By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
At the end of bumpy drive in the least religious corner of America, a new church without a building has begun offering the Eucharist among the hardwoods and the chipmunks of rural New Hampshire. The dream is as big as the forest: to evangelize the many locals who love the outdoors and seek spirituality in nature, not church.
But those who visit Church of the Woods, which holds its first public worship service on September 28, will not hear calls to repentance or conversion — at least not as they are traditionally understood. They will instead be led, ever so gently, to experience how faith enriches the lives of environmentalists by imbuing them with much-needed hope.
It’s the ministry of an Episcopal priest who’s also a zealous convert. The Rev. Stephen Blackmer, 58, used to tell friends his church was not a faith community but was in the woods, on a river or atop a mountain. Now he aims to reach kindred spirits. His backers say he’s not trying to convert anyone — just aiming to enrich their experience for the good of an ecologically imperiled world.
“So much of what I see faith communities doing about environmental issues is taking political action,” said Blackmer, chaplain to Church of the Woods, which meets on his land: 106 acres of forest and wetlands in Canterbury, New Hampshire. “That’s essential, but it doesn’t begin to be enough.”
What’s lacking in political action, he said, is liturgical experience, personal transformation, and guided refocusing on what exactly is sacred about caring for the planet. It’s time, in his view, for environmentalists to get religion.
If Church of the Woods succeeds, it will spread the Christian faith among the eco-conscious in New Hampshire, which the Gallup Poll identifies as the second-least-religious of all U.S. states (behind neighboring Vermont). It will also help reinvigorate the Diocese of New Hampshire, in which average Sunday attendance fell by 20 percent from 2000 to 2010 and two-thirds of the parishes cannot afford to pay even one full-time priest.
Yet the project’s significance could also ripple more widely as an experiment — not only in outreach but also in what it means to share the gospel.
“Nationwide, Episcopalians are rethinking evangelism,” said Day Smith Pritchartt, executive director of the Evangelical Education Society of the Episcopal Church, which awarded Blackmer two grants during seminary to develop the ideas that gave rise to Church of the Woods.
Evangelism is no longer about fixing a spiritual deficiency, she said. It is instead about adding to what’s already good inside a person, who comes to embrace a new dimension of life.
“It used to be this proclamation of deficiency,” Pritchartt said, but those who are led to faith now hear a different message. “Now it’s recognizing oneself as a child of God with a mission to bring the coming of God’s kingdom to earth.”
Church of the Woods draws people twice a month on Sunday afternoons to a cleared field where Blackmer has a cabin construction project in the works. Participants spend a portion of the two hours strolling among the trees, either on their own or with a guide. They pay close attention to what they see, hear, and smell.
When they gather for a Eucharist, Blackmer does not preach. He instead directs a group conversation that draws on Scripture readings and probes what they experienced on their meditative walks. Pilgrims are invited to the table but assured that receiving the sacrament is optional.
The structure is as experimental as the ministry itself. The church is a project of Blackmer’s nonprofit organization, Kairos Earth, which leases the land from him and invites other religious groups to use it. This arrangement means the Diocese of New Hampshire bears no financial obligations if Church of the Woods fizzles out.
The diocese has nonetheless provided a $30,000 grant for 2014. That funding helps pay Blackmer’s salary while he launches the church, pursues additional funding streams, and builds a cabin for worship services through the winter. It’s an investment in a quintessentially New Hampshire form of the “emerging church,” according to the Rt. Rev. Robert Hirschfeld, Bishop of New Hampshire.
“The images we have of the emerging church are people meeting in garages, warehouses, coffeehouses, and bars,” Bishop Hirschfeld said. “This is just the same thing, except out in the woods, where people seem to like to be.”
For Blackmer, Church of the Woods is the latest manifestation of a most unusual calling that took root in his early 50s. He had never been a churchgoer, nor had he come from a family of churchgoers. He was an agnostic, spiritual-but-not-religious man who spent his career doing conservation work as a forest ecologist, lobbyist, and public advocate.
His work led him to worry about daunting problems, such as climate change and extinction, which eliminates dozens of species every day, according to the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School. To make sense of it all, he found he needed more than mountaintop experiences alone could offer.
“As an environmental activist for many years, I was coming to grips with fear, grief, loss, anxiety, and asking, Where does one find hope in a world where so much is going wrong? Faith became for me a way of expressing hope in the midst of despair,” he said.
Blackmer now feels kinship with the Apostle Paul, a zealous Jew who encountered the risen Christ on the Damascus Road and returned to synagogues to share the gospel with his people. He believes faith has much to offer secular environmentalists, who sometimes despair amid huge challenges, and to their cause as well.
“The Christian faith, as expressed in our Episcopal tradition, can add to their experiences of nature and open them up to fuller, richer, perhaps challenging experiences and understandings,” he said. “I hope it will provide a way for people in the environmental movement to reconnect with religious language and religious experience as parts of conserving the earth.”
For all the challenges inherent in trying to reach the unchurched in New Hampshire, Church of the Woods has some natural advantages. For instance, it’s targeting a group that already shares values and common experiences, from exhilarating hikes to public-policy laments. These are ripe for interpretation through a theological lens, observers say, and the new perspective might help feed unmet yearnings in their community.
“There is something deficient, and we know exactly what that is,” Bishop Hirschfeld said. “There’s a tremendous amount of grieving, guilt, understanding of humanity’s fallenness and need for forgiveness, with amendment of life, when it comes to our relationship to God’s creation. … The Church of the Woods is a real, immediate opportunity and venue for dealing with these very immediate theological issues.”
Early interest is coming, in part, from environmentalists who do not feel at home in church. Chelsea Scudder, 27, grew up in a secular household in Norman, Oklahoma, with a Jewish mother and environmentalist father. She never felt spiritually moved in traditional religious settings, she told TLC by email. Yet she signed on as communications assistant for Church of the Woods because she hopes it can build a movement to recast how human beings value the earth.
“I’ve had so many experiences in nature where I’ve felt peace and serenity, have felt that moving of my spirit, have felt at home,” Scudder said. “Until recently, I just never thought that I could call that ‘religion’ or that it ‘counted’ as prayer. … It was so wonderful to encounter Church of the Woods as a place that provided a framework and a language for connecting with nature in that way.”
In reimagining evangelism, Church of the Woods walks a fine line. On one level, it’s embracing traditional Christian concepts of creation, sin, and redemption through Christ as bases for Christian hope. Yet there’s also some intentional distancing from the tradition as meanings of key concepts are revamped. Among the questions is whether coming to faith stills hold the same transformative power, even when one’s values and lifestyle are affirmed and left intact.
Backers say the power of new faith is still at hand. Church of the Woods reflects what’s happening in the emerging church, where some traditional understandings and emphases have given way to new ones, Pritchartt said.
“Repent means to turn around, but more and more, it’s understood as embracing a new way of life as a child of God,” she said.
Gone from this formulation is the need for renouncing past beliefs, behaviors, or dispositions of the heart. At Church of the Woods, she expects talk of salvation without conversion — even when the conversation is led by a priest who’s a convert himself.
“I don’t think it’s conversion; I would stay away from that and focus on evangelism,” Pritchartt said. “I would call it embracing the gospel, being saved from not knowing God, being saved from not knowing that God is behind everything in the universe.”