By Ronnie Crocker
They came to the thickly canopied forest to wander around and think about God. Five dozen pilgrims, young and older, from at least three different churches, were encouraged to spend some time quietly focused on the natural world.
“We invite you to see where the spirit leads you and pay attention to what draws your attention and spend some time with it,” the Rev. Daniel Paul of Huntsville’s First Christian Church told the group. “If there’s a certain animal or a certain tree or even a certain blade of grass that for whatever reason intrigues you, be still and spend time with it and see what you uncover.”
Many found themselves looking skyward, he recalled.
“We’re in the Piney Woods here,” Paul said of the worshippers who gathered at Huntsville State Park in late April for the city’s first Church of the Wild service. “So there’s all these really tall, mighty pine trees and others; there’s gum trees and others. But they just hadn’t thought about them in a while. It’s almost as if the trees were pointing to God.
“They got an ascendant feeling. They felt that the more they looked at the tops of the trees, the more they felt themselves being elevated.”
Others found inspiration on terra firma, said the Rev. Karen Jones of First United Methodist Church, Huntsville, Texas.
“I remember one person was saying that underneath the leaves and the pine straw there just peeked out this one tiny yellow flower, about the size of a pencil eraser, and said, ‘You know, if God were to be so careful as to create that, what else has God created? How many times have we walked over things like that and not noticed? How many blessings are out there from God for us that we just don’t even notice? We’re going to start looking for them.’”
She considered the implications.
“If people are starting to look for where God is blessing them, that’s huge,” Jones said.
Church of the Wild is part of a national initiative that began seven years ago with a “radical vision to leave buildings to connect with the natural world to restore sacred relationship,” as the organizers describe it on the website.
The Huntsville effort is a collaborative effort between Paul, Jones and Father Blake Rider of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. The ministers already were meeting weekly and found themselves discussing, among other things, their parishioners’ stated desire to interact more with people of faith outside their home congregations.
Paul, a recent transplant from California, brought up the Wild Church Network at one of these lunch meetings. He’d met the movement’s founder, Victoria Loorz, a few years ago and had a good experience with it. His church in Monterey had co-established a chapter that met on the beach, also in collaboration with local Methodists and Episcopalians. They called it the Church of the Wild Blue Yonder.
Jones, a lifelong East Texan, and Rider liked what they heard and wanted to give Church of the Wild a try in Huntsville. They settled on a spot in the well-known state park and drew more than 60 people to the inaugural meeting in late April. The late-afternoon event did not replace or otherwise interfere with their regularly scheduled worship services. Participants were encouraged to bring a camp chair, water, and anything else that would make them comfortable being outdoors.
“Everything worked the way we thought it should,” Paul said. “It was a real powerful experience. And now we’re going to try to make it a monthly happening where folks will intentionally meet in a wilderness area.”
There is no fixed schedule, and Jones said the group plans to set up a Facebook page to publicize future meeting dates and times. The next one is scheduled for 4 p.m. on Sunday, June 4. Start times could be later as summer heat grows more intense.
The format is likewise flexible, Paul said.
“In lieu of a sermon, we’ll do wandering and witnessing,” he said. “We take 20 minutes to just wander in silence and see what draws people’s attention and where they feel connected to God through nature, and then we come back into a circle and we witness for 20 minutes, pretty much everybody sharing the most profound thing that happened or the most profound thought they had in the last 20 minutes.”
The ministers may lead the discussion, but Jones said the conversation is driven by the attendees.
“It could be something they saw that really spoke to them or just a feeling of the presence of God,” she said. “Whatever they wanted to share about their last 20 minutes.”
The Wild Church Network began in 2016 and lists nearly 250 outposts, mostly in the U.S., including three others in Texas. Its website targets “seekers and leaders who are re-connecting with the natural world as sacred.”
“The old paradigm of ‘nature as other’ is shifting,” the website explains. “Wild Churches don’t just ‘meet outside,’ they gather to recognize and learn to participate in the kindred interconnection of all beings, elements, and places. It is a relationship, rooted in love, that the ancients described as Logos.”
That may sound a little New Agey – and the local ministers acknowledge that not everyone wants to reconvene with a natural environment that includes, say, wasps – but Paul stressed that there is ample precedence for getting congregants outdoors.
“The Protestant church has a rich history of outdoor worship experiences, especially what we do with our church camps and creative worship out there,’” Paul said. “I can’t give you the exact statistic, but it’s like 75 percent of people who go into the ministry decided they were going to do that because they went to church camp and had that outdoor experience.
“So this is just taking advantage of the things that we’ve gleaned doing outdoor worship in those camp settings, and then making that accessible without making it super doctrinal or anything so that it doesn’t exclude people that are just there simply because they’re finding a sense of sacredness in nature.”
Call of the Wild
What: Wild Church gathering in Huntsville
Where: Huntsville State Park
Next gathering: 4 p.m. Sunday, June 4. Meet at the accessible picnic area near the entrance. Look for the church buses and a hot pink flag.
Learn more: wildchurchnetwork.com; “Church Of The Wild: How Nature Invites Us Into The Sacred” by Victoria Loorz.