WILD CHURCH NETWORK TIMELINE
2009: Stephen Blackmer enrolled in Yale Divinity School.
2012: Blackmer founded Church of the Woods in Canterbury, New Hampshire.
2012: Blackmer graduated from Yale Divinity School.
2013: Blackmer and Victoria Loorz founded Kairos Earth.
2015: Victoria Looz founded the Church of the Wild in Ojai, California.
2016: The Wild Church Network was founded.
2019: The Wild Church Network had grown to twenty-one affiliated churches.
2019 (February): Victoria became pastor of the Echoes Church in Bellingham, Washington.
Churches of the wild are a novel and rapidly growing form of religious organization. What became the Wild Church Network began with the founding of the Church of the Woods in 2012 in Canterbury, New Hampshire (Bahnson 2016; Grossman 2018). The founder, Stephen Blackmer [Image at right] had long been interested in environmental and conservation issues. He attended the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies during the 1980s and founded the Northern Forest Center. He also founded the Northern Forest Alliance, a set of advocacy groups that have worked to moving logging companies to adopt more sustainable land and logging practices.
Blackmer melded his commitments to environmentalism and conservation with developing religious and spiritual interests beginning in 2007. Until that year, Blackmer reports that he was an agnostic, although he had been engaging in Buddhist meditation, who had little use for institutional religion. That all changed during a plane flight to Dublin, Ireland when Blackmer reports having heard a voice speak to him and say “You are to be a priest.” In the months following his trip to Ireland, he continued to have visions, and he spent several days in an Episcopalian monastery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was baptized the following year, and in 2009 enrolled in the Yale Divinity School. In 2012, he graduated from Yale Divinity and was ordained as an Episcopal priest. It was shortly after his graduation that he purchased the land for the Church of the Woods, with financial assistance from a project supporter.
The Church of the Woods defines its identity in the following way (Church of the Woods website n.d.):
Church of the Woods 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 the church exists to serve a mission rather than the other way around; a place where people gather to learn, explore, and act to transform themselves and renew the earth.
The Church of the Woods is connected to a nonprofit organization, Kairos Earth, that Blackmer and Victoria Looz, a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary, founded in 2013 (Grossman 2018). In biblical Greek, kairos refers to an opportune or critical moment when God acts. As Kairos Earth describes its mission (Kairos Earth website n.d.):
Kairos Earth seeks to renew a widespread understanding of the natural world as a bearer of the sacred and to restore this awareness as a foundation of both religious practice and practical action to conserve the Earth.
In pursuing its mission, Kairos’ seeks to connect “religious and spiritual leaders with counterpart conservationists and environmentalists” (Grossman 2018). Looz, who founded the Church of the Wild in Ojai, California in 2015, also had a spiritual experience that propelled her into religiously themed environmental work. She reports that “Six years ago, I went on a retreat at the Animas Valley Institute and had an experience in the wilderness with a direct connection with God. This is the kind of experience of the sacred I want to bring to people” (Shimron 2019). In 2019, Looz [Image at right] went on to become pastor of the Echoes Church in Bellingham, Washington.
The Church of the Woods, which Blackmer describes as “multi-dimensional Christian, is the founding church in the Wild Church Network. The church is quite small, consisting of only a few dozen members, with an unusually high percentage having advanced academic degrees and having been environmental activists. The conservation/environmental protection orientation of the church is indicated by the fact that the church pastor previously had previously worked with a non-profit organization that opposed a lumber company attempting to develop several hundred thousands of acres of land in Maine (Bahnson 2016). Consistent with this orientation, the Church of the Woods is situated on 106 acres that were “high-graded” (the most desirable trees are logged, leaving the less desirable growth) by the previous owner. The church uses the stump of a white-pine tree as its alter (Bahnson 2016). [Image at right]
In its first year, nearly nine hundred people attended services at the Church of the Woods. Of its approximately thirty regular attenders, a substantial proportion have graduate degrees and/or are environmental activists (Bahnson 2016). By 2019 the Wild Church Network had grown to include twenty-one affiliated churches (All Creations.Org 2019).
Not surprisingly, churches in the loosely organized Wild Church Network are quite diverse and do not share any formal doctrines or rituals. There is, however, a strong rooting in the Christian tradition as most of the churches are connected in some fashion to mainline Christian denominations. Stephen Blackmer reflects this orientation (Berndt 2017b):
Christian faith teaches that love, hope, and faith are ultimately rooted in God — and that these are abundantly manifest in the Earth around us, even in the midst of despair and destruction. This, I think, is what my own story finally has to say — that we have to return to God, return to being in relationship with the sacred as found in and through the Earth, return to seeing the world as fundamentally good and beautiful — as the ground of our work to protect it.
Primary shared themes include the reverence for nature and environmental activism. There is also some resistance to contemporary practices, as evident in language including “vulnerable victims” and “destructive culture, along with a call for change through promotion of social justice. The Network website (n.d.) captures these themes:
In this age of mass extinctions, we feel burdened by the love of Christ to invite people into direct relationship with some of the most vulnerable victims of our destructive culture: our land, our waters, the creatures with whom we share our homes.
It should be noted that individual churches vary considerably in their sense of mission, with some having a much more activist agenda than others. What the various groups do seem to have in common is approaching theology through the sacred rather than the reverse:
At Church of the Wild, we start at a different place. We first provide an opportunity to form relationship with our sacred landscapes and the creatures and plants that share them with us. We open up space for an experience of God present within each element of our home ecosystems, including ourselves. As such, we encourage a “spiritual activism” rooted in first opening ourselves to God’s desires for each of us and for God’s beloved creation. As this relationship deepens, we can look with clear eyes and open hearts at how our lives and lifestyles affect our human and non-human neighbors and then transform our behaviors accordingly (Berndt 2018a)
Church services sometimes are simply conventional services outside the church building, but more often they involve gathering at a selected location that reflects the natural environment of the region and ritual that allows members to commune with the sacred environment. Victoria Loorz described the services she leads in the following way Grossman 2018:
The service began with a reading, then a moment of silence “to listen to the wind, your breath, the water, the birds,” Loorz says.
“You walked across a river to reach this place. You are feeling the same wind in the trees in your lungs. They are all connected. We are all connected. We come from the same dust and will return to the same dust.”
Loorz invites everyone to “wander and wonder” separately for 45 minutes to “read the text of the landscape and give it your attentiveness.”
In a moment everyone is out of sight. When they gather again, they share their thoughts.
The Church of the Wild in Washington, DC offers a similar ritual experience (Berndt 2018a):
Our theology comes alive in the experience itself. Instead of a sermon, we offer a guided meditation followed by a 20 minute walk in silence. Attuning ourselves with nature opens us to an experience of non-duality: God, us, and creation as One, not separate, rather than a subject-object relationship.
The Wild Church Network [Image at right] emerged out of Church of the Woods and other groups that were forming with similar ideas, with the central theme being a questioning equating “church” with the building in which worship occurs. Blackmer commented that “We began to realize there were a bunch of us doing similar things all across the U.S. and Canada, finding people who long to reconnect their religious practice with the natural world when traditional practice – inside a building, cut off from the world — no longer works for them…” (Grossman 2018). The Network states that it
is reflective of an emerging desire from both traditional church go-ers and the unchurched to “do” church in a new way. They’re yearning for something more than they’re getting in traditional churches. Our sense is that the something more is a deep, direct, unmediated experience of the Divine (Wild Church Network website n.d.).
“Natural surroundings” has different meanings in different locations; in more urban areas, congregations may meet in a local park.
The Wild Church Network has steadily grown and has now established a string of affiliated churches across the United States, with a few congregations in Canada as well. Not surprisingly, “wild” is frequently incorporated into church names or identities in the network; environment, conservation, and social justice are popular themes in their mission statements. Among the network affiliated churches located in the U.S. (in addition to the originating Church of the Woods) are (Wild Church Network website n.d.):
- Church of the Wild (Washington) is located in Washington D.C. and is affiliated with the United Church of Christ. The church is sponsored by the Center for Spirituality in Nature. It holds monthly meetings with the goal of honoring “the mutual indwelling of the Divine with the Earth and all of its beings, remembering our sacred interconnection and interdependence through multi-traditional spiritual practices, music, and solo or group wanderings.”
- Church of the Wild (Virginia) is located in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and has a lay leader. The church describes itself as “An emerging expression of community among the human and non-human inhabitants of the Shenandoah River and North River watersheds, a church without walls on the edges of wilderness and civilization.
- Ojai Church of the Wild is located in Oak View, California in the Ojai Valley and was founded by Victoria Looz. The participants meet monthly “under surviving oak trees, beside rivers, in the ashes, observing new life, restoring our relationship with the land and the creatures of our watershed as sacred practice.” The church teaches that “Church is not a building or a set of beliefs, it is a Conversation.”
- Wild Church (West Virginia) is connected to the Roman Catholic tradition, and the congregation has a lay leader. The church describes itself as aspiring to “re-wild” faith and “to be an “inter-spiritual” community and cultivate the belief that God’s many names are holy. We nurture a deeper encounter with self and one another across religious traditions. Sins of racism, sexism, and classism can be connected to our exploitation of the earth.”
- The Rewild Church is located in Pittstown, New Jersey and is led by a priest ordained in the Eastern Orthodox Church. The church describes itself as seeking “to fully realize the communion of all creation and fulfill our God-given task of being the Nature’s Priest.”
- Echoes of the Wild is located in Bellingham, Washington and is led by four pastors from different denominations. The church meets monthly with the goal of “Learning to listen and remember that inter-dependent relationship with the larger-than-human beloved community is a return to connection, the true meaning of religion: “re-ligios” (ligament/connection).
- The Waymarkers are located in Seattle, Washington. The group is organized around Celtic spirituality and sacred econology. Waymarkers describes itself as offering guidance and support for those who are ready to respond to the call to wander into the Sacred Wild through retreats, pilgrimage journeys, one-on-one sessions, and through guest lecturing and teaching.”
- The Church of Lost Walls is located in Denver, Colorado and is affiliated with the Presbyterian tradition. The church disavows an identity as simply a typical church meeting outside. Rather, the church aspires “to participate in and partner with creationthrough learning, worship, meditation and prayer.”
- The Green Life Church is located in Independence Missouri and is affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The church describes itself as a “progressive, inclusive, holistic community living out the gospel of Jesus Christ through health and wellness, peace and justice, and environmental sustainability.”
- New Life Lutheran Church is located in Dripping Springs, Texas and is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Services are held in a grove of live oak trees and a livestock water trough serves as an altar. The church describes itself as “seeking to deepen our relationship with God by serving in our community, worshiping with nature, and valuing children.”
- Woodland Worship is located in Wilmington Delaware and is led by a retired Methodist elder. Gatherings are held monthly in a state park. Worship rituals include meditative music, time to be with nature, scripture reading, and Holy Communion.
- The Land is located in Aurora, Colorado and affiliated with the United Methodist Church. Gatherings are held in a field “cluttered with prairie dog holes, prickly cactus, and unpredictable weather patterns.” The community is dedicated to the question “”What does discipleship look like in the 21st century?”
- The Sinsinawa Mound Center is located in Sinsinawa, Wisconsin and led by a lay leader, who is a Catholic Worker farmer. The Center describes itself as situated at “the intersection of environmental stewardship, cultural renewal, and a contemplative ecology.”
- Integral Church is located in St. Petersburg, Florida. The leader refers to himself as pastor and coach. The church describes itself as a “network of inter-spiritual communities interested in a religion of the future — embracing both science and spirit, history and mythology, contemplation and practice.”
Network churches in Canada are similar to those in the US. And include the following: Burning Bush Forest Church in Kitchener, Ontario;; Sycamore Commons in Powell River, British Columbia; Traditional Coast Salish Territory; Salal + Cedar in Vancouver, British Columbia; Three Rivers Forest Church in Richmond Hill, Ontario; Cathedral of the Trees in Maynooth, Ontario; and Wild Church British Columbia in Kamloops, British Columbia.
Churches of the Wild incorporate varying degrees of innovation on established, mainstream churches. Most are affiliated with mainstream denominations and leaders usually have ministerial credentials. These churches share in common at least breaking down the boundary between buildings and natural surroundings. In some cases this simply involves holding services in a nature-based environment; in other cases there is a communing with nature that takes the church outside of, but not in confrontation with, denominational doctrines and practices; in yet other cases the wild church becomes the basis for critique of established institutions and practices. The most common themes of innovation are conservation, environmentalism, and social justice promotion.
The potential for churches of the wild to establish and hold more than a small niche in the landscape of religious organizations has yet to be determined. The challenges are numerous (Grossman 2018; Natanson 2018). They uniformly have small memberships, and size limitations are dictated by their worship styles. Congregation leadership often is informal and congregation leaders sometimes serve as pastors in established churches that financially support them. Worship services are vulnerable to climate and weather events. Members often attend wild church services while maintaining membership in established churches, and so the commitment to wild churches is difficult to assess. The larger network is loosely and largely symbolically confederated, with limited doctrinal, institutional, and financial integration, which limits the potential for the kind of cohesiveness and coordinated activity that established denominations possess.
At the same time, the Network has been growing rapidly, and Victoria Looz is working to establish a Seminary of the Wild that will train leaders of future wild churches (Shimron 2019). Therefore, it will not be surprising to see a proliferation of small Wild churches across the nation. Further, there are some other similar churches forming that share at least the sacralization of nature. Several “Farm Churches” have been established where “tending garden” together is a spiritual practice. Brendt (2017a; 2018b) writes about Common Life Church and Farm and Jubilee Farms. The goal is for the congregation to practice sustainable farming, nurture and heal the earth, contribute to the surrounding community, and promote social justice. It certainly remains possible that the Wild Church Network will simply be one in a constellation of religious organizations that form around sacralization of nature and social justice.
Image #1: Stephen Blackmer.
Image #2: Victoria Looz.
Image #3: Church of the Woods religious service.
Image #4: Wild Church Network logo.
All Creations.Org. 2019. Lovers of the Land: 21 North American Wild Churches. Accessed from https://issuu.com/biointegrity/docs/loversoftheland_byallcreation_org?embed_cta=read_more&embed_context=embed&embed_domain=cdn.embedly.com&embed_id=37776797%25252F69088622 on 20 April 2019.
Bahnson, Fred. 2016. “The Priest in the Trees: Feral faith in the age of climate change.” Harpers, December. Accessed from https://harpers.org/archive/2016/12/the-priest-in-the-trees/8/ on 20 March 2019.
Berndt, Brooks. 2018a. “Church of the Wild: Thinking and Worshipping Outside the Box.” Accessed from http://www.ucc.org/church_of_the_wild on 20 March 2019.
Berndt, Brooks. 2018b. “Farm Church as Embodied Spirituality: An Interview with Sarah Horton-Campbell.” Accessed from http://www.ucc.org/creation_justice_and_church_3_0_an_interview_with_cyndy_ash on 25 April 2019.
Berndt, Brooks. 2017a. “Creation Justice and Church 3.0: An Interview with Cyndy Ash.” Accessed from http://www.ucc.org/creation_justice_and_church_3_0_an_interview_with_cyndy_ash on 20 March 2019.
Berndt, Brooks. 2017b. “To Revolutionize the Church, Go Outdoors: An Interview with Stephen Blackmer.” Accessed from http://www.ucc.org/to_revolutionize_the_church_go_outdoors_an_interview_with_stephen_blackmer on 25 April 2019.
Church of the Wild website. n.d. Accessed from http://churchofthewild.com/ on 25 April 2019.
Grossman, Cathy. 2018. “Church goes ‘wild’ as believers and seekers head for the trees.” religionnews.com, July 3. Accessed from https://religionnews.com/2018/07/03/church-goes-wild-as-believers-and-seekers-head-for-the-trees/ on 20 March 2019.
Kairos Earth website. n.d. Accessed from https://kairosearth.org/ on 1 April 2019.
Natanson, Hannah. 2018. “No sermons at this church: Congregants wander silent and barefoot through nature at Church of the Wild.” Washington Post, August 6. Accessed from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2018/08/06/no-sermons-at-this-church-congregants-wander-silent-and-barefoot-through-nature-at-church-of-the-wild/ on 20 February 2019.
Shimron, Yonat. 2019. “Wild Church founder Victoria Loorz finds resurrection on Easter and Earth Day.” Religion News, April 19. Accessed from https://religionnews.com/2019/04/19/wild-church-founder-victoria-loorz-finds-resurrection-on-easter-and-earth-day/ on 20 April 2019.
Wild Church Network. n.d. “Re-connecting people with an untamed God in our wild homes.” Accessed from https://www.wildchurchnetwork.com/ on 20 March 2019.
30 April 2019