Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Worship au Naturel
distributed 6/7/19 - ©2019

If the subject line of today's Eco-Justice Notes caught your attention, let me go immediately to a dictionary definition. The primary meaning of "au naturel" is "in the natural state." The secondary meanings are the ones that deal with naked and nude, cooked plainly or uncooked.

In the last couple of weeks, I've had a remarkable number of conversations about Christian worship in -- or far away from -- natural settings. They've ranged from a lament about churches which work hard to disconnect their worship time from the natural world, to joyous descriptions of occasions in deep relationship with God's creation.

During the summer months, many congregations have a tradition of one or many outdoor worship services. Today, I'll lift up a range of examples and suggest some criteria for considering the goals and effectiveness of services "in the natural state." Where does the worship life of your congregation fit into this outline?

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On a scale of one to ten, I'd have to give a zero to a church that I heard a young woman describe. When she visited on several Sunday mornings, she found a sanctuary that was "uniformly beige" -- the walls, the carpet, the seats. As the time for worship approached, church leaders drew shades across all of the windows. All of the focus was on the stage, with a band and a podium.

There was not a trace of anything other-than-human within the building. No flowers, no photos, no views out a window. There seemed to be a very conscious effort to make sure that the natural world could not intrude on the story of God's love. She was so horrified and offended that she has launched a personal project of getting churches to plant indoor gardens.

Most of us church-goers have experiences that are somewhat more nature-affirming. Windows may have a view to the scenery outside, or at least stained glass makes us aware of sunlight and passing clouds. Flowers often decorate the front of the room -- even if they are exotic blooms, grown in some other part of the world and flown to the florists who arrange them for us. (Add one point if church members bring plants and objects from their own gardens.) Color and artwork may remind us of the wonders of God's creation just outside.

The possibility for worship in the natural state increases when we gather outdoors. But just being outside is no guarantee that we'll be in a creation-affirming situation.

An outline for an Easter celebration held in a garden makes only passing mention of the plants which grow there. The garden serves as a metaphor for human growth. The article has a photo of an outdoor altar that is transplanted from the church chancel -- complete with elaborate altar cloths, and the brass candlesticks and cross. It is just like being inside, except a bit chilly and with a breeze.

I've been to several churches which, during the summer months, have an early service held somewhere on the church grounds. They're in a pretty setting, and those who attend regularly certainly find it meaningful to be on the lawn (weed-free bluegrass?) or under the trees. In the cases I've experienced as a guest preacher, the content of the outdoor service is essentially identical to the indoor one that will come soon after. The music may be simplified, and the style a bit more informal, but the message stays the same. Being outside while worshipping God doesn't change the congregation's theology, or significantly expand the awareness of God's expansive creation. I might give this a three on the ten-point scale.

(To be confessional about that failing, while I was in college I spent a summer at Grand Canyon National Park, as part of A Christian Ministry in the National Parks. Each Sunday morning, I led a short worship service near a campground area. With an ever-changing congregation of people who had come to experience the astonishing wonder of that place, I usually had mediations on routine pastoral or theological questions. I apologize to all those who's hopes for meaningful worship were unfulfilled.)

Lots of churches have a once-a-year outdoor service which does pay more attention to the setting. The hymns, prayers, readings and sermons are explicit in reflecting on the ways we experience God in nature. At a park or a church camp, we don't try to replicate the typical liturgy. There is more of an effort to name the life and beauty around us, and to nurture a sense of connection with creation. Some of these services will see the "au naturel" setting mostly as a pretty backdrop (mosquitos and ants are an annoyance), and others will push much harder for an environmental spirituality (the bugs are acknowledged as part of the habitat), or with a concern for environmental degradation. These could be rated at five to seven out of ten.

The church settings that I'll suggest at nine or ten on my rating scale will feel strange or even threatening to the average church goer. These are congregations which always gather outdoors, whatever the weather, year-round. There is no indoor space for worship. The setting shapes the theology and the community life of the congregation. A sense of being part of God's creation is at the heart of the community.

A fairly new Methodist congregation near Denver, known simply as "The Land", gathers on the Colorado prairie, with hay bales for seats and a canopy for shade. They speak of being a faith community "dedicated to connecting to and caring for creation." Small group ministries for spiritual development, and mission projects to care for the land, deepen the experience and the knowledge of the setting which is their home.

A friend and colleague, Stephen Blackmer, has gathered the "Church of the Woods" in New Hampshire. Their website describes the unusual mission of this community gathered amid 106 acres of wild woods and wetlands. "This is a place where the earth itself, rather than a building, is the bearer of sacredness, a place where people gather for contemplative practice in communion with each other and nature, a place where people come together to learn, explore, and take action to transform themselves and renew the Earth."

It is my understanding that, during a typical time for worship, people will walk away from the circle of humans, and wander into the woods to cultivate a deeper relationship and knowledge of God's creation in that place. It is not a matter of thinking and talking about nature, it is an opportunity to experience and celebrate a relationship with creation. It is church of the woods, not church in the woods.

Church of the Woods seems like a "ten" to me. This distinctive ministry has attracted significant attention as a remarkable way of living and nurturing Christian faith. A couple of years ago, Harper's Magazine did a lengthy profile of Stephen and the church. The Dartmouth Alumni Magazine just ran a cover story on what Rev. Blackmer and the congregation are up to in the woods.

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From my perspective with Eco-Justice Ministries, the worship time of congregations should be an occasion that always highlights and affirms that we humans are in and of nature. The world is inherently relational, and we are part of the web of life. Our connection with creation, and our obligation toward right relationship with creation should be at the heart of our faith, and at the center of our worship.

An Earth-aware faith can be nurtured inside -- and I rejoice in the many congregations which do so as a matter of course. But when we place ourselves outside of the church walls, we can be drawn into deeper insights, closer relationships, and greater joy.

Take a look at the worship life of your faith community, and especially any services which are held outdoors. Is your worship shaped, or even transformed, by the setting? How might you rate your congregation on this ten-point scale?


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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