While giving a weather report at the beginning of a worship service is usually cliché, on Oct. 20 in Wilmot, Ont., it would have been redundant.
Wilmot Forest Church — a new initiative of Burning Bush Forest Church and Wilmot Mennonite Church — doesn’t meet indoors.
Worship services take place once a month, year-round, and seek to meet God surrounded by creation. It can be a way to build on worship experiences for traditional churchgoers and a neutral-ground outreach for meeting people who might be uncomfortable with more churchy settings.
“There’s just so many people who talk about having spiritual experiences in nature — that’s where they connect best with God,” said Mennonite pastor Wendy Janzen, a pioneer in the Wild Church Network of outdoor churches.
“I want to validate that. Yes, you are experiencing God in nature.”
Also a part-time pastor at St. Jacobs Mennonite Church, Janzen stumbled onto the outdoor concept during a 2014 sabbatical focused on churches that meet in different indoor locations such as gyms, community centers, hotels or bars. At the time, she had a conversation with a neighbor fed up with church.
“She just couldn’t go sit in a building listening to people talk. Her soul would be more nurtured going on a hike,” she recalled.
Later in the year, when Janzen was picking up her son from a forest school pilot project focused on pursuing education outdoors, the worship angle finally clicked.
After some informal testing, she started Burning Bush Forest Church in 2016 outside her role with St. Jacobs Mennonite.
Just like forest school isn’t about transplanting the location but making the surroundings a classroom partner, Janzen stressed that forest church is more than just moving a service, liturgy and structures outdoors.
“Creation or nature is part of our congregation as well and our worship leader,” she said. “Nature guides our worship and engages in worship with us, which I think is very biblical. There’s a lot of biblical imagery with that.
“Perhaps we’ve always looked at it metaphorically, but I think there’s precedent for seeing trees clapping their hands and the rocks crying out. All those things would be examples of us worshiping with nature and not just in nature.”
For Wilmot Mennonite Church, woodland worship offers a fresh approach to community outreach. Pastor Susan Allison-Jones said the congregation is getting older and has come to a point where the majority of attenders have more financial resources than ability to get out and be active.
“What resources do we have to encourage and engage the community?” she asked. “I believe in looking outside our doors as a Mennonite community.”
Wilmot provides Janzen an honorarium, and the wider community is invited to come out and experience God in a new way.
And from a financial perspective, forest church is an attractive investment. There is no mortgage, rent or utilities.
While Burning Bush Forest Church isn’t considered a church plant, it has received some start-up funding from Mennonite Church Eastern Canada. Janzen has used funds to purchase stainless steel cups for water or communion, a box of used blankets from a thrift store and an online course on spirituality and nature.
Yes, winter in Canada can be cold, but outside of freezing rain or lightning, there hasn’t been reason to cancel a service. Allison-Jones said the concept is personality-based, and people who want to be outdoors are the ones who will show up.
“People here still go out for walks. They take their dog out for walks. They go skiing and skating. Some of us don’t just hole up all winter,” Janzen added. “If those people can get out in winter, we can do forest church.
“We’re not sitting down for an hour. If you’re moving and dressed well, we can do it. . . . This isn’t everyone’s thing, and that’s why there’s regular church.”
It’s better outside
For those hearty souls who come out, it can be a powerful experience.
Janzen met a couple who had been regular churchgoers until the woman suffered a traumatic brain injury. It became unbearable to be in buildings with artificial light, crowds, amplified music and people wearing scents.
“They found out about this, and we had communion, and she was in tears because this was the first time in three years she had communion because she could not go into a building and be in church,” she said.
As outreach beyond Mennonites in the wider Kitchener-Waterloo area goes, it is still early, but word has also been circulating in Anabaptist circles.
Between forest church being mentioned in the Mennonite Creation Care Network newsletter and seminars Janzen offered at Rooted and Grounded conferences at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, she’s heard about Mennonites organizing similar activities in Virginia, California and Ontario, and she’s heard interest from pastors in Ohio, Indiana and Manitoba.
Janzen has never considered herself a church planter, but in nature things happen naturally.
“I’m not a risk taker, but sometimes God has other plans for us,” she said. “This has taken me by surprise — that it has been so powerful.”
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