by Bob Whitesel D.Min., Ph.D., Biblical Leadership Magazine, 7/6/18.
For over two decades I’ve been researching innovative new churches and helping church leaders understand if they are heretical, orthodox, mainstream and/or part of an emerging evangelical movement. My book “Inside the Organic Church” (Abingdon Press) looked at so-called emerging churches.
In this article, I’ll look at what is being called the “Wild Church.” These are people who gather among nature, often hosting church services in natural outdoor venues such as parks, forests, old barns, etc. And, they come in various denominational and theological persuasions. Some Wild Church worship services are hosted by liberal congregations and may embrace some aspects of nature worship. But others are more evangelical in theology, who see worshipping amid God’s creation an opportunity to behold his power and majesty. A simple Google search will turn up many more examples.
To learn about this phenomena, I urge the reader to not focus on just those examples that run counter to their own theological persuasion. Instead the unbiased reader may find the Wild Church an innovative opportunity to draw near to God. As King David would say, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” (Psalm 19:1 NIV).
Check out my four principles for understanding the Wild Church, with takeaways and cautions.
A working definition: The wild church is a congregation that gathers among nature (i.e. in the wild) to appreciate what God has revealed through his creation.
Principle 1: Wild Churches come in many theological persuasions. Some are evangelical and view having church out among nature as a way to share God’s good news with nature enthusiasts such as hikers, campers and the outdoors type. Other Wild Churches embrace a liberal theology.
Take away: You don’t have to be of a certain theological persuasion to enjoy a Wild Church. Yes, there will be liberal churches that will worship in the wild. But evangelical congregations shouldn’t concede natural venues to their liberal brethern.
Caution: Being out among God’s nature can draw a person near to God as it did David. But be careful that when we are saturated in God’s creation we do not began to worship the creation rather than the Creator. Paul warned the Romans, “(some) exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.” (Romans 1:25 NIV).
Principle 2: Wild churches are a method of taking a message out to where people recreate, reflect and have needs. Going outside of the religious walls of the synagogue was a hallmark of Jesus’ ministry, for example He reached out to:
- “sinners” and tax gathers who Matthew invited to his party (Matt. 9:9-13)
- a rich young ruler (Matt. 19:16-30)
- a demoniac (Mark 5:1-20)
- a hemorrhaging woman (Mark 5:24-34)
- a Samaritan woman at a communal well (John 4:7-42)
- a crippled beggar (John 5:1-15)
- an adulterous woman publicly shamed by the scribes (John 8:1-11)
Take away: There are many biblically examples of Jesus reaching out to where people are doing business or recreating. Churches that are seeking to share the good news with non-churchgoers may find in the Wild Chruch a magnificent, natural venue in which to do so.
Caution: Sometimes the excitement of doing church in a new manner can make the method more the focus, than the message. Don’t get so excited about a change in venue that the venue becomes the focus of your time and energy. The message should always be central in expression and preparation. And it should point people to the Creator Christ Jesus (John 1:3, Colossians 1:16).
Principle 3: Don’t judge or criticize because a congregation is doing something differently or because they are affiliated with a denomination you don’t support. I’ve found that many times churches resist newness because they enjoy the style of worship they already have. But, because you have found the style and venue of worship you enjoy, doesn’t mean that God doesn’t have other worship styles and venues where He intends His good news to travel.
Takeaway: Creating new styles of worship can be a way to reach people who enjoy different expressions of worship. As an avid hiker and surfer, I have found that talking to God amid His creation can help me reflect upon His power, His goodness and His love as seen in what He created for us.
Caution: Don’t try to create a Wild Church unless God has given you a call, a compassion and a camaraderie with those who care for and appreciate natural environs. While most everyone can appreciate nature, there are those who find their spiritual peace when in natural milieus. I am one such person, finding peace when mountain biking or surfing alone, with God as my companion. If you are like me and feel His presence strongly in such places, maybe He is calling you to reach out to others who feel the same way … and introduce them to the Savior behind a marvelous creation.