I REMEMBER very clearly the first harvest festival that I experienced in a city church. The shock I felt when I entered the church, to which I had only recently been licensed, was almost physical: instead of orange, green, and gold, I met neat piles of tins, pyramids of packets, and tidy arrangements of chrysanthemums.
Having lived most of my life in a rural environment, I was used to a harvest church decorated with swaths of wheat, branches of hops looping the aisles, drifts of honeysuckle, pumpkins, courgettes, and vegetables of all types piled in heaps all around the church.
It all made perfect sense, of course: the city church collected for the local homeless centre, and the last thing that it needed was 40 pumpkins. Packets of tea and rice and tins of peas and beans were of much greater use. But the contrast made me realise how different the experience of harvest was for urban and rural children.
Harvest is not the only occasion: Rogationtide, Lammastide, services on farms and in barns, baby goats in the front pew at Christmas, and dogs more or less every week — all are part of the rural-church experience. And it extends beyond church. There are tracks where young people can learn to walk or cycle safely, shallow river edges where they can paddle and catch minnows, woodland to explore, and hills to run down.
The city child has many more limitations, with carefully curated playing fields and recreation grounds, and perhaps only a tarmacked school playground. There are natural spaces, however, even within the most urban context: churchyards and nature reserves, parks and gardens can all be used in the vital work of enabling children and young people to engage with the natural world and nurturing their spiritual growth.
IN 2012, the National Trust published Natural Childhood, a report which highlighted the growing alienation of children from outdoor spaces. It used the term “nature deficit disorder”, first coined in 2005 by Richard Louv, and emphasised the part that the natural world could play in helping children and young people to understand their relationship with the world and its people.
In a church context, there is a real need for integrating the natural world with the more formalised constructs of building-based worship and encounters. In the framework of God’s revelation of himself in the world, witnessed in scripture and tradition, spirituality can be grown and deepened through regular engagement with the world beyond the church doors. The natural world demands to be taken seriously; it has valuable lessons to offer that will serve to develop and nurture not just our souls, but our minds and bodies, also.
Sally Welch A labyrinth created on a trip to a nature reserve by children from a city-centre church
As in all matters that deserve to be taken seriously, the use of the natural world as a way of enabling the spirituality of children and young people to flourish and grow should be conscious and deliberate: it is not enough simply to go for a lovely walk, although this can obviously bring its own benefits. An element of direction can be helpful, as well as preparation by the activity or worship leaders.
One principle to hold on to is that, as often as possible, an outdoor church event should involve adults as well as children. Adults need to be freed to recapture the open and enquiring approach of a child, and, in their presence, children can feel that their experience has been validated and acknowledged.
Another principle is that, despite all the necessary risk assessments, there are still less pleasant aspects to the countryside. These can be positive experiences, none the less. Walks taken regardless of the weather enable our resilience to develop as we encounter rain and cold wind, perhaps brambles and nettles, and continue regardless, accepting but not being overcome by the challenges.
THE easiest way to begin is to make a pilgrimage, defined in Christian terms as “a spiritual journey to a holy place”. This journey traditionally is thought of in terms of weeks, but an hour or two can be enough.
An introduction to the concept of pilgrimage, of engaging in a practice that is centuries old, as well as the obligatory safety advice is all that is necessary before setting off. The group can be offered simple questions to consider, either on their own or in conversation; they be encouraged to pause and examine a hedgerow or to look as far as they can, and maybe walk in silence, allowing the sounds of the landscape to reach ears often overburdened with noise and chatter.
A Bible passage, or verses from a hymn, might enable connections to be made with the words and traditions of others, opening up further opportunities for reflection and conversation.
Younger children can be given small boxes to fill with tiny things gathered along the way. These can be explored and celebrated at the end of the journey, giving those whose voice might be lost an opportunity to share their experiences of the journey.
istockYoung pilgrims can be asked to stop and examine a detail
Night hikes open up further possibilities, assuming safety issues are addressed. (The panic that I felt when one annoying youth dropped a large stone into the pond behind me, causing me to imagine a child soaked or drowning, is not an experience that I would like to repeat.) But gazing up into the sky, listening to the sounds of the night, offers a glimpse of eternity as we lose ourselves in the stars.
If a pilgrimage or walk is not possible, then a trip to a local nature reserve, or simply an opportunity to spend time in the churchyard, can be rewarding. I have a clear memory of leading a group of under-fives into a small patch of woodland by the railway, and helping to make a simple labyrinth out of sticks and leaves. Silence and concentration followed as we each journeyed in, leaving a stone or a stick, a leaf or a snail — something that had caught our notice — in the centre.
WORSHIP in unfamiliar places can offer a freedom of liturgical experience unbounded by walls and expectations. Beginning a time of prayer by contemplating a conker, a feather, a leaf, or a tree can help us to see that God is not confined to people or buildings, but has the whole of creation in his care.
If going outside is too problematic, then the natural world can be brought inside the church. Seeds and bulbs can be planted and then observed as they grow and flower; piles of earth can be examined under magnifying glasses; sculptures and collages can be created using natural objects.
All these experiences shed further light on the teaching of the Bible, and of Christ, in particular, who constantly uses examples taken from nature to illustrate aspects of God’s Kingdom, and of our own behaviour in it. We are taught to appreciate the vast expanses of fields and landscape, but also to learn from the details of flowers and the behaviour of birds. In this, we reflect that characteristic of God which cherishes every single aspect of his creation.
We learn from the natural world to celebrate the wholeness, the interdependence, and the interconnectedness of all created things, while being mindful that “truth, beauty and goodness is only intimated in nature but disclosed in Christ.”
Sally Welch is the author of Outdoor Church: Twenty sessions to take church outside the building for children and families, published by Barnabas for Children at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.09).