By Jessica Griggs for Mennonite Church USA
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (Mennonite Church USA) — Janeen Bertsche Johnson, director of campus ministries and alumni director of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, presented a seminar called, “Making the Church Wild,” to a packed room at MennoCon23, July 5. Bertsche Johnson is one of the founders of Outdoor Sanctuary Wild Church in Goshen, Indiana, and she used to host services on her property.
Bertsche Johnson introduced Wild Church as a network of churches that began in Great Britain about seven years ago — known there as Forest Church — and spread to North America. These churches meet outside and use the natural world as both their sanctuary and a means of worship. Several communities of Mennonites, as well as people from other North American denominations, have created Wild Churches, and more are founded every year.
While all Wild Churches run their services with their own format, most do not resemble the average indoor service that someone may experience in the United States or Canada. Bertsche Johnson explained that Outdoor Sanctuary meets in a local park twice per month and begins the service with someone welcoming the participants and offering an informal land acknowledgement, followed by a time of centering, which might look like a guided prayer or a simple song or a time to listen to the sound of nature surrounding them. This is followed by a Scripture reading and sometimes some brief thoughts about the themes of that Scripture.
The bulk of the gathering is made up of a time of wandering, in which participants do self-guided exploration of the nature around them and reflect on the Scripture and themes that had just been read. They, then, gather again and discuss their observations and the thoughts they had while reflecting on the Scripture in nature.
She also identified the value of Wild Church for those who may not be comfortable in a traditional church setting.
“Many people will identify themselves as being people who meet God in nature,” said Bertsche Johnson. “And that is part of the beauty of Wild Church. It’s meant to make this easier for people to encounter God, because we are meeting outside.”
After providing the history and a general framework for what Wild Church looks like, Bertsche Johnson offered a makeshift Wild Church service for the seminar participants to join in, providing an abbreviated version of all the elements that Outdoor Sanctuary uses.
Because MennoCon23 is being held in a convention center in the heart of Kansas City, Missouri, nature and solitude were not easy to find. So Bertsche Johnson offered some natural images and birdsong for the audience to “wander into.” Afterward, participants discussed their observations in small groups and later with the whole room. Many participants expressed finding profound meaning in the images they observed.
Mennonite Church USA is the largest Mennonite denomination in the United States with 16 conferences, approximately 517 congregations and almost 52,000 members. An Anabaptist Christian denomination, MC USA is part of Mennonite World Conference, a global faith family that includes churches in 59 countries. It has offices in Elkhart, Indiana, and Newton, Kansas. mennoniteUSA.org