Burning Bush Forest Church, Canada

The snow is deep and the sun is low in the sky. Eighteen people are gathered at the edge of an urban forest, a cherished oasis in the city of Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, to worship together.

I welcome everyone and begin with a grounding prayer, entering into this time and place with our bodies and spirits. It is fourth Advent, and we have come to celebrate and anticipate the coming of Light.

We read John 1:1-5, and talk about the Light shining in the darkness. We also acknowledge the winter solstice, just days away, this season of darkness and our physical longing for the return of longer days.

The children are starting to get a bit restless – it is time for our walk. I break a fresh path through the snow into the forest.

The children soon run ahead of me, stopping at each fork in the path to look back for a silent signal indicating which way to turn. The adults walk in silence, paying attention with our senses to the mysteries of the Divine Presence among us.

In time we reach our destination: a small clearing of sorts, with some fallen trees that serve as benches for the children. The light is fading, and we form a circle. I pull candles out of my backpack, light them and pass them around.

As is our practice, space is made for sharing insights and observations with each other – ways we have sensed God’s divine presence among us. After praying together, we walk back through the darkened woods with our candles in hand.

A final blessing wraps up our time together, and we head back to my house for a potluck supper and warm drinks. At our home, the table is opened to its full extension. People pull food out of backpacks and bags and soon the table is filled with our offerings.

At our home, the table is opened to its full extension…it is at the table that we get to know each other more fully.

Children fill their plates first, and then move to the living room to eat on the floor, picnic-style. Adults gather around the table and conversation flows as we share the meal together. It is at the table that we get to know each other more fully.

We have been doing this for over a year now: gathering for worship outdoors to deepen our connection with God our Creator, with creation, and with each other.

We have chosen the name Burning Bush Forest Church to recognize a species of tree native to our bioregion, that is part of our “congregation,” as well as to remind us of the story of Moses.

God speaks to Moses in a burning bush, instructing him to take off his sandals, for the ground he is standing on is holy ground.

Our worship gatherings are decidedly informal. Our liturgy includes: prayers and sacred readings, a block of time to wander in nature paying attention to the Divine Presence among us, and a time to share our insights with each other.

Our liturgy includes…a block of time to wander in nature paying attention to the Divine Presence among us.

We rarely celebrate communion at our gatherings, partly due to influence from my Mennonite background that only serves communion a few times a year. We did, however, mark our first anniversary by sharing the Eucharist together (the communion elements were homemade spelt bread and grape juice made from wild grapes that grow in our backyard).

We often share meals together before or after worship – outdoor picnics, meals around a campfire, and shared potlucks in homes. Sharing food is an integral part of building community.

My path to starting an outdoor church gathering began in 2014, during a four-month sabbatical from my position as pastor at St Jacobs Mennonite Church (Ontario). Though it probably goes back further still, to formative faith experiences at Mennonite camps and an agricultural heritage that relied on the land and lived by the seasons.

My sabbatical focus was to study post-Christendom and visit new expressions of church. During those months, I was engaged in an ongoing conversation with a friend who was done with church.

She could no longer sit still inside a church building. She longed for a more holistic expression of faith that would get her and her family outdoors and engage their entire bodies.

That same fall I had a son enrolled in forest school. One day when I was picking him up the epiphany hit me: if there could be such a thing as forest school, why couldn’t there be forest church? Was that what my friend and I had been talking about?

Out of curiosity I Googled the term “forest church” and at the top of the list was the Mystic Christ website.

Mystic Christ is an umbrella website for a movement in the UK which includes over a dozen forest churches. My imagination was piqued and I ordered their book.

I was captivated with what I read and with the concept of worshiping outdoors, not just in nature, but with creation. I started doing more reading, talking, and dreaming about what it might look like to start a forest church. Could people really worship outdoors in the winter in Canada?! (The answer is “yes!”)

In the months following my sabbatical, I led various experimental outdoor worship gatherings with different groups of people.

Finally, recognizing that the calling to engage this idea more fully would not go away, I launched Burning Bush Forest Church in March of 2016. Now, we meet monthly on a Sunday afternoon, in different natural areas in and around Kitchener-Waterloo.

About the Author

Wendy Janzen is a Mennonite pastor and lead guide of Burning Bush Forest Church. She resides in Kitchener-Waterloo, Canada, where she shares space with her partner, two sons, and their cat.

In the summer she feeds her soul by getting her hands dirty in the garden growing vegetables and flowers, in the winter by getting out and cross-country skiing. She is a partner in the Wild Church Network.

Find out more about Burning Bush Forest Church on their Facebook page.

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