Miraculously, some pastors are finding ways to get their flocks out to those places. “The average minister works 60 hours a week, with 95 percent of that time spent on church programs,” says Illyn. “He has 250 people and one youth van. At the end of the day, that ain’t a lot of resources to take people camping.” And yet, here and there, evangelicals are hitting the trail.
Illyn’s own church, Imago Dei in Portland, Oregon, hosts a handful of campouts per year—not as many as he would like, but some. At The City Church, my cousin’s charismatic evangelical megachurch in Seattle, people backpack, kayak, and mountaineer for Christ. And at the Vineyard in Boise, Idaho, so many members backpack on the weekends that the pews sometimes look half-empty on Sunday. Jason Chatraw, the Vineyard’s associate pastor, doesn’t see Sunday backpacking as a threat. He sees it as a way to bring his congregants closer to God.
“In order to get people to care about the environment, we have to get them in it,” he says. “We might take the men’s ministry one weekend and the women’s ministry the next. We create different learning opportunities, like how to cook outdoors or read a map and compass. Sometimes we’ll joke about it, saying, ‘Lord, please forgive James for missing the sermon this Sunday. He’s out in the mountains, geocaching.’”
Adventure-loving churches certainly remain the exception, but Anna Jane Joyner, co-author of the Sierra Club report “Faith in Action” and Restoring Eden’s new campaign organizer, points to her father Rick Joyner’s charismatic Morningstar Ministries Baptist church in Charlotte, North Carolina, to show that the rule is changing. For years, Joyner tried to impress on her father the biblical importance of caring for the environment; he began listening in 2004, when she started a research project exploring Christian perspectives on nature. “I was able to show him that all through the Bible, God talks about valuing and loving Creation,” she says. Shortly after, Joyner took 40 Morningstar kids camping. “Half of them had never slept outdoors,” she says, “so many were hearing the birds, insects, and trees for the first time. When they ate strawberries straight from the vine, they were blown away by how good a warm, fresh berry tastes.” The campout alone didn’t transform them, Joyner says, but follow-up trips have made them look at God’s creation more seriously.
Illyn, too, tells me a generational shift is happening, fueled by Sage Vekasi-Phillips and Michelle Dyer and the thousands of young evangelicals who are trying to find their own thin places in nature. With all of his heart, Illyn believes change is happening. He just hopes it happens in time.
Tracy Ross is the author of The Source of All Things, a soon-to-be-released book based on a story she wrote at BACKPACKER in 2008. The story won a National Magazine Award.