By Jason Herring
As an outdoor columnist it certainly helps if you love the outdoors, and I do. I am a trail-running junkie and an outdoor enthusiast at heart. I love the mountains and the wilderness, and I love to read about adventures in the back country. I realize that not everyone is wired this way, but if you’re like me, you need to get off-the-grid to recharge and refocus. It’s not surprising then how this can shape our ideas on church and worship.
Years ago, my father was doing door-to-door visitation when he knocked on the door of Dick Flood, who was better known as “Okefenokee Joe.” Okefenokee Joe starred in numerous television shows including a nature series I watched as a kid called The Joy of Snakes. When my dad invited him to church, Okefenokee Joe invited him out to his back porch. “This is my church,” he said, gesturing at the woods around his home. It’s funny because over the years I’ve heard the exact same thing from many people in Idaho. One guy in my church moved up into the mountains because he preferred a county where the ratio of elk to humans was somewhere around 15 to 1.
And I get it. I really do. I’ve attended pastors’ conferences and youth rallies with thousands in attendance. I’m a “PK” (Pastor’s Kid), and I’ve been raised in church my entire life. I’ve been to countless revival meetings and religious events, and I’ve felt the energy of a large gathering. But I have never been to any spiritual gathering where I felt closer to God than I felt on Mount Borah or any of the mountains that I’ve climbed in the great PNW. On 10 of the 14 mountains that I’ve climbed, I’ve been alone, and 6 of those 10 times I was quite literally alone as the only climber on the mountain. Being alone on the mountain gives such clarity and focus. There are no distractions. Just solitude in the grand cathedrals of nature the way that mountaineer John Muir experienced it. And I have never felt a stronger sense of God’s presence or a sense of wonder at His handiwork. From trailhead to summit, I just talk to myself, talk to God, and worship.
Someone might feel the same sense hunting big game in the wilderness or fishing at the lake or vacationing at the beach and watching the ocean. If you know, you just know. Nature offers something that you can’t find anywhere else. It’s no wonder that even those who don’t know God are drawn to its beauty, some mistakenly even worshipping the creation as god. My mom has a degree in art and her favorite artist has always been Norman Rockwell, who was iconic for his Saturday Evening Post covers. When I was a teenager we went to Stockbridge, Massachusetts on vacation to visit Rockwell’s home and art studio. Seeing the detail and rich colors of the paintings up close was an amazing experience, and it gave me an even greater appreciation for the artist. We live in the museum of the Creator. The wilderness is His art gallery. Nature is His studio. And every time I see a new waterfall or mountain peak or get to witness a blazing sunset, I gain a greater appreciation for the Artist.
It’s not hard to see why many Christians will opt for the church in the wilderness to a church gathering in their community. In nature, you set the time and the agenda. You don’t have to worry about the service going too long, and you wouldn’t mind if it did. For the introverts, there’s no awkward meet-and-greet-the-stranger-next-to-you. You don’t have to look a certain way or worry about your appearance unless you’re planning on taking some Instagram worthy pics of your excursion. There are no expectations, no pressure, no judgment or praise; it’s just you and the unbeaten path.
Now let me tell you a story.
This May I was back for my second night of the Boise Harvest Crusade being held at the ExtraMile Arena on the Boise State campus. I stood in the stands with my three kids as Chris Tomlin led 11,000 people in worship. I sung my heart out to the familiar anthems, and when he closed the set with “My Chains Are Gone,” I cried my eyes out. Greg Laurie brought an amazing message, and it was the power of God as hundreds responded to the gospel that night. There’s something very special about gathering together with fellow believers to worship our one and only Savior. For one thing, it is the best evidence that we can offer our community of the reality of the Advent of the Messiah. Read John 17:20-23.
Comparing corporate worship gatherings to the solitude of wilderness worship is not an either/or proposition. Jesus did both. And both are necessary and vital to the spiritual health and growth of the believer. You are deeply impoverished if you don’t take time to gather with fellow believers in worship. It’s not just for a watching world; it’s also for you. In Braving the Wilderness, Brené Brown writes: “Show up for collective moments of joy and pain so we can actually bear witness to inextricable human connection. Women and men with the stronger true belonging practices maintain their belief in inextricable connection by engaging in moments of joy and pain with strangers. In simpler terms, we have to catch some of that lightning in a bottle. We have to catch enough glimpses of people connecting to one another and having fun together that we believe it’s true and possible for all of us.”
Football games and funerals, concerts and demonstrations, parades and vigils are all points where we can share in collective joy and pain. And that’s why your local church is so important. You see, despite the flaws and shortcomings of ministry leaders and church members, we can’t forget that man and woman are the crown of God’s creation. Lives that have been redeemed and restored are His masterpiece, and they are no less beautiful than the most stunning vista in nature. You’ve probably heard the cliché that churches should be hospitals not museums. I get the point, but it’s actually both. It’s a place of healing and triage, and it’s also a place where you can muse on the ways and works of God made visible in the lives of men and women and children. One Sunday you hear a message about what God did in the past as recorded in the Bible. On another Sunday you hear a testimony of how a life was transformed by God’s grace. And the result is that “we believe it’s true and possible for all of us,” and we leave the art gallery with a little more appreciation for the Artist.