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Hey church, ‘go take a hike’

Wild Churches offer spiritual direction for those burnt out on religion.

“Where do you feel closest to God?”

I was asked this question during staff devotions at a Quadra Island summer camp back in July. My eyes found the ocean’s horizon and on the crest of a sun-tinted wave came my answer: right here.

For me, creation often elicits an emotional response – a rush of joy from the salty ocean spray, a gasp of awe at the sight of a hummingbird, the press of tears from the colours of the sky. Many people feel this way, and “whether they go to church regularly or avoid it, feel closest to God while they are in nature.” I learned this from Victoria Loorz, who is co-founder of the Wild Church Network, a movement that pursues closeness with God by returning to nature as a spiritual practice.

“Placing church into a new context of wild instantly reframes it as a sacred space, outside of human-made buildings and dogmas and control,” writes Loorz in her book Church of the Wild. “Church is not just in the wild but of the wild. The sacred connection is fully in relationship with, and even initiated by, nature.”

The first seed for Wild Church was planted when spiritual leaders and pastors began walking out of church buildings – often feeling burnt out, unsatisfied or disappointed – and stepping back into nature. In 2016, Wild Churches began branching out across North America and have now blossomed into 200 faith communities all over the world with 18 in B.C., Alberta and Ontario.

Although a relatively new movement, the ideas at the core of Wild Church are old ones, as there was a time “all humans knew their lives, their food, their survival, their sense of meaning and kinship with God or the gods was connected with all their relations: the hawks and soil and ferns and mosquitoes,” says Loorz. She points out that it was the wilderness into which the Israelites were called during the Exodus, and that it is the natural world on which the Indigenous peoples have lived since time immemorial. “[Our] ancestors knew [that] they belonged to a great web of life [like] all the other wild creatures.”

Wild Church 101

But what exactly is Wild Church? How does it align church and nature? Well, if there’s one thing you should know about the church, says Michele Walker and Rev. LeAnn Blackert, who co-founded Wild Church B.C., it’s about experiencing God and creation, rather than having it explained or told to you.

A broad range of people attend Wild Church. Most of the leaders walk on the fringe of the Christian tradition, having been raised with religion but now feel unfulfilled by traditional church, which is the case with Walker and Blackert. In a typical gathering, around half of the attendees are associated with traditional churches and belong to Christianity, while many are Buddhist or Atheists who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.” Traditional church can have a narrow focus, Walker says, because the walls make us feel disconnected from nature, and we lose the kinship we have with natural beings. That’s why Wild Church appeals to people who fall outside of the traditional church or have been harmed by it – it creates a space for practicing the nourishment of spirituality in an environment different from that of the traditional. There is a wide range of denominations associated with each individual church as well, from United to Evangelical to non-denominational.

Faith and activism

“Learn to be in relationship with the land, learn to love it, learn to see the natural world as our neighbours – those Jesus commanded us to love – and we’ll start to care about the planet,” says Blackert. Wild Church actively does just this: they engage in activism and resist the culture that is wreaking havoc on Earth. Levels of engagement vary across the churches, from encouraging attendees in their individual environmental pursuits, to organizing garbage clean up days for the whole group. Many involved with Wild Church feel that traditional churches have neglected creation care, especially churches that support an escapist theology. The Wild Church’s practice of environmental activism is about restoring right relationships with Creation, which Loorz says has been lost due to Western culture and theology that “[justifies] mass destruction of the planet since, hey, heaven is our real home.”

Just as they seek to restore relationships with the earth, Wild Church makes a point of acknowledging the Indigenous people who have lived on the land since time immemorial. Each service begins with a land acknowledgement and many Wild Churches integrate spiritual practices from Indigenous traditions. In B.C.’s Okanagan Wild Churches, Blackert says they have invited local elders to gatherings to share wisdom and stories.

Where do you feel closest to God?

It’s been over a month since I was asked this question, but I still frequently think about it. I know many people ponder this question, especially those who feel burnout from traditional church and have no interest in returning to conventional in-person services. This is why Wild Church exists, to help wanderers and wonderers reconnect to our Creator.

A typical Wild Church service

Although each Wild Church has its own traditions and associated denominations, most gatherings are made up of these parts:

  • Gathering and silence.
  • Land acknowledgement.
  • Sacred readings and worship through music.
  • The sermon as conversation: An invitation to explore surrounding areas, wandering and wondering for 45 minutes, followed by witnessing – a time of sharing and observations.
  • Communion.
  • Benediction: A call to return to the human world with the lessons of the wild world.

Author

  • Jennifer Boone

    Jennifer lives in Vernon, B.C. and spends her time reading stories or writing her own. She hopes to pursue a career that combines her love for writing and her passion for environmental justice.

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