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Backpacker Magazine – March 2011

Hike. Pray. Protest.

Does God love camping? A new church movement foot-soldiered by wilderness-loving young people could transform the way conservative Christians perceive and protect the environment. We hit the trail with the new green evangelicals.

by: Tracy Ross; Photos by Julia Vandenoever

Sage Vekasi-Phillips prays for an end to mountaintop removal.
Sage Vekasi-Phillips prays for an end to mountaintop removal.
Reverand Peter Illyn, who lost an eye to cancer in 2002.
Reverand Peter Illyn, who lost an eye to cancer in 2002.
Water samples taken from residential wells.
Water samples taken from residential wells.

For more on author Tracy Ross, head to her Facebook page:

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.

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Reader Rating: -


Nov 13, 2011

Regarding Jason T's biblical references, they are accurate.

Danika Foster
Jun 07, 2011

Jonathan David Foster
Apr 20, 2011

I kind of like it the way John Trudell puts it...

Jonathan David Foster
Apr 20, 2011

I kind of like it the way John Trudell puts it...

Apr 14, 2011

@James The main problem with this eco movement reaching mainstream Christians is that not only does the Bible DIRECTLY states in scripture the earth is for man to use, and also the bulk of the evangelical Christians (the 40% that don't "believe" in evolution) are the poor, down trodden, proletariat working in the factories, the mines, and the rest of the military industrial complex that is causing this desolation.

@Jason Turning Don't even get me started mister, your cray-cray is showing by the way.

Apr 07, 2011

If religion is involved, you can bet it's going to end badly as the result of ignorance and superstition.

Jason Turning
Apr 07, 2011

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for taking the best care of our natural resources. But the Bible teaches us that this earth is going to get tore up pretty good when God's wrath is unleashed against unbelieving mankind who violates His laws. Up until the point when God Himself returns, Jesus Christ, landing on the Mount of Olives splitting it in two. And eventually we'll have a new heaven and earth. I have no doubt that scripture is true, because I've seen the truth of it play out in my life and the lives of others. I know God is real simply because of what he has made. But our mission as Christians is to help save the lost souls perishing on this world. Environmental activism seems a distraction getting believers off their mission while fighting for something that will pass away irregardless. Environmentalism is actually a ploy our adversary uses to distract the lost to their harm. What we need at this time on the earth is energy and power so that our society can survive and grow while impacting the rest of the world for Christ. After all, God has given us these natural resources or oil and coal to use. However, we should make sure that companies do what is right in harvesting these resources and having as minimal an impact as possible adhering to government regulation that is reasonable. I would ask my brothers and sisters to open their Bibles and learn the precepts of God and what He plans for the end of the age so they can hold everything in context and know what God's plan is for mankind.

It would appear that end times might be close as the Jews returned to Israel after 1900 years away. Where in history has a nation been restored to their land after 1900 years, and their language once again spoken on the streets. Islam appears to be the religion of the Antichrist growing around the world at an alarming rate, and is truly a religion of hate created by our adversary. The final piece will be when we see the Jewish temple being rebuilt in Jerusalem where the abomination that causes desolation will occur. Maranatha!


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