When the Pew Research Institute released their pivotal 2012 survey on ‘nones’ in America, it took the religious world by storm and remains an issue still heavily discussed today. The discourse surrounding the faction that makes up 20% of the American population seemed to hit a gridlock as religious leaders from all faiths clamored to engage these unencumbered millennials. And while most attempts had anticlimactic results, a growing concern for God's creation offered an alternate avenue through which to reengage them by focusing on what is being called a ‘church of the woods.’
Organizations such as Kairos Earth have grabbed hold of this new interest by reinvesting efforts into outdoor, Christian practices, often leading groups for days at a time to rejuvenate their spirit while reconnecting with God’s beautiful creation.
As Chelsea Steinauer-Scudder, a self-proclaimed ‘millennial none’, writes in her article, Tending the Vine in the Woods, she had become increasingly disassociated from religion after completing her masters of theology at Harvard Divinity. The four day excursion led her into the woods for a series of religious practices that focused on reconnecting with God while infusing a message about climate action. On the other end she reemerged more faithful than when she had gone in; leaving her with a new sense of responsibility to all of God’s creations.
Tucked quietly into a corner of Canterbury, New Hampshire, are 106 acres of recently (and roughly) logged – and now recovering – woods and wetlands. They are, in many ways, what one might expect: an uneven spread of old growth, new growth, cleared spaces, and definitively uncleared spaces. Looking at them from one angle, these woods are a portrait of unkind human use of land for profit. The loggers who felled, dragged, piled, and removed gave disappointingly little thought to the processes they employed to achieve their end objective. Deep damage ensued.
However, if one stands still for a longer moment and chooses to look at this land–not solely in that particular shadow of pained history, but in a different kind of light–one notices the stunning raw and wild beauty of these 106 acres: a varied landscape which is home to pockets of quartz, porcupine nests, shady groves, and rocky outlooks. From this angle, the land becomes precisely what one might not expect –it becomes a church. Specifically, Church of the Woods, a new ministry created and chaplained by Reverend Steve Blackmer, an Episcopal priest in the diocese of New Hampshire and executive director of Kairos Earth, a non-profit which 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.
As stated in Kairos Earth’s vision, Church of the Woods is “a place where the land itself is the church. In this, we are deliberately opening up what it means to be ‘church,’ providing a place for spiritual practice for people who aren’t comfortable in a regular church, who may be seeking alternatives, or who long for a place and community for communing with both ‘God’ and Nature. At the same time, we are encouraging people of traditional faith to experience the uplifting that takes places in a natural context. With a focus on contemplative practice and engaging with the Earth as a sacrament – a tangible, visible manifestation of divine truth – Church of the Woods serves as a concrete example of what we are preaching.”
In John 15:5, Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” Tending the vine at Church of the Woods is largely a practice of connecting people of traditional religion with Earth. Services on the second and fourth Sundays of the month are held in the Episcopal tradition and feature readings from scripture, singing, 30-45 minutes of silent meditation in the woods, shared reflection, and a simple service of the Eucharist. If one embraces nature as a bearer of the sacred–of God, of Christ, of “the true vine”–this becomes a call to abide in Earth, to humbly acknowledge that without Earth we are nothing; we bear no fruit. How true! In a time of climate crisis, environmental degradation, and ongoing human-inflicted harm to our planet, the call to tend the vine can and must be a call to love and care for Creation, and to embody this love in order to cultivate practices and action to preserve Earth and her creatures.
In a more subtle way, Church of the Woods also tends the vine by activating God’s presence for people who love nature but do not hail from a traditionally religious background. By offering a way of connecting to the sacred, a language for articulating spiritual transformation, and a manner of being in church that welcomes people–like me–for whom “church” and “religion” have not necessarily worked, Church of the Woods offers the opportunity for a seemingly barren vine to bear fruit.Church of the Woods offers the opportunity for a seemingly barren vine to bear fruit.
Let me explain.