Young Evangelicals seek to save the Earth – and their church

Courtesy of Elsa Barron
Elsa Barron walks among other protesters at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, with activist group Coat of Hopes in November 2021. The organization created the coat she was wearing by quilting together squares highlighting different individuals' hopes for the future.
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Elsa Barron, an environmentalist and an Evangelical, says she “had a lot of anger toward [the church]” due to Evangelicals’ tendency to be climate change skeptics. But creation care, an environmental movement grounded in biblical direction such as the duty to “tend and keep” the Garden of Eden, helped change her perspective – in part by opening up opportunities for conversations.

Before Ms. Barron left for the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, her pastor gave her the floor during a Sunday service to tell the congregation about her trip. After she spoke, a mother of two boys took the initiative to speak with her.

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

Is it possible to participate fully in two communities often at odds with each other? For Elsa Barron, opening up conversations about faith and the environment takes courage.

When Ms. Barron returned from Glasgow, she got more questions.

“I ... have a hunch that those conversations wouldn’t have happened with just anyone on the street,” she says. “We were part of a community together, and because of that, we were able to dialogue in a way that was actually meaningful. We were listening to each other.”  

Conversations can lead to progress. There are any number of ways churches can take action, Ms. Barron says. Pollinator gardens, replacing lightbulbs, solar panels, policy advocacy, writing letters to representatives – the list is long and wide-reaching.

Should I stay or go?

It was a question Elsa Barron had wrestled with on her own for years. Now, at a public panel on faith and the climate at the COP26 summit in Glasgow, Scotland, she was on the verge of voicing it aloud to a crowd of strangers.

The panelists, faith leaders from the All Africa Conference of Churches, hadn’t named names. But Ms. Barron had gleaned the message. One of the biggest impediments to climate action in their communities was ... her home community: evangelical Americans, who hold an outsize influence in missionary ministries in Africa.

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

Is it possible to participate fully in two communities often at odds with each other? For Elsa Barron, opening up conversations about faith and the environment takes courage.

She had bitten her tongue through the Q&A session, nervous about being vulnerable in such a high-profile crowd. But just as the moderator moved to close the event, she felt her hand shoot up.

“I grew up in that community,” she recalls admitting to the panel, heart racing. “What is needed from me in this moment?” 

For evangelical environmentalists, the temptation to leave the church behind and take their climate concerns elsewhere is high. This is especially true among younger generations, who, even in conservative circles, are more likely to worry about climate change than their elders. Ms. Barron, for one, stood on the brink of abandoning her faith just a couple of years ago. 

So the response she got from those panelists at COP26 last November has stuck with her. 

“If you have the opportunity to be rooted in your community, asking questions, pushing for change, and advocating for communities that don’t have an inroad to these spaces, then that’s probably the biggest thing you can do,” she remembers being told. 

The choice to stay and fight has not been easy, demanding resolve, patience, and the courage to speak up, again and again. But at a time when writing off those with differing views has become commonplace, Ms. Barron has found that her empathy and love for her community – imperfect as it may be – have helped her work with, instead of against, those on the “other” side of the climate divide. 

“It takes a lot of courage to not just pick one side or the other, especially in such an extremely polarized society,” says Melanie Gish, author of “God’s Wounded World: American Evangelicals and the Challenge of Environmentalism.” 

The willingness of young Evangelicals like Ms. Barron to engage their church communities is exactly what is needed, she adds, for churches and the climate alike. 

In the United States, climate awareness and urgency have grown steadily in recent years. Today, 77% of Americans say climate change is caused mostly by human activities, according to data published by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. Even among white Evangelicals, thought has been shifting. A poll conducted by Yale and other groups in 2020 found that 44% of them attributed global warming to human activity, up from 28% when the Pew Research Center asked a similar question in 2014.

And the National Association of Evangelicals just renewed a call to action to mitigate the environmental crisis from a “biblical basis,” updating a report from 2011. Yet climate skepticism remains disproportionately high among evangelical Christians, even compared with other religious groups. Some evangelical leaders have pitted environmental movements against religion, painting the former as a politically motivated threat to a faith-driven life. Many simply don’t see church as the place to address environmental concerns. 

“Considering that American churches are losing young people, established churches and their leaders cannot afford not to listen. And so I see their role as catalysts for action,” Dr. Gish says.

Chenyao Liu/Courtesy of Elsa Barron
Elsa Barron speaks at Hoosier Interfaith Power and Light's Faith Climate Summit, where she was moderating a panel on environmental justice, Oct. 10, 2021.

A “second Reformation”?

When Ms. Barron tells a group of strangers she grew up evangelical, she doesn’t just mean she attended church on Sundays with her family. Early on, her devotion to her faith was so zealous she became known as the “creation girl” at school. 

“I was pretty outspoken about it,” she laughs now, remembering how she would push back on evolution in class and cite books on creationism in public debates she herself had initiated.

However, Ms. Barron was also a self-declared “shark girl” who dreamed of becoming a marine biologist. In high school, she learned to trust the scientific process and was confident the seven-day creation narrative would show up in the science if true. It did not. 

So she brought her doubts to the University of Notre Dame, where she majored in biology. As she left creationism behind, a new transformation was taking root, starting with one little book that hit her “like a ton of bricks.” The text was “Laudato Si,’” the 2015 encyclical on “care for our common home” written by Pope Francis. She still remembers her visceral response to her first read.

“It felt like, ‘Oh my goodness, how did I miss this?’” she says. Until then, her religion and her love for the natural world had existed in separate spheres. Now, she began to see the environmental crisis as a deeply spiritual crisis, built on a foundation of greed, extraction, and irreverence. And with that understanding came an accompanying spiritual obligation. 

“If we don’t care about it and don’t do something about it, we’re failing to fulfill two of our callings as people of faith: to care for creation and to love our neighbors,” she says over Zoom from her family’s home in Illinois. 

That’s the idea behind “creation care,” an environmental movement grounded in biblical direction, such as the duty to “tend and keep” the Garden of Eden. Solidified in the 1980s, it offers a counterpoint to the so-called Lynn White thesis from the late 1960s that linked environmental harm to the Judeo-Christian belief that God gave man “dominion” over the Earth. 

Some have gone so far as to call the creation care movement a “second Reformation,” says Dr. Gish, although the ideas have been more readily adopted outside the U.S., especially in places on the front lines of climate change. 

Importantly, creation care transcends narratives of impending doom, says Ed Brown, founding director of the nonprofit Care of Creation. 

“We care for God’s creation because we love God, and therefore we would care for creation even if it were not in crisis,” he explains. As a former pastor and missionary from a fundamentalist background, the environmental “convert” understands the hesitation of his peers. In fact, he titled his first article on environmental stewardship “The Confessions of a Reluctant Environmentalist.” But now he says the call to care for the Earth has become second nature. 

“Because I’m a Christian, I love my wife, I love my kids, I care for God’s world. It ought to be as natural as that.”

Combating climate change with conversation

Even though creation care, also known as environmental stewardship, has become more widely accepted in the U.S., being a young evangelical environmentalist can be lonely. 

Ms. Barron’s qualms with her faith heightened throughout college, especially following the election of Donald Trump. She grew increasingly disheartened by what she saw as a lack of concern for the world’s most pressing problems. 

“I had a lot of anger toward [the church] and a lot of frustration that I just didn’t feel could be reconciled, to be honest.” 

Then, two things happened.

Courtesy of YECA
Climate advocates from Young Evangelicals for Climate Action participate in a "climate die-in" in front of the White House in Washington in January 2020.

On the one hand, her mother texted her about a group called Young Evangelicals for Climate Action. YECA was founded with the support of the Evangelical Environmental Network in 2012. In addition to the group’s advocacy, the organization trains youth fellows on writing op-eds, talking to representatives, leading projects in their own communities, and engaging effectively with church members and leadership. 

Ms. Barron says she held back none of her trepidation in her application essay to be a fellow – and was welcomed into the fold. For the first time, she met a host of evangelical environmentalists grappling with similar questions, while working to shift the culture on climate within their own churches and college campuses.

The brunt of the work, Ms. Barron found, comes down to finding the courage to engage.  

“It starts with conversations; it starts with one-on-ones ... telling your church leaders and pastors what you’re passionate about,” says Tori Goebel, national organizer and spokesperson for YECA. “It’s not necessarily about facts and statistics and different scientific figures, but rather it’s just sharing stories and connecting to shared values.” 

It’s an approach that has become more popular, thanks to experts like Katharine Hayhoe, a Christian climate scientist whose 2018 TED Talk on fighting climate change through genuine, heartfelt conversations has been viewed over 4 million times. 

On the other hand, as far from home as Ms. Barron may have felt spiritually, the pandemic pushed her back there physically. All of a sudden, she again found herself surrounded by a community of people who had known her since she was born. So the types of conversations she could have were different from, and sometimes more powerful than, those she’d had on campus with people who shared her views. 

Before her trip to COP26, where she was a citizen observer through the Christian Climate Observers Program, her pastor gave her the floor during a Sunday service to tell the congregation about her trip and ask for its blessing. After she spoke, a mother of two teenage boys came up to her to say she didn’t know climate change was something you were allowed to talk about at church.

When she returned from Glasgow, she got more questions. “So you really think this climate change thing is real?” one congregant asked her point-blank.

It’s hard to measure the impact of those sorts of interactions, Ms. Barron acknowledges. 

“But I do have a hunch that those conversations wouldn’t have happened with just anyone on the street,” she says. “We were part of a community together, and because of that, we were able to dialogue in a way that was actually meaningful. We were listening to each other.”  

“Olive Shoot”

Today, Ms. Barron is a remote environmental research fellow at the Center for Climate and Security in Washington. Outside of her day job, she works with the nonprofit environmental organization Faith in Place, collaborating with churches across Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin to make practical environmental changes. 

Once a community decides to be part of the solution, there are any number of ways they can take action, she says. Pollinator gardens, community gardens, sustainable landscaping, replacing lightbulbs, solar panels, reducing water consumption, policy advocacy, writing letters to representatives – the list is long and wide-reaching.     

She also hosts a podcast called “Olive Shoot” that pulls from environmentalism, peacemaking, spirituality, and more to answer the question, how do we find hope in the midst of a climate crisis? Even her grandmother, one of a long line of conservative Evangelicals, loves the podcast. 

“That’s a big win,” admits Ms. Barron. “My grandma has even talked to some other members of the family who are less open, and is working her magic.”

Ms. Barron will be back at COP27 this November in Egypt, this time as a facilitator supporting other young Christian activists, leading conversations on climate care, and convening a global youth movement centered around environmental justice and peace building. 

Ms. Barron knows the evangelical tradition has a long way to go. “Choosing to stay, to engage, to participate has been an immense challenge,” she says. 

But she’s learned a few things by sticking around and not turning her back on what seems broken. Just as she no longer feels she needs to be a perfect example of environmentalism to be a climate activist, she’s found that communities don’t have to be in perfect agreement to take part in meaningful transformation. 

“Now I am much more open about just saying, ‘I’m part of the problem. And I’m deeply committed to fixing it.’”

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