Sustainable Faith: How one church inspires members to be good to God’s earth

By Jennifer Colosimo

Light switch awareness, a penchant for recycling, eating food we grow with our own hands… these things seem easy. They’re available ways to go green, and things most of us already think to do or want to do. But a small church in San Antonio is encouraging us to think about why we do them and use that to do more. After all, our future depends on it.

It happened in the fall of 2020. Things were bleak during the pandemic and people were contemplating life. Mike Massar, associate pastor for faith development at Woodland Baptist Church in San Antonio, was thinking about his granddaughter. She was born with a heart condition, one that required environmental changes to enhance her quality of life. That led to thinking about the world we live in and how we haven’t done enough to take care of it for the next generation. That didn’t sit right with him. He made an appointment with his senior pastor the next day, and the beginnings of a new initiative started to form.

Ray Cook Furr and Jeni Cook Furr, members at Woodland Church, young adult Sunday school teachers and theologians, were passionate about this topic as well. Climate consciousness had been on their minds since their son had taken an interest in it in high school. Now, with a grandbaby on the way, they were ready to take action.

“We spent our lives giving our children the best education and the best opportunities. But one day I woke up in retirement and realized we’ve left them a planet that’s going to put them in a horrible situation. I couldn’t live with that.”

As these like-minded church leaders talked things out, their focus turned to how we can be good environmental stewards for God. They announced a call to the congregation to see who would be interested, and gathered a large group to discuss how they should get started. The initiative was dubbed “Oikonomos,” the Greek term οἰκονόμος related to stewardship. A plan for change was underway.

They launched Oikonomos with four objectives: developing a task force to direct the church’s new ministry, educating the congregation through books and other resources to engage members at different interest levels, implementing programming into children, youth and adult ministries and sharing what they would do with the greater San Antonio community.

Ray Cook Furr and Jenni Cook Furr launched the environmental initiative at Woodland Baptist Church in San Antonio, Texas. The church won a silver star from ReWorksSA for their sustainability practices.

Senior Pastor Garrett Vickrey and Massar sent a letter to the church to plant the seed, and then the task force hit the ground running. Vickrey included theological facts and shared inspiring stories in his pastor’s letters, the task force distributed a reading list and they started meeting regularly. They read a lot, watched documentaries and attended online seminars during the pandemic. Then Vickrey and Massar preached a dialogical  sermon titled “The Ostrich Effect,” to drive home the reason why we must not just bury our heads in the ground and wait for something to happen.

They didn’t wait. The church immediately got to work. Ray helped conduct an energy audit with the local utility company, evaluating everything from wall insulation to the type of lights they were using, their doors, the weather stripping and more. It was simple stuff, things any church could do. They reviewed how green their campus could be, moving many meetings to virtual formats, placing recycling containers throughout the building and installing new lights that would switch off automatically when rooms weren’t in use. As a result, they earned the Silver Star from San Antonio Sustainability.

“We are the first church to get that particular level with San Antonio Sustainability,” Massar said. “And that’s one of the things we’re really trying to do with this, to encourage other churches to get involved. We want them to see what we’re doing, to call us and ask us about it.”

Since the initiative has gotten off the ground, members have worked together to revamp the church’s on-site garden, build a butterfly migration station, eliminate harmful materials like Styrofoam and non-recyclable plastics and reduce their paper usage. They’re also constantly thinking of new ways to shrink the carbon footprint, like working to host a monthly organic market for the community, experimenting with rainwater barrels to water the grounds, switching to permeable paving and indigenous plants and partnering with green-minded organizations. They are currently installing solar panels and electric charging stations.

“We put an outside banner to let people in the community know what we’re doing here, but those solar panels will be like a permanent banner,” Ray said. “That’s probably the most encouraging thing I’ve seen since we’ve started this. We’ve had four young couples with children join our church. They saw our banner and wanted to be a part of what we’re doing. This is important to that generation. It’s something that when they look at our church, they see that we care about their future.”

According to Ray, it would be unreasonable not to make the changes toward sustainability. It’s cost-effective, and for a church, that’s hard to argue against. Woodland’s EV charging stations will give members the option to donate a portion of their charging fee back to the church’s mission. The savings from lower utility bills will also be redirected toward various ministries. It’s a “no-brainer,” Ray said.

            It was also encouraging how the church supported this idea from the start. Jeni was worried that the political associations with the topic might deter members from getting involved, or cause a split in the church; but it’s been the opposite. Only five people in the church voted against it. Members have come out in droves with support, ideas and enthusiasm.

“With this initiative, I envisioned helping people understand that this was not just a political issue,” Jeni said. “If you’re a Christian, or of any kind of faith background, this is a theological issue. God gave us the responsibility to care for God’s earth, and we’ve forgotten that. My hope is that we can reframe that whole issue.”

According to Jeni, that reframing starts by listening to the church’s young people. They have the biggest investment in this topic since it’s their future. They’ve got ideas worth listening to, capable hands and good energy.

“I love getting a phone call from someone not even on the task force with an idea for what else we can do,” Massar added. “We’ve had ideas for paper shredding days and suggestions on where we can recycle more, with ideas coming  from each age group. A senior adult member is the one who is spearheading the idea for the organic market. That’s the feel-good part of this, to know that people are thinking about this on their own.”

Certification as a green campus is next on the list of goals, and the hope that more church campuses—and people—will catch on. Woodland is just getting started, but it’s certainly history in the making.

“We’re so far behind and the obstacles are steep,” Massar said. “That’s why it’s bigger than just our church, than even just our denomination. We need more people to help push this further to really start making a difference.”

That push for something big starts with just one small step, the team said. Perform an energy audit, ditch paper programs, evaluate how you’re doing church and start making changes. Most of all, listen to what the young people have to say about the future of their planet.

“From Genesis to the New Testament, you see references to our planet and the climate,” Ray said. “Those are pretty big influencers, I’d say, and that’s why this is a kind of evangelism. We want people to see that this is actually a fun, creative, reasonable, rational, cost-effective way to evangelize.” “We have a commandment from God to care for the most vulnerable,” Jeni added. “Climate change impacts the vulnerable the most, so this is our responsibility. It doesn’t get any simpler than that. This is how we love our neighbor—by loving our planet and giving them hope. What better message for a church to give than the fact that there is still hope.”

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