress and keep" it.

According to Strong's Concordance, the Hebrew word for "dress" can mean to serve and the word for "keep" can refer to protecting and preserving.

It's all about good stewardship, say green design supporters in the religious community. Many are asking faith groups to repent and change their ways.

The Interfaith Power & Light movement, active in several states, says houses of worship are some of the biggest wasters of energy on a per capita, per hour of use basis.

"Our God-given dominion has been perverted into domination," said the Rev. Woody Bartlett of Georgia Interfaith Power & Light in an article about faith communities in the green movement.

Does it really matter what congregations do?

The Environmental Protection Agency says that if 300,000 houses of worship cut energy use by 25 percent, 13.5 billion kilowatts of electricity would be freed up without additional cost or pollution. Also, it says:

  • More than 5 million tons of greenhouse gas emission would be prevented.

  • Nearly $500 million would be saved for congregations' missions and other priorities.

    Alabama lagging?

    Designer Dan Price of Underwood and Associates in Decatur said Alabama lags behind in green buildings. Clients do want big energy savings, however. They want features like insulated windows and doors to reduce operation costs, he said.

    "I think every church would do well to put the research in and the money in the front end for the long haul, the big vision," Price said.

    He said one good example is Decatur First United Methodist Church's addition, which will have energy-efficient lighting. The only incandescent, high-energy fixtures will be stage lights, he said.

    Architect Jonathan McLelland of Tuscaloosa said he brings up green issues when talking with clients, but most, including churches, aren't reacting.

    "I wish there was participation among churches. I wish they'd catch on quicker," he said.

    McLelland has linked with a North Carolina architect to work in sustainability design. At the request of his wife, a former minister, he presented green design information at a United Methodist Camp Sumatanga family retreat.


    The government is offering a helping hand. The EPA's free, downloadable "Energy Star for Congregations Guide" provides technical information and support for religious groups.

    Aid is also coming from Christian organizations in designing green churches and making other prudent changes.

    The NAE's Re:Vision plan asks churches to reduce their "carbon footprints" by using less carbon-based energy and making facilities energy efficient.

    The National Council of Churches of Christ issued a downloadable green building guide for churches last month through its eco-justice program. It claims that churches save money by using sustainable practices like switching to efficient light bulbs and adding solar panels — $8,000 to $17,000 a year.


    Ideally, green design should come from the ground up. Architects writing for churchbusi recommended that churches return to vertical buildings because they use less land and need less energy to heat and cool. The designers also suggested using as much natural lighting as possible, choosing recycled materials and doing landscapes to reduce the need for mowing and watering.

    A new Wooster, Ohio, Unitarian Universalist church earned the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design gold certification recently from the U.S. Green Building Council. The designer said features include a cistern to collect rainwater to flush toilets and structural insulated panels, according to

    Caitlin Bennett of the Green Building Council said only three churches have met LEED certification but another 17 are registered as in construction. She said there are so few, in part, because the rating is new.

    Changes can also make existing houses of worship eco-friendly and budget wise. According to, a church in Dacula, Ga., changed 900 light fixtures, reduced energy usage and cut utility bills $2,700 a month. Loan payments on the upgrade run $1,300, but the net savings are $1,400, according to the report.

    Taking on more

    Some in the religious community are urging more radical stewardship.

    In January the NAE helped spearhead an "Urgent Call to Action" from religious and scientific leaders. One calling for environmental activism is former Decatur resident and Harvard biology professor E.O. Wilson. A Pulitzer Prize winning author, he recently wrote "The Creation" challenging believers to join with secularists in preserving Earth.

    Wilson is speaking Saturday at a seminar at Samford University in Birmingham, "The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth."

    Green design: Conforming to environmentally sound principles of building, material and energy use. A green building, for example, might make use of solar panels, skylights and recycled building materials.

    - Natural Resources Defense Council

    ‘Green’ guidance

  • United States Green Building Council,

  • “Building a Firm Foundation,” or (202) 481-6928

  • “Greening Congregations Handbook,” $30 from

  • “Energy Star for Congregations Guide,”

  • Re-Vision Project of National Association of Evangelicals, or (202) 789-1011

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