I spend the summer around Boulder, Colorado, an area that is 90% unchurched. You find many more people “worshiping” on Sunday morning on a hiking trail, a mountain bike or in a stream with a fly rod than in churches around here. Christian Schwarz, the founder of Natural Church Development, wrote a wonderful little book called The Threefold Art of Experiencing God. It is the most concise and practical explanation of the Trinity I have ever seen.
In it, Schwarz posits that God reveals Himself to us in nature. If you want to understand the nature of God, study His creation. Creation revelation, he calls it. He says, “God revealed himself as Creator by leaving the marks of his handwriting on creation (Ps. 19:2; Rom 1:19f). One does not have to be a Christian in order to encounter this type of revelation. Whether I am a Muslim, Buddhist, atheist or Christian--when I turn to creation I can sense the fingerprints of the Creator.”
In my own spiritual journey, I came to believe in God as a young man during my travels in the Rocky Mountains. I have many unchurched friends out here who do sense God in the wilderness but cannot seem to find Him in church.
We receive a quarterly newsletter from the Rocky Mountain Nature Association, the volunteer organization that supports the Rocky Mountain National Park. I was intrigued by the cover story by the group’s leader, C. W. Bucholtz, entitled, “Are Parks for Everyone?” As I read the piece, I started thinking about church, asking the same questions he explores in the article. He starts this way:
A friend stopped by the office the other day to say hello. As he was leaving, his expression turned serious. “I hope you know how much the park means to me,” he said. “It never matters what mood I’m in when I visit the park. I always feel better by the time I leave. Being in the park makes me feel good. And the same goes for my family.”
Is that true of our churches?
He sounded so excited, it reminded me of a phrase attributed to the famed naturalist, John Muir: “Go to the mountains and get their glad tidings.”
How parks or mountains or nature itself touches out spirit is something most of us are probably somewhat reticent to discuss. So we talk around the subject. We turn to details. We talk about the elk. We fret about bark beetles or road repair. Almost for certain, we discuss any changes that met our eyes during a recent visit.
Change in national parks is mostly unwelcome. Change is never taken lightly, and coping with change upsets people.
Sound familiar? He goes on to say:
Let’s go back to the fellow who stopped by my office. He didn’t comment about the changes he’d seen or about the elk or the restroom conditions. He cut directly to the heart of what a national park is all about. He told me what the park actually did to him. It made him feel good, he said, even better with every visit. And the park had performed that year after year.
Just take a moment to ponder the importance of that single impact. It says that just by sitting there, just by being a place dotted with Rocky Mountains, with lakes and forests and meadows, just by being home to wildlife, just by being kept mostly natural, this special place has the ability to make a person feel better.
I have not always been able to say that about my church experience, have you? Continuing, he says:
Can parks do that for everyone? In fact, are parks for everyone? Or, should they be open only to those who truly appreciate their significance and care enough to protect them.
I’ve seen churches function that way.
A few years ago, Joseph Sax wrote an insightful book, Mountains without Handrails. He argued that a primary use for places of such significance should be “reflective recreation.”
There’s the idea that this preserved landscape lifts the mind beyond the level of enjoyment, physical activity and the appreciation of scenery. It’s the belief that national parks can free the mind for contemplation.
In parks a person can step away from the human-made and stroll within the nature-made. Within our parks, among their mountains and forests and creeks, we find what is real and authentic and historic and natural.
One of the things we keep hearing about post-moderns is that they seek authenticity and often view the ancient as authentic. No wonder so many would rather spend their sabbath time in the wilderness, strolling within the God-made. Throughout the Bible, from Abraham to Moses to Jesus, people have gone to the mountains to seek God’s face.
In the wilderness you see none of the works of man; you gaze on the handiwork of God. And the shame is that over 90% of the visitors to our national parks never get more than 500 feet from a road. Of course, one could make the same observation about churches. How many really stop to sip deeply from the water of life? How many stop by for a quick spiritual fill-up before going on with life as usual?
Should such places be open to everyone? The answer is obvious. All are welcome! Should we expect visitors to come away feeling better than when they entered? I’ll emphatically say yes.
What if national parks really are for everyone? What if they really do make people feel better? What if they do provide a connecting point between people and nature? So what?
There’s that old phrase we learned in grade school about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” National parks may not teach every lesson found in textbooks nor do mountains and forests offer all the answers. But in majestic places like Rocky Mountain National Park, quiet natural spaces offer moments of peace where everyone is free to ponder the greatest questions of life.
Think about that last statement, “Moments of peace where everyone is free to ponder the greatest questions of life.” I wish we could say that about our churches.