Then we read Scripture out under the open sky, it comes alive in new ways.
Phrases like, “The heavens are telling the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1), “all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12) and “let justice roll down like water” (Amos 5,24) all take on deeper significance as we reflect on creation as participants in praise or harbingers of God’s wisdom.
Similarly, Jesus taught outdoors. He often drew on the natural world (water, vines, rocks, birds, flowers, etc.) to offer insights into his ministry and the kingdom of God.
God’s Spirit is continually active in the world around us. God is hiding in plain sight, and at Burning Bush we are honing our senses to be become more fully aware of God’s living presence and inspiration in our midst.
Gathered and grounded
Burning Bush Forest Church found its beginnings in an unexpected epiphany in late 2014. A seed of inspiration was received, planted, allowed to sit dormant for a while, then germinated and took root at our first official worship gathering in March 2016. The basic idea that grounds who we are and what we do is that we worship outdoors, all year ‘round, not merely in creation, but with creation! We engage with God’s good earth as our place of worship, as an extension of our worshipping community, and as one of our worship leaders.
This form of worship – inviting people outdoors to connect with Creator and creation – seems to resonate with many people in this era of multiple environmental crises.
Our gatherings are generally small and intimate (usually between 10 and 30 people).
They engage our whole bodies as we ground ourselves through our senses in the particular place where we are gathered.
Our gatherings include Scripture and prayer, but not a traditional sermon. Participants are given time to “wander and wonder” (usually 30 minutes) to pay attention to how they are noticing God’s presence that “speaks” in a variety of ways.
There is time for sharing with one another around the circle.
Children are free to explore and follow their curiosity, and to participate along with their parents and the whole community. Their insights are welcome and often profound.
Ultimately, worshipping outdoors helps us to feel a deeper sense of belonging to God’s “community of creation.” Over the years, we have met in different public parks in our city, settling in at one with a creek and naturalized forest area as our primary location. By returning to the same spot, we have learned to know the names and characteristics of the trees, plants, birds, animals and insects around us. We have been immersed in the rhythms of the seasons as they play out. We have witnessed lessons of letting go, abundance, interdependence, death, renewal and resurrection, all written into creation for us to see.
As we already had a well-established pattern of intentionally gathering outdoors for several years before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we did not feel the restrictions as dramatically as other congregations who needed to close the doors of their buildings for a time.
We were able to continue our worship with only a few minor adjustments such as using an on-line registration tool (Eventbrite) to ask participants to pre-register. This allowed us to stay within gathering limits and have information for contact tracing should that be necessary. We also enhanced our email newsletter, adding in more resources for personal engagement and spiritual growth at home. At Burning Bush, we did not decide to experiment with worship simply to offer something new and different, or to figure out how to pivot in a new context. We are following God’s leading to return to a way of connecting heart, mind and soul with the beloved community of creation. This is both ancient and new. It has been a journey of renewal and transformation, rooting ourselves in God’s great vision of shalom for all creation.
—Wendy Janzen is pastor of Burning Bush Forest Church and an ecominister with Mennonite Church Eastern Canada. She lives in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada