By focusing on scripture, staying positive, and helping his members understand what they can personally do to address climate change, Dr. Joel Hunter has succeeded in activating the more than 20,000 members of one of the largest Evangelical churches in Florida.
- Start with scripture - Dr. Hunter uses scripture to show that the call to care for creation is not something new, it’s a longstanding part of their faith tradition.
- Keep the message positive - He stresses the importance of staying positive and focusing on what actions people can take in sermons and elsewhere.
- Create a creation care team - Dr. Hunter’s creation care team has played an important part in overseeing their efforts, training leaders, and encouraging members to take action.
- Host speakers to educate and engage members - Northland hosts events where members learn from climate experts, businesses, and cross-denominational leaders.
- Provide resources for members and pastors - Northland offers a range of creation care books and pastoral resources, including a creation care booklet.
Waking Up to Climate Change
Dr. Joel Hunter didn’t always care about climate change.
It wasn’t until 2006, when a senior evangelical leader reached out to him to take action on climate change, that he truly began to understand the scope of the problem – and the possibility for solutions.
“I was shocked by how I had missed this major threat to our planet,” recalls Dr. Hunter, who serves as senior pastor of one of Florida’s largest evangelical congregations, Northland: A Church Distributed.
Dr. Hunter’s interest was sparked, putting him on the path to inspire thousands of his own church members and fellow evangelical leaders.
People look to you to lead them spiritually, and climate change is a spiritual matter.
Dr. Joel Hunter
Northland: A Church Distributed
He now serves as a spiritual advisor to President Obama, and perhaps even more importantly, a trailblazer for evangelical climate action. He has drawn countless evangelical leaders and his 20,000 members into “creation care.” Across audiences, Dr. Hunter stresses that Christians in particular should strive to keep the earth “clean and to guard it against adulteration or pollution.”
Aligning Message and Meaning
Dr. Hunter understood that becoming an ambassador for climate solutions would draw criticism from some members and leaders. But rather than avoid it, he pushed through instead. In fact, his willingness to discuss climate change has ultimately enabled him to reach new audiences, particularly a younger generation that is inspired by a church that speaks to issues that matter to them. “These kids started saying, ‘I had no idea the church even cared about something like this. I am so in!’” says Dr. Hunter.
Part of Dr. Hunter’s success comes from his ability to frame climate in a way that resonates with his congregants. “People look to you to lead them spiritually, and climate change is a spiritual matter,” advises Dr. Hunter. When he is speaking with his church members, he focuses his message on the moral, scriptural, and biblical mandate to take care of the earth and to care for the poor.
Dr. Hunter also stresses the importance of staying positive and concentrating on what actions people can take. “So much of the conversation around climate change focuses on the negative,” explains Dr. Hunter. Dr. Hunter emphasizes the importance of consistently integrating the theme of taking action on climate change into sermons. “A pastor has just a great opportunity to incrementally and faithfully mention our responsibility to the Earth and the poor and to guard it as we go along with other subjects.”
From Sermons to Solid Waste
But sermons aren’t enough. To build support for action among his congregants, Dr. Hunter and colleagues formed an internal creation care team of a half-dozen volunteers. The team helps oversee the church’s greening efforts, trains staff and congregational leaders, and encourages members to lower their climate impact. Right now, the team is working to launch an internal creation care audit to assess the church’s solid waste, recycling, paper use, water consumption, and energy use. The team also helps to host events where members can learn about climate and what actions people can take from scientists, climate experts, green companies, and cross-denominational leaders.
To extend the reach of its efforts, the church recently produced Our Father’s World, a documentary in which Dr. Hunter makes the argument that saving energy, recycling waste, and reducing one’s carbon footprint are part of living out one’s faith. The church bookstore offers a range of creation care and climate change books for members and leaders. In addition, they provide resources for pastors outside the church, including a creation care booklet that cites scripture related to the earth, summarizes climate change, and offers tips for people on how they can make a difference.
Working Toward a Tipping Point
Dr. Hunter says he’s hopeful that leaders taking responsibility for the issue will help move America toward a tipping point on climate action. “This is an earth-shattering issue,” Hunter said. “And I do believe that with the accumulation both of radical climate events and of insurmountable scientific evidence, that there will be a tipping point where we gain more rapidly in the acceptance not only of the truth of the matter, but of the responsibility to address it.”