by Rev. Rich Nelson
Thinking back on my own childhood, most of my favorite memories were times spent in nature – canoeing with my dad, climbing the mountains of Wyoming, hiking Grand Gulch, boating down the Missouri River, running away from rattlesnakes at a family reunion. Well maybe not that last one … but it is still memorable!
Perhaps you have similar memories? I wonder what it is about being in nature that makes such a lasting and positive impression on a child. Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, coined the phrase “nature-deficit disorder” a few years ago and for many of us that rings true.There is something in our souls that longs to reconnect with the rest of creation. Many people say they feel closer to God in the great outdoors than in a church building. Rather than take that as a criticism of the church, maybe we ought to hear it as an affirmation of the soul-stirring power of nature. No wonder Jesus went to the wilderness when he wanted to pray and used nature as powerful images in his parables.
Aside from summer camps, which children often point to as the spiritual highlight of their year, I find that churches rarely incorporate time in nature into their faith formation programs. Following the model of public education, we put them inside classrooms to teach them about the disciples, rather than taking them out and helping them to be disciples themselves. It doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, many churches have beautiful outdoor spaces just outside their doors. Those that don’t are likely to have parks and green space not far away.
A few years ago, we tried it out at the church I served as pastor. After failing to find a curriculum on the market that would enable us to host the kind of outdoor VBS we envisioned, we decided to create our own, cohosting with a neighboring church that adjoined our property. We came up with rotations based around reflection on the trees and fields on our campus. We put kids to work seeding wildflowers and milkweed for butterflies. We invited local families to teach them about the history of the land and the farmers and ranchers who had founded our church. And we pulled in resource people from the community who brought along skulls, a live owl, and even an airplane flyover that thrilled the kids. It was our most successful VBS ever. We did it again the next year with even greater success.
Later that year, I left congregational leadership to create the deeper resources for discipleship that I always wished existed but could never find. Creating a curriculum that enables congregations and individual families to incorporate faith formation and time in nature was high on my list. Later this year, that dream will be realized when I launch Francis and Friends as a resource for families in time for Christmas, for congregations in early 2016, and at the Spring Family Retreat at Lutherhill in LaGrange, TX. Francis and Friends draws on the loving, inclusive, theology and life of St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi. Best of all, it is designed to get children and their parents to head out into the world to make the same faith and nature connection that so enlivened the faith of those kids at my church and my own as a child.
For the entirety of human history, people have been intimately connected with the rhythms and fate of the rest of God’s creation. But in the last 150 years, we have become increasingly disconnected from nature, buffered from its ups and downs by the imported produce in our grocery stores and the insulated, air conditioned walls of our homes, schools, and workplaces. Though this brings with it a greater sense of security and comfort, I also wonder what is lost. What meaning is missing when the people who come to us to hear Jesus’ parables about fields and vines, seeds and crops have never plowed a field, tended a vine, planted a seed or harvested a crop? Jesus chose these things precisely because his listeners were so familiar with them. We owe it to our kids to not allow this familiarity to be lost, thus placing another obstacle between them and receiving the gospel.
I encourage you to have this discussion in your own congregations and see what fruit it bears. Put it on the agenda of your next Christian Ed meeting and Church Council. How can we better incorporate the spiritual gifts of God’s creation in our efforts to connect our children to our loving Creator? Whether it be a hiking pilgrimage, a plan to feed the birds on your church property, or a full-fledged outdoor VBS, Sunday School or at-home family program, I guarantee that being out among the source of life will bring the faith to life in your children in powerful new ways. “Like trees planted by streams of water which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither.” (Psalm 1:3)
You can learn more about Rich’s resources at www.revrichnelson.com including Francis and Friends at www.francisandfriends.org