This article is an excerpt from a conversation between Forrest Inslee, host of the Earthkeeper’s Podcast, and the directors of Bethany Community Church’s Wilderness Ministry, Nick Rubesh and John Wayne Seitzler. The Wilderness Ministry fosters experiences in nature that transform hearts and minds, and that help people to grow in their understanding of God and of the whole community of creation. You can find the full conversation on the Earthkeeper’s Podcast.


Forrest: I’m wondering if you can look back to your formative years and tell us about an experience that helped set you on this path of connecting to God through nature.

Nick: I grew up on the island of Sri Lanka, which is about six degrees above the equator; it’s a tropical island, teeming with life. And that’s something that I was just surrounded by constantly. A specific memory is watching the macaque monkeys that would pass over our house—which was at the forest canopy level, so we could see them moving through the trees. And it was just such a fascinating experience, to sit up by my window and watch the macaque troop pass through. In those moments there was a definite feeling of being connected to something bigger than myself.

Forrest: There are plenty of people who don’t have that kind of exposure to nature, people who live very urban lives growing up. I think that, for some of those folks, it’s harder to rekindle or to rediscover that connectedness that I think God intended for all of us to have.

John Wayne: Yeah, I grew up in Dallas, Texas, a place that was the opposite of Sri Lanka—not exactly teeming with nature. I come from a large family, with eight brothers and sisters, and we just didn’t have the resources for outdoor recreation. So when I was growing up, I never went camping or anything like that.

Much later in life, I came to understand what it was like to encounter Christ in creation when I got to spend time up in the Coastal Mountains of British Columbia. I worked as a sea kayaking guide for two summers. The inlets of the sea up there are like the glacial fjords of Norway; the mountains shoot up 7,000 feet straight from the water. And under the water, the inlets themselves can be deeper than the mountains around them. We would often travel the inlet waters at night, and the bioluminescent plankton would light up the water with every paddle stroke. I particularly recall one late night paddle when we got to see the sunrise over the mountains—and I knew in that moment that I was in one of the “thin places” where heaven meets earth.

These days I live up in Shoreline, which is a suburb north of Seattle, and I live right by a forest called Hamlin Park. I try to run pretty regularly in that park. That has really become my sanctuary for regular engagement with Christ in creation, regular engagement in relationship with the land. One of the things we try to model in our ministry is the practice of encountering God even in more urban contexts—that Christ is in all and through all, as Colossians tells us.

Forrest: I wonder, given that your ministry helps people to encounter nature in urban areas, as well as remote places, is that in tension with the use of the word “wilderness” to describe the kind of ministry that you do?

John Wayne: Wilderness can be defined in a lot of ways. It’s defined by the Bureau of Land Management as protected land. But I even think about urban areas as a sort of wilderness. When you don’t have access to green spaces—that could be described as a sort of wilderness. Wilderness can be financial poverty that doesn’t allow people to have time or resources to connect to the land. So this is something that we are trying to address through our programming. We’ve got to provide spaces for people to connect with Christ’s community and creation, even in our own backyards.

I think it’s Wendell Berry who says, “There is no sacred and unsacred. There’s only sacred and desecrated.” When we think about urban environments, I think we pretty quickly lump it all into the unsacred category. I believe, though, that our urban environments are sacred. At the end of the day, whether you’re in East Texas or Seattle or Sri Lanka, the words of Psalm 19 ring true: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” There is something to be received for all of us through creation. God is not limited by our context.

Jesus had this rhythm of regular connection wherever he went. He went up to the mountain to retreat and be with God. He went across the lake to be apart with God. But Jesus also did a lot of just walking with his disciples and that’s something we can emulate anywhere. That can be a form of engaging with the wilderness that I think we need to rediscover, wherever we live. And if we can learn to see God in creation in our urban context, I think we’ll start to see God everywhere.

Forrest: Let me ask for your thoughts on something that my friend Victoria Loorz wrote: “The call into wilderness is not simply a metaphor. Ancient scriptures recount story after story of people who, at pivotal times in history, are called into the actual living wilderness by the sacred, by God, on purpose.”

John Wayne: I think our overall mission at Bethany Community Church is inviting people to God, community, and wholeness. We see so often in scripture God calling people, calling them out of their current environment into a new environment. We see that with the Israelites, we see that with Moses and the burning bush, we see that in David’s life as a shepherd, and we see that in Jesus’ journey in the desert. We see it all throughout scripture—God calling His people from one environment into another for a new kind of encounter.

Forrest: Even if some of those places of encounter are within city limits and are very urban.

John Wayne: Exactly. Sometimes people just need a shift of perspective, and sometimes that requires a shift of environment that takes them out of their normal day-to-day comfort zone and into a place where God can be more readily seen.

Forrest: As pastors in a very multigenerational church like Bethany, how would you describe the generational differences in terms of faith and of spiritual practices? Is the Wilderness Ministry in some ways particularly responsive to the questions that younger folks are asking?

Nick: I would say there’s definitely a shift in terms of how younger people view church. For example, younger people don’t necessarily limit spiritual experiences to a church building. For generations, the church building has been the place where all spiritual experience is supposed to happen. More recently though, people are realizing that it doesn’t have to be that way. And so many have stopped coming to church.

John Wayne: Younger generations also struggle with a sense of climate despair, as well. It is just a huge issue, because they are looking at a future where the effects of climate change are only going to get more severe. The Wilderness Ministry tries to speak to that loss of hope, to help people—especially young people—not to give up. That there are ways to resist despair through the discovery of the part they can play in seeking shalom for creation around them.

Forrest: If the church really wants to reach those who struggle with these points of pain, then the Wilderness Ministry, it seems, invites them into—maybe not optimism—but certainly a way of thinking that isn’t just about despair. The ministry encourages them to believe that there is more to the climate crisis than we can see, and that it isn’t just the works of humankind that are going to undo the damage and bring restoration, but that ultimately God is in this. It raises the question about the potential of something like the Wilderness Ministry in other churches. Do you understand wilderness ministry to be something that perhaps all churches should think about establishing?

John Wayne: I absolutely believe that every single church in every single context, whether it’s Dallas or Seattle, should provide discipleship opportunities in the outdoors—if for no other reason than that this was an approach modeled by Jesus: regular retreat in creation, small group ministry, walking from town to town through natural settings. In some ways we’ve lost the art of walking, where we really give folks the time, the space, the freedom from distraction, to really engage with deep questions, and engage with Christ in a way that is not going to happen sitting in a church pew.

By no means am I advocating that we replace traditional practices or church. I do think that forms of corporate worship should be our foundation. But in terms of discipleship, we have to get people out of the trap of thinking that encounter with God only takes place in a building we label “church.”

Forrest: I would even go so far as to suggest that people need to be released from an over-dependence on scripture, right? The Bible is not the only revelation of God. Yet many people believe that it is because that is what the church has taught, whether directly or implicitly: that if it’s not in the Bible, it’s not true.

Nick: Well, I really like the phrase that Richard Dahlstrom has used in describing creation as “God’s first book.” The idea of general revelation isn’t a new one, but I think it’s really undervalued. There’s so much out there to learn about God, about ourselves, about relationships. So I think that engagement with the natural world should be at the forefront of our faith practices.

And even for people who aren’t part of the church, the Wilderness Ministry feels like a doorway into the Bethany community. There are a lot of people who are not going to walk through our doors on a Sunday morning, but who would join us on a wilderness trip—and who just might experience Christ in a way that they wouldn’t ever experience in the church building.

John Wayne: In terms of the potential value for other churches and organizations doing something like a wilderness ministry, I believe it’s a creative way to reach the people that we always talk about reaching: people who don’t want to be in church, or people who say they don’t know God. I think it’s immensely valuable for a church community to build into their ministries some way to help reestablish that connection with general revelation.

 

You can find more information about Bethany’s Wilderness Ministry here. John Wayne has also establish an organization called Wilderness Formation, which can be a resource for churches interested in creating something like a wilderness ministry.

 

Photo credit: NEOM

 

Authors

  • Nick Rubesh

    Having grown up on the beautiful island of Sri Lanka, Nick Rubesh now calls Washington State home. He has moved on from his role at Bethany Community Church, and in the fall of 2024 hopes to start a masters program to pursue a career in direct environmental work, preferably in restorative ecology. In his free time he loves making music, snowboarding, writing, and generally exploring the endless beauty this state offers.

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  • John Wayne Seitzler

    John Wayne Seitzler is a Texan-born, Washington resident, living in the city of Shoreline with his wife Lianna and black lab, Gus. He plays a number of roles: he is a pastor at Bethany Community Church, the Director of the Bethany Wilderness Ministry, and the Executive Director and Chairman of Wilderness Formation–a nonprofit that exists to help faith communities establish local and contextual wilderness ministry. When he isn't preaching or working behind the scenes of wilderness ministry, you can find him ski touring in and around the Cascade mountain passes and volcanoes.

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  • Forrest Inslee

    Dr. Forrest Inslee is the Executive Director of the Pacific Rim Institute. He was born and raised in Seattle. After living in Chicago, British Columbia, and Istanbul, he returned to Pacific Northwest with his adopted daughter to start a graduate program in International Community Development at Northwest University, where he currently teaches. In his role as Associate Director of Circlewood, a faith-based environmental advocacy nonprofit, he hosts the Earthkeepers podcast and helps to develop creation care education initiatives for schools and churches.

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