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Evangelicals becoming shepherds of the Earth

October 1st, 2008

“Let nothing be wasted.” — John 6:12, The New Testament

By Harriet Blake

Two evangelical groups are in the spotlight for their efforts to improve the environment. The most recent to join the eco-movement is a small group of Southern Baptists whose climate initiative is receiving a lot of press these days.

The Southern Baptist Environment and Climate Initiative (SBECI) got its start with a divinity student, Jonathan Merritt. As the story goes, one day in divinity class, Merritt had an epiphany.

“I was sitting in theology class at Southeastern Seminary [in Wake Forest, N.C.],” he says. “We were discussing how God reveals himself both through scripture and through nature. My professor made the statement that when we destroy God’s creation, which is a form of divine revelation, it is similar to tearing a page out of the Bible.

“That broke me,” says Merritt, “and began a shift in perspective for me.” The 26-year-old son of noted evangelist Dr. James Merritt, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, decided that his faith needed to get on board with global warming.

“I began praying through a mobilization project which has blossomed into the coalition of over 450 Southern Baptist leaders and laypeople known as the SBECI,” says Merritt, who plans to graduate with a masters in divinity later this year. Among the prominent Baptist leaders who have signed the initiative are his father, now host of Touching Lives broadcast ministries, and current SBC president, Dr. Johnny Hunt.

Merritt, who is also the initiative’s national spokesperson, describes the SBECI as “an independent coalition of Southern Baptists who are passionate about caring for God’s creation.”

The SBECI is not the first group of evangelicals to test the global warming waters.

In 2006, a group of 86 evangelical leaders began an initiative to fight global warming, stating “millions of people could die in this century because of climate change, most of them our poorest global neighbors.” Among those who signed that statement were presidents of 39 evangelical colleges and megachurch leaders such as Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life.

At the same time another group of evangelical leaders disputed this claim with a letter to the National Association of Evangelicals, saying, “Global warming is not a consensus issue.” Among those who signed the letter were James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family and Charles Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries. They argued that the science was not clear on whether global warming was a real problem and that human beings caused it.

The 2006 initiative eventually became the Evangelical Climate Initiative (ECI), which has continued collecting signatures from the movers and shakers in the evangelical community. “The ECI is focused exclusively on climate change,” says spokesman Rusty Pritchard, “and what the church can do.” Currently, he says, the ECI’s “Call to Action” is closing in on 300 signatories, all senior evangelical leaders with a national reputation or senior pastors of evangelical churches.

(For the record, Southern Baptists are evangelists, but not all evangelists are Southern Baptists, notes Pritchard. “Evangelical,” says Merritt, “is a broad term that includes all conservative Christians.” The Southern Baptist Convention is a denomination of 16 million Americans that makes up about half of the evangelical population.)

For the SBECI, the focus is on “creation care”, which Merritt says is a synonym for environmentalism. However, the group does not issue a verdict on global warming, a topic on which Southern Baptists still disagree, with a segment deeming global warming to be a hoax.

Rather the SBECI statement suggests, somewhat delicately, that Southern Baptists can agree to disagree, but still act:

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