Theological Reflections on Green Buildings and Grounds

A Theological Reflection

Building and Grounds as Model of Care for Creation


Christians are earthy. We have great understanding of the harsh realities of life and great appreciation for the common graces of world around us. We believe in God who created this material world. We believe that what God created was good. We affirm the importance of gratitude and responsibility for all that God created. We believe that the finite can bear the infinite, that the ordinary elements such as grapes and grain and water—and therefore any matter—can actually be vehicles for us to experience divine realities. We hold material reality in high estimation. We know that we love God and are loved by God through our relationship with our neighbor. We also know that we love God and are loved by God through our relationship with the rest of nature, through our love of and care for the creation. So let’s get earthy. Let’s talk concretely about our commitment to care for the church building and grounds—the bricks and paints and chairs and soil and grass and trees—as part of our Christian, indeed human, commitment.


The Church as Alternative Community.

Ideally, the physical plant of the parish and its grounds should serve as a model for ecological responsibility. This concept of model is rooted in the vision of the church as an alternative community. In contrast to an understanding of the church that fits into the culture around us, we argue for an understanding of the church that would make the church a model for an alternative way of life. If the society believes we can use pesticides without harming people, the church will face up to such a denial of responsibility and do something about it. If the society is willing to put comfort and ease above the need to limit emissions that increase global warming, the church will seek earth-friendly alternatives. If the society believes that we can be a “use and waste” society, the church will seek to approach 100% recycling/reuse of its waste. The contrasts can be proliferated further, but the point is clear. The church will make moral and theological reflections on its ecological responsibilities and then choose to be a community that is alternative to the prevailing popular wisdom.

The theology of an alternative community asks what it would mean to make our lifestyle sustainable for future generations. It would be based on the ecological principle that “everything is connected to everything else.” Our ecological choices affect others, especially the most vulnerable among us both locally and in the larger global community. Injustices against the vulnerable now also include injustices against the rest of nature—the endangerment of animal species, the exploitation of animals, the rape of earth for ores and metals, the stripping of land for trees, the destruction of ecosystems, the pollution of air and water, and much more. Yet our commitment is not limited to the rest of nature or even to the people presently alive who are affected by ecological injustice. Our ethical commitments extend to those who will be living on this planet many generations from now.

Our society tends to have short-term plans, many lasting only as long as the next election. But we can no longer afford to follow that trend. We have to be visionary about establishing a style of life that will preserve the planet from actions and behaviors that would jeopardize the lives of millions of people who will be alive fifty years or a hundred years or more from now. We can longer be cavalier about the effects that our behavior will have on future generations. We need alternative communities that show us what it will take for humans to live in such a way that they secure the future of the planet for our great, great, great, great grandchildren.

Our hope is that as an alternative community, others will see the wisdom of what we do and emulate it. The goal is for the whole society and for humanity as a whole to carry on in a way that is sustainable for the whole planet, a lifestyle that will enable our ecosystem—Earth—to sustain us for the long haul and that will provide food and well-being for all. Even if such a lifestyle seems far off, for us it is only as close as our next set of decisions and actions. As an alternative community, we are not waiting around for others to take the lead so we can follow along. Rather, we have a commitment to act unilaterally—whether others follow suit or not. We cannot be sure it will be effective, but we know it is the right thing is to do and so we will do it—regardless of the lack of action or the failed commitment of others.


A Prophetic Witness

In this regard, a theology of alternative community will be prophetic. We believe that the whole society will have to change if we are going to have a lifestyle that is sustainable. But are there any communities that show us what this lifestyle might be like, say, fifty years from now? What if we imagined what the building and grounds of a congregation might be like fifty years from now when the whole society is oriented toward ecological sustainability? What characteristics might a church in that society have? Imagine this:

● The building itself is made of predominantly recycled materials and has furniture that is made from recycled materials and certified wood. The carpets and fabrics produce no toxic emissions. The building is insulated and designed for conservation of energy, including the use of natural light and heat.

● The building uses renewable energy such as wind and geothermal energy, with the result that there is no further exploitation of resources and no green house emissions.

● The lawn is a grass mixture that requires little water and less maintenance. Mowing is done by hand or by solar powered mower. No harmful pesticides or herbicides are used. The parking lot has a permeable surface and appropriately placed trees.

● Trees next to the building moderate the temperature inside the building. The flat roof has a rooftop garden for conserving energy.

● There is a large community garden on the property to provide food for local food banks. A small apple orchard stands on a side lot. Drainage and a collection system gather rainwater for use in watering the garden, the orchard, and the plants inside the church. The back lot has been restored to natural prairie. There is a little tree stand with benches around a labyrinth.

● The church itself is designed to overcome the distinction between inside and outside, with some floor-to-ceiling windows and the same plants inside and outside. Plenty of natural light in the building allows plants to grow in the sanctuary and elsewhere in the building.

● Only post-consumer paper products are used in the building—for the bathroom, the kitchen, the office, and packaging. There are office guidelines for the thorough use of paper. Most transactions are electronic.

● The community seeks to minimize garbage. Garbage is carefully analyzed to enable as much as possible to be recycled—paper, packaging, cans, bottles, plastic, batteries, computer equipment, cell phones, plastic bags, and so on. All items that can be reused are reused, either within the church or through donation to an appropriate charity—furniture, clothing, building materials, and so on.

● Cleaning/ maintenance products are safe and free of toxins. All toxic products that cannot be avoided are disposed of properly.

● The kitchen has a mug rack (in place of paper or Styrofoam cups), uses cloth napkins and tablecloths, has high-efficiency appliances, and cleans dishes and napkins with non-toxic detergents.

Coffee hour serves fair trade coffee, juices, fruit pieces, and whole-grain muffins and cookies.

● There are gentle reminders everywhere for people to turn off lights, close doors, recycle, use paper fully, and conserve water.

● There is a bicycle rack to encourage those who can to cycle to church. Bus routes are posted at church. Carpooling is encouraged, with sign-up sheets available in the narthex. The youth check tire pressures of the cars in the lot and alert the members when pressure is low.

● The building is flexible for use as a gathering place for worship and a neighborhood center for the community. The church works with the community to address questions of eco-justice and to make the surrounding area a safe and attractive place to live.

● You can add other ideas of your own about an eco-justice parish of the future!

Once we have this vision of the future, we can begin to live it out, now, in the present. That is what it means to be prophetic. We are called to be ahead of our time, to be prophetic about what all of society needs to become and can become. Insofar as we are capable of enacting as much of this vision as possible, the future becomes the present and we are living a community that is a counter-cultural alternative out of the future. How many of the things listed above (among other suggestions) could we make happen now, in the present? For the most part, they require resources of time and effort. But the main ingredient is the willful commitment to do them. With the determination to carry these things out, many, if not most, could probably be done now.

The goal for the church as an alternative community is to live out our responsibility to creation in a radical, thoroughgoing way as a prophetic sign to the culture of what the whole of humanity needs to do if we are to sustain life for the future. As an alternative community we are called to live life as a model for the world. Unfortunately, for most moral advances in the world, the church has been behind the society. In matters of racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism, for example, the church was dragged into the modern world. Can we take action about the environment in such a way that we will lead people into a new era at the beginning of the twenty-first century? Here is our opportunity to do it!


A Theology for Buildings and Grounds

So we have a theology of the church as an alternative community, but what does it mean to have a theology for the buildings and grounds? Despite our “earthiness” as Christians, we are used to thinking of theology and ethics in relation to other people, but we are not used to thinking of a theology of physical realities like building projects or choices of furniture or property maintenance. True, when new churches are built, we think about the theology of the design of the sanctuary: is it in the shape of a cross? Does it invite participation? Is the sanctuary oriented around the baptismal font or the Eucharistic railing? Is the altar in front or at the center? What will be the theme of the stained glass windows? And so on. These are important questions; yet they only begin to reflect the theological and ethical choices around the building and its use and the landscaping of its grounds.

When we realize that buildings are not neutral, that they have an impact on the environment, and furthermore that the environment has an impact on people, then we know that every choice we make has implications for our responsibility to care for the Earth and all creatures who inhabit Earth—humanity included. If there is remodeling or construction on the site, how will the discarded materials be made available for recycling or reuse? Will the building materials be made locally or will they be hauled long distances by truck or train, with significant expenditure of energy? Will the building be made of recycled materials? What will the insulation level be? What about the tightness of the building? How much natural light will be available? What will the placing and energy efficiency of the lighting be like? How about the efficiency of the furnace and the air conditioner? Will alternative energy sources be employed? Will the paint used or the fabrics for chairs or the carpets give off toxic emissions? What about the use of native grasses and plants, which require less maintenance? All these choices—and many others—are ethical choices that have implications for the environment and for human justice, all of which determine whether your congregation will leave a heavy or light ecological footprint on the Earth.

A theology of buildings and grounds would be based on the ecological principle that “everything is connected to everything else.” It would be rooted in the sacredness of all of life as God’s creation. In short, it would be based on the sacramental nature of all life. We would realize that the whole earth is our sanctuary, not only but including our church building! If the whole Earth is our worshipping sanctuary, that fact leads to a different relationship with nature and to a different ethical responsibility toward Earth-community. And such a theological proposition would be followed by the human responsibility to be aware of our impact on all God’s creation. Therefore, it would include the commitment to care for God’s earth in all our decisions and practices. It would include the commitment to provide and maintain buildings and grounds that sustain life and do not deplete it. It would also include a commitment to eco-justice where choices have a positive and not a negative impact on the human community—locally and globally.


Thinking Comprehensively: Church Property as a Green Zone

If we are to become morally responsible, if we want to make the church property and practices into a “green zone,” a safe area for the environment, then we must be comprehensive in our understanding of the aspects of the building and grounds that have an impact on the environment. Otherwise, you may get the notion that if you have done one or two things, then you have “greened” the church—retrofitting the lights or eliminating Styrofoam cups or recycling bulletins or doing an energy audit. By contrast, a comprehensive model will enable the congregation to see specific changes within a larger vision of what the building and grounds as a whole can become.

One way to think comprehensively is to do an environmental inventory. This is similar to an energy audit, and indeed it includes an energy audit, but it covers everything of ecological concern—anything in/on the building and grounds, including the practices of people who gather there that make an impact on the environment. The idea is to think of the property of the church as a “Green Zone,” an area that is creation-friendly. In this green zone, we seek (1) to identify everything that comes into/onto the buildings and grounds (in order to minimize harmful things from entering); (2) to assess how efficiently everything is used when in/on the building and grounds (to make sure nothing is wasted); and (3) to identify where everything goes when it leaves the zone (in order to reuse, recycle, minimize waste, and dispose of waste safely). Here is a checklist of things to consider:


● Everything that comes onto the property. Here we are aware that we can avoid bringing some things in (pesticides) and minimize other things (packaging, etc.). Here is a checklist:

Natural lawn care products rather than pesticides or herbicides

Environmentally safe cleaning products rather than toxic cleaning products

Environmentally safe dishwashing/laundry powder or soap

Limit gas for powering lawn mower, snow blower, or other machinery

Recycled/post-consumer waste paper for office paper, bulletins, newsletters

Recycled/post-consumer waste paper for towels, toilet paper, napkins

Less electricity for lighting or powering appliances

Natural sunlight rather than energy for artificial lighting

Alternative energy sources:

Wind power,

Solar power (eternal light),

Geothermal power

Solar powered lawn mower



Well water

Limit packaging and eliminate Styrofoam cups/paper cups/ paper plates/napkins


● The efficient use of resources in buildings and on grounds. Make use of the most efficient appliances and make the most thorough use of products.

Use mixture of lawn grass that requires the least maintenance

Mow lawn less often

Clean less often

Use church bus to bring some to church

Carpool as a service to elderly or children

Partner in order to carpool to church

Ride bikes to church

Use all products completely before purchasing new ones.

Use both sides of paper for drafts or notes

Use electronic messaging and communications where feasible (newsletter)

Use blow dryers rather than paper towels

Use cloth napkins rather than paper napkins and tablecloths

Use mug rack rather than Styrofoam cups

Insulation of doors and windows

Insulating curtains on windows

Boiler adjustments to lower gas/oil use

Climate control at different times of day and in different parts of the building

Insulation in walls

Turn down water heater

Turn down thermostat for heat

Turn up air conditioning level

Use most energy-efficient air-conditioning units, dishwaters, refrigerators, water heaters, and so on.

Retrofit lights to lower energy use

Use upgraded fluorescent lighting to lower energy use

Disconnect lighting where more light is provided than is needed

Automatic lighting with motion sensitive switches for bathrooms and elsewhere

Encourage the practice of turning off room lights when not in use

Produce your own air purity with plants

Use rainwater for lawn, garden, and indoor plants

Efficient operation of machinery for least use of gas or oil

Use hand power for shoveling or trimming and mowing where feasible


● Everything that goes out of the building. Here, aim for reuse or recycling or for safe disposal. The idea is to work toward 100% recycling of disposable materials. Examine your trash to find out where you can do better. Work with local agencies to find the best places to recycle products.

Recycle office paper, bulletins, church school materials, art materials, newsprint

Recycle plastic, aluminum, glass, tin, and so on

Toxic recycling and disposal

Recycle oil from machines, recycle batteries

Use care in discarding paints

Hold a clothing drive to reuse clothing and other items


Do not be overwhelmed by this model. Do not try to do everything at once. Take one or several things at a time. Do what you can do and celebrate that! Some simple things can be done with little cost. More complex things can be done with minimal cost. Consider things with no cost or things with an initial cost that bring a payback. Do not limit yourself just to what is financially profitable. Make an assessment for each thing you consider, an assessment that includes both financial and environmental costs and savings. There are always tradeoffs; yet everything we do for the environment is an investment in our future. Consider doing some things that are prophetic. They will help to give you an identity that will lead to other things.


Public Blessing

As a community, consider your commitment and your practices as a spiritual discipline. Do Earthkeeping with joy and care. Do not fret about what does not get done. Rather, celebrate what does get done and take pleasure in your choices to be thoughtful and committed to justice in your behavior. Know that you are carrying out the biblical mandate to “serve and to keep” the Earth. Know that each choice and each change of practice makes a difference—both in your own spiritual life and in the larger world around you.

When you make changes in the church and its buildings and grounds, be sure to have a rite as part of a worship service in order to celebrate what you have done and to seek God’s blessing on your work. The public acknowledgment will help to solidify the identity of the parish as a community that cares for creation and will perhaps inspire other faith groups and secular organizations in your community to follow suit. And as you carry out these commitments in the parish, you will also be serving as a model to your own members—to make similar changes in their own lifestyles at home and at work.



It is not enough for us to talk the talk in our care for creation. We must also walk the walk. It is not enough to be transformed through worship or transformed by education, we must act in ways that truly make a difference in our world. There are very serious and urgent problems that we are addressing—global warming, depletion of the ozone layer, the loss of species diversity, the proliferation of waste, to name a few. We can and must take concrete actions to address these realities. As alternative communities, congregations can lead the way. They can become flagship organizations that others can look to and see the possibilities. The way forward will involve difficult decisions and hard sacrifices. Such an adventure will entail thinking in new ways and trying things that others may not understand. But the investment in the future of God’s creation will be well worth the effort. Think differently! Think comprehensively! Act accordingly!