Updated: Jun 14, 2021
Many people feel that "nature is my church." These amazing spiritual leaders bring it to the collective.
The term "wild church" is now a Thing. Which is wild to me. I remember in 2015 when I had left my last indoor church where I had been associate pastor for a few years and I was meeting in our living room with the twenty or so people who left the church with me. They were like "you know that vision of a church that meets outside that you've been imagining for two years from the pulpit? Do that church cuz I want to go there." I told them, no. "We can't do that, I'm just making this stuff up."
So I just kept gathering them in the living room week after week and asking them in all different ways, "what kind of church do YOU want?" Finally, my very beloved friend, John Slade, pulled me aside one evening after this went on for a couple months. He said to me words that still echo in my heart, reminding me that I can trust the call I felt coming from deep within me. He said, "Don't go too feminine on us. Step up and own this." I wasn't offended. I knew what he meant. I had to stop trying to get everyone else to magically see what I saw, and just begin doing what I so clearly felt was possible. And people would follow...or they wouldn't. But it wasn't up to me to try and convince anyone of what was so clearly etched into my imagination. I just needed to do it.
So we did. We started meeting under oak trees off the trails outside of the town (Ojai, CA) and in the park where there was a wedding photographer and a family picnic that kept interrupting us. But we made the road by walking, as Antonio Machado says in his brilliant poem. We began to redefine what it means to say "nature is my church." Half of the service is a solo "wandering," allowing yourself to be drawn into relationship with particular places and beings of the natural world. Learning to listen for the sacred conversation happening at all times.
There was a "forest church" movement happening in England, so it's not like I was the first one to do this. I didn't know of any others in the US, but I tried to find them. I didn't want to name our church "forest" because I found out the history of the word. Forests came into the English language to describe those areas of England that weren't completely denuded of trees by the Romans and other conquerers, but were set aside as "deer hunting regions" for the royals. I dunno. Something about that history just bugs me. The word "church" has enough baggage.
I wanted to reframe "church" with language that described the purpose of religion, which means re-connect (ligios, like ligaments...connectors between). I wanted church to be a place where we engage in reconnection together. With other humans, with the land, with the beings of other species, with our home places. Not just that we are meeting outside, in wildish places. Church as drawing us home, redefining our identity as members of a community larger than a building or a group or a denomination, but as members of an eco-system. A church that learns to listen for the Sacred in all things, who sees the clouds and the scrub jays and the seasonal river as co-congregants and pastors and gloriously holy kin. Church of the Wild.
It was only about three months before I began to meet others who were also leaving buildings to connect with Earth as sacred. Wendy Janzen, a Mennonite pastor in Ontario Canada, Carmen Rezlaff, a Lutheran pastor in Austin Texas, Eddie Sloane, from the Appalachian Catholic Committee in West Virginia. My sister started a wild church in Virginia. We began meeting on Zoom once a month and each month there was someone new joining us who had also heard this mysterious call to begin meeting outside and integrating relationship with the natural world in their collective spiritual practice.
We decided to call ourselves the Wild Church Network. I threw up a quick website with all of our churches listed and personally responded to everyone who wrote in for a couple years, inviting them to our monthly calls. And then, in 2019, we all met together in Wisconsin to gather around the fire and share our stories and what we've learned so far.
The whole thing was collaborative and we offered opportunities for everyone to share our experiences in person, learn from one other, encourage each other. We were determined to resist the temptation to define the boundaries of the network: who's in and who's out. But to pay attention together to what was emerging through us. And there we recognized that we really were part of something much larger than us, larger than our small gatherings across the US and Canada. We were part of a movement initiated by Spirit. Initiated, too, by the very land, the beings and eco-systems where we lived.
At the end of the gathering, we held a ceremony. Each of us stood up, one at a time, when we felt it in our bodies, and we said "Yes" to this larger story of reconnection with the interconnecting and sacred wild as integral and intentional spirituality. Yes to offering ourselves to whatever was forming in and through us. Yes to this work of Spirit and Earth. We realized we aren't alone.
We knew we needed to begin organizing a little more intentionally and offering resources for the next wave of spiritual leaders who were curious about and drawn to the ideas and practices of Wild Church. So I built a more robust website that helped people upload their own churches, reminded people of events. More people stepped into roles of holding space for the gatherings, orienting new leaders, and expanding the network. And we are still standing just over the threshold of helping to define a new, more connected and kind way of becoming a culture. We are just barely entering a liminal time of profound transformation.
The old ways are being exposed as no longer helpful and often hurtful. The new ways are still emerging. More books are being written, workshops are popping up, awareness is shifting. Whether this awakening of our kindred interconnection is soon enough to make a difference in the agenda of destructive consumption of life, we cannot know. But it isn't really ours to know. We simply need to do what we feel needs to be done, to shift the way we see and interact with the world, to re-sacralize All That Is....simply because it is already sacred. We've just, as a Western culture, forgotten.