I am one of those people who, for most of 50 years, had said, “I don’t go to church; my church is in the woods, the mountains, the rivers.” Which was good and true. And then I spent six years learning the ways of “wall church,” as I sometimes call it, training to be a priest and pastor. I knew my calling was to reconnect Church and Nature. It had not occurred to me, though, to start a church for people like me—people who encounter God in the woods yet also long for human community with its ancient ritual and wisdom. To create a Church of the Woods—and to join with others to spread the idea of Wild Church across the land. To see the whole world again as sacred ground.
What I always knew is that I wanted a piece of woods to call my own, to work and play in, take care of, to love and be loved. Kelly, my wife, wanted to build a snug, perfectly designed little house. Friends up the road showed us this piece of land that was perfect for both, but the price was beyond us. Then I was called, and I quit my job to go to seminary (see Rewiring my Brain, January/February 2019), plus our kids were in college. We let go of the dream. Then, several years later, the month after I graduated, our Realtor friend called. The price had dropped. Then it dropped again.
Then, unexpectedly, some family money appeared. So we bought it. Our dream was coming true.
But the next day, as I walked alone in “my woods,” a voice announced a different dream. Oh, dear. I broke the news to Kelly:
“I was out walking in the woods and an Idea came.”
“An idea, something new and different. That’s trouble. And?”
“Well, I’m supposed to start a church on the land.”
This wasn’t the first time I’d caused trouble with one of my ideas. People say I’m married to a saint.
The land—106 acres of scruffy woods and wetlands—had been trashed. I don’t object to logging done well, in the right places, but this was horrible. Bits of broken machinery and cans of lubricating oil scattered about. Mounds of garbage deposited at the forest’s edge. Jumbles of dead trees everywhere. Streams choked with rock and gravel dumped to make a truck road. Living water turned to stagnant pools. I saw that part of our work would be restoring the stream and wetlands, praying with the trees and creatures, loving the land back to health. Healing this little bit of land as a microcosm of the whole world.
It’s one thing simply to restore a small piece of forest in rural New Hampshire. That’s a good thing, one stitch in repairing the fabric of all creation. When healing one small bit of land is embedded in an ancient ritual of prayer and healing that circles the globe, then its power is amplified and can reach far. Now it has reached you. What happens next? Are you, too, called to add a square to the growing quilt of Wild Church?
The first gathering of Church of the Woods was two years later. Six people showed up. Five were compassionate friends; one wanted to be part of a woods church. Now, in our fifth year, we average 15 to 20 humans (more in the spring and fall, fewer in winter and summer) who come to celebrate and pray in the woods. The congregation is not limited to human people. Woods people are everywhere—spruce trees, hemlocks, red oak, sugar maple, beech. Black birch, white birch, yellow birch. White pine and red pine, ground pine and princess pine. Indian cucumber, star flower, red trillium, and white trillium. Barred owl, ravens, chickadees, migrating warblers, woodpeckers of all sizes. Deer, coyote, bobcat, red fox, red squirrel, moose, and bear. Living water and blowing wind. Rock and fire. Sun and moon and blazing stars. Snow, rain, hail, heat. Mosquitos, of course. The fullness of God’s creation is here, each part singing Gloria in its own voice, making harmony.
We begin every Sunday with a few minutes of silence, standing on the knoll where the morning sun shines or up the hill by the big rock where a stump serves as altar. In less clement weather, we gather in the little barn we built three years ago. I take pains to remind people that the land is the church, the barn is just a shelter. After silence, we might sing, then we read from the Bible and other texts. My homily is brief, two or three minutes, a prompt for reflection. Then I send people into the woods—deeper into the woods—to listen to what the Earth has to say and to be present to whatever is, that day. God’s first language is Silence and God’s first book was Nature. We drink from both.
The Bible says repeatedly that “Jesus went alone up the mountain to pray” (Matthew 14:23). Up the mountain, to the desert, by the lake, in a “lonely place”—these are the places Jesus encountered God. Yet only a few churches, such as those in the Wild Church Network, actually meet in natural settings. Most churches never give time to be silent, to reflect. Most of us, so absorbed in screens, playlists, social media, traffic, machinery, and other built noise, are uncomfortable with silence and stillness. Nature is merely backdrop and scenery, or resources to extract. We’ve lost the ability even to remember what we have lost.
At Church of the Woods, we spend 20 or 25 minutes in silence, in the woods—long enough to be still, not long enough to get lost, although 106 acres is more than enough to get lost in. We’ve cleared a network of trails, three or four miles by now, put up blazes, and made a map, all of which help. Still, occasionally someone wanders a bit too far, caught up in the beauty, peace, and mystery. The bells call us back together to share stories and reflections. We place offerings from the woods—a leaf, stone, mushroom, twig, moss, a little flower—on the altar, offering back to the divine source the gifts of a living world we have received.
It is a miracle that we and this whole world are here, made by the Light of all lights, formed from stars that lived, died, and poured forth the elements—hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, iron, gold, and more. Born of the sea and walking on Earth, we are miracles, shaped by the forces of life, kin with all beings. … Gathered at your table, remembering that we are one with you and with all creation, we offer to you from your own Earth these gifts of the land, this bread and wine, and our own bodies—our own living sacrifice. …
These words are part of our service, included in the brief Church of the Woods liturgy. But what does it mean to offer ourselves in gratitude for the gift of life? To what greater whole may we give ourselves? What purpose guides us? Oak trees and chipmunks have it easy, or at least simple. With a simpler form of consciousness, they don’t have to make the choices we do. An oak tree can only be an oak tree, growing where its rootlets go into the earth, doing the work that an oak tree does. But what about me? What about you?
As Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day” asks,
… Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
In the woods, we are surrounded with life and death in so many forms. How clear it becomes that everything that lives must die, and that all death is but a transformation to another life.
One acorn that falls from the tree might sprout and become an oak tree. Another will decay and become microorganisms in the soil. A third might become a chipmunk. In each instance, an acorn gives itself in service of a greater whole. Why would we be any different? Except, of course, we are. We have a unique ability both to create extraordinary beauty and to royally screw things up. What will you do with your one wild and precious life? Woods church is a choice.
We conclude our service with the Eucharist, which means “thanksgiving,” where we take the body of Christ—the source of all that is and ever shall be—into our own bodies. The first piece of sacred bread and the last sip of wine are given back to the land as an offering on behalf of all beings. We eat the Divine Life that we may become a divine life.
My woods, of course, are not my woods. I have been charged with transforming a logged-over piece of forest into a sacred space. Others are doing similar things, in their own woods or park or desert or prairie or mountains, or … anywhere. For two years, I thought we were the only Wild Church. Then I heard about a similar church in Texas and got in touch with the pastor. A friend in Washington, D.C., called—she was starting something, and she was also talking with people in California, Virginia, and Ontario. We started gathering online monthly. More people with more ideas in more places began to connect, all across the United States and Canada. We began calling ourselves the Wild Church Network, all of us seeking to reconnect ancient Christian spirituality with the body of the Earth from which all life springs.
WHAT MAKES A CHURCH A WILD CHURCH?
Meeting Outside. Some are privileged always to meet in the woods or in an oak grove—rain or shine. But it doesn’t need to be completely untamed space. Some meet in parks, off trails on the edges of their town, or meet indoors regularly but move outdoors for Solstices and Equinoxes. Laurel Dykstra’s church, Salal & Cedar, in Vancouver, BC, met in a Costco parking lot to worship among the hundreds of crows who roost in the trees planted there. As Wendell Berry says, “There are no unsacred places. There are only sacred places and desecrated places.” Wild Church can resacralize place.
Nature as Co-Congregant. The prayers, liturgies, sermons, and songs include and integrate the members of the natural world. Most churches also include a contemplative time of wandering, 10-45 minutes of solo time to engage directly with the Holy on the land. When Jesus said, “Consider the lilies,” I’m pretty sure he meant really consider them, meditate and listen to them. A kindred relationship with the land and all that dwell there is both individually and culturally restorative and important, common to all native peoples and forgotten by our culture.
WHAT MAKES A WILD CHURCH A CHURCH?
Meets in Community. Lots of people say, “Nature is my church,” and research shows that many if not most people have experienced the numinous—felt closest to God—in nature. The difference with Wild Church is one of intention. We go there together, as a community. And this is Church. A hike in the Tetons is a spiritual experience, and a glorious sunset summons inner Hallelujahs. But Wild Church is about going to your own local version of wilderness, to your own watershed, on purpose, together, to practice the presence of God.
Has a Grounding Liturgy. In most Wild congregations, the pastors are affiliated with a Christian denomination, but many if not most of the congregants are not. The evangelization, if there is any, is not to recruit new members into any dogma, creed, or even religion, but to invite people into a deeper relationship with an untamed God, the land, and creatures that share their home, and into a deeper relationship with their own wild, untamed soul.
—VICTORIA LOORZ, M.DIV.
SEEDS OF A REVOLUTION
Ojai (California) Church of the Wild often meets under a very old live oak I call Mama Oak because her arms are thick and heavy and reach down to the ground, creating a space that feels instantly sacred. When you draw close to Mama Oak, you notice that there is a small, inviting entrance facing west that opens to an enchanted hollow with built-in pews that are alive and shared with lizards, bugs, and scrub jays. One of the jays acts as an usher, friendly and welcoming in her greeting to each human congregant. But I know she’s especially interested in the communion bread she knows is coming.
Five years ago, when I started imagining this church, it wasn’t because I was a particularly outdoorsy REI backpacker type. My journey into Wild Church began after years of both church leadership and climate activism, when I sensed that the dualistic severance of religion and nature had severe consequences both for the environmental movement and the spiritual vitality of our culture.
After we started holding Wild Church services regularly in different locations on the edges of the wild surrounding Ojai, I began to meet others across the country who were doing the same. We all, it turns out, felt like we were maybe a little crazy to challenge some solid, entrenched cultural assumptions about what church is—and isn’t.
The resulting Wild Church Network was created as a place for spiritual leaders who have, in our diverse ways, made bold moves to launch this new expression of church “outside,” to re-member our congregations as loving participants of a larger community that includes congregants beyond our species. In an age of mass extinctions and global ecological instability, this movement invites people into a practice of rewiring our consciousness from an old story of separation from the natural world toward an emerging worldview of interbeing. By developing spiritual practices of reconnection, we are actually living into the full meaning of the word religious, from the Latin RE (again) and LIGIOS (connecting, like ligaments). Wild Churches reconnect with the Whole, with God, with the untamed radical Love that flows through all things—through direct relationship with the sacred, through some of the most vulnerable victims of our destructive culture: our land, our waters, the creatures with which we share our homes.
The Network now includes clergy from 14+ Christian denominations, some with no denominational affiliation, and nonclergy as well. We share practices, ideas, struggles, and encouragement with each other—and with the growing network of people inquiring about starting a Wild Church in their own watersheds.
I recently relocated to the Pacific Northwest, and my new Church of the Wild in Bellingham, Washington, is happening in partnership with three other pastors: a Methodist, an Episcopalian, and a Lutheran. Meanwhile, the Ojai Church of the Wild is now led by a team of people under Julie Tumamait-Stenslie, a Chumash elder who grew up under Mama Oak and whose father and great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother for many more than seven generations lived in interbeing on this sacred land.
—VICTORIA LOORZ, M.DIV.