Beyond Picket Signs, How Can a Church Make a Difference on Environmental Issues?

You’ve probably seen them–a collection of folks standing on the corner waving signs about the need for a response to global warming. I know I have. I’ve never been one of those people; but I’ve dutifully waved, honked, and wished them well. I often wonder, though: How much of a difference does this tactic make in changing policy?

There’s a new report written by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies which sheds some wonderful light on the subject. The roughly 60-page report is available here. I would add this to the top ten best reports I have read this year because it includes case studies, theory, and thoughts from people about what really works when looking to create change within communities.

Let’s consider that little collection of protesters in the public square; and then consider a state like California, which has brought the nation some of its toughest environmental laws. As a native New Englander, I figured that this sort of protesting was what was changing that political landscape. It turns out that there is something different going on in the San Francisco area, which the report makes clear. It’s not protesters with signs. It’s educated citizens taking air quality measurements to get data to force the changes.

‘Community organizing involves projects, policy, and power. Research projects demonstrate what is possible,’ [Prof. Manuel Pastor] said, ‘and policy is changed based on the results of that research. But without a constituency demanding policy changes, no changes will occur.’ (p. 9)

Simply put, research possesses the potential to change the narrative. The report makes clear that change is possible, but it needs to be based on facts and research.

On the other hand, it is also true that facts without a story don’t lead you anywhere. Don’t believe me? Watch the film Selma to see how Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spends a good portion of that movie looking to find a place where the realities of segregation meet up with a good story to help inspire the people of the nation to call for change.

The traditional view of community organizing has been that the best approach is to create one organization or group on the basis of an interest…It is more effective to organize people based on their values, not their interests, and to develop an ecosystem of groups that can work together to transform the policies in an area. Focusing on values also helps to create a more compelling narrative. (p. 10)

district-291098_640Here is where I think the church has an edge on other groups. Churches can be clear about values in areas and ways that other groups, even secular non-profits, struggle to find clarity. Churches also have a great story to tell, which can easily be broad enough to support a large coalition of people struggling with the same sorts of problems.

I find the report’s suggestion that we let values drive the partnerships to be a particularly compelling and challenging one. The world today is filled with polarity and difference. Letting values lead, over and above something like vision or mission, seems to be a wise choice.

It should be noted that the report does focus heavily on examples from places like L.A. County and New Orleans. Many reading this blog are likely from places more like the rural Massachusetts countryside where I live. Issues of scale are real, but I think there’s enough in this report for smaller churches, Deacon Boards, or mission committees to get a sense for how to move forward.

Here’s a list to take home:

  1. Read and discuss the report, then consider some of the issues in light of your own context.
  2. Pause for some prayer and reflection.
  3. Approach the issue as a learning community.
  4. Find a way to gather data to explore the problem. Many of the problems facing this world are well understood; however, most lack a committed constituency to tell the stories.
  5. Look for stories to tell, recognizing that the lived realities of people on the ground can get lost in the data.
  6. Develop partnerships with community groups, not based on shared interest, but shared values.
  7. Take your story to the media, your local officials, and your national representatives. Share it with other churches in town. Create a website, a newsletter, or a series of neighborhood meetings to bring about the change you seek.

In the comments below, share about an issue that you might be inspired to explore within your own community.

Rev. Jeremiah Rood lives in Massachusetts with his wife, Amanda, and two small black cats. He has experience working in local congregations but most recently has turned his attention to building an active online ministry at and Rev. Jeremiah’s ministry also includes spending a year in a detox working with struggling addicts and alcoholics. His time is now split between writing a book exploring these issues and working with folks struggling with a variety of different developmental and life challenges.


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