By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
The search for promising keys to Episcopal Church growth has led two General Convention committees back to the land. They are exploring how the church might launch and nurture congregations centered on sustainable farming and other types of experiences in nature.
A July 5 brought a series of Episcopal farmers to a microphone planted in a sprawling meeting room at downtown Austin’s JW Marriott Hotel. Among them was the Rev. Nurya Love Parish, a Michigan priest and executive director of Plainsong Farm of Rockford, Michigan.
Parish told what happened after she published a Christian Food Movement directory in 2015.
“After I made that, young adults started showing up in my email inbox,” Parish said. “They started saying, What is this? How can I be part of it? How can I create a new ministry?”
The occasion for the hearing was Resolution A019, which would create a task force network with $100,000 in funding. The new panel would report on the intersection of church planting, creation care, and evangelism.
Originally assigned to the Committee on Evangelism and Church Planting, the resolution landed in the hands of the Committee on Environmental Stewardship and Care of Creation before the joint session adjourned.
During the hearing, committee members asked speakers, who are already doing the type of farming-based community building they hope to encourage, what would be most helpful to them. After the hearing, one of the speakers explained what works in her setting.
“We have a lot of former evangelicals and also people who are spiritually seeking, like young families,” said Sarah Nolan, former director of the Abundant Table, a Los Angeles ministry offering farm-based Christian formation.
“We have a lot of families that have visited every denomination and church in the county, and they come to us because they want spiritually informed formation, sometimes within the Christian tradition. Sometimes they just want something that incorporates the worldview that connects with a younger generation.”
In such Christian formation, growing food together provides both the initial touchstone for connection and a rich source for teaching through metaphors. When children hear parables of the sower or the mustard seed, for instance, they need not look far for tangible illustrations.
Today’s shift toward nature-based congregations is not limited to those involved in agriculture. Rhode Island Bishop Nicholas Knisely spoke of wanting to see more support for communities that form when people come together for a nature-based spiritual experience. He noted last year’s Province I canoe pilgrimage on the Connecticut River. Another “Church on the Bay” emerges when people are afloat on Narragansett Bay.
Nolan offered a similar example of “holy hike” communities that involve following Christ together, but not into pews to sit and hear a sermon. Instead, following him leads somewhere deep into the natural world to share the Eucharist.
From the Environmental Stewardship Committee, Bishop Marc Andrus of the Diocese of California suggested the church might use nature-based ministries to rethink evangelism to include outreach beyond humanity.
“Who do we think we are evangelizing?” Andrus said. “It’s normally, I think — from what I have heard — it’s people. But Jesus wants us to think of all of life. … I wonder what an evangelism effort would look like that was evangelizing Creation.”