by Kerry Greenhill
This post was written for RethinkChurch.org, where it was published on March 20, 2019.
In a society where progress often means building things, and success is equated with making money, a new faith community on the undeveloped edge of the suburbs is exploring how to live and engage the world from a place that is more grounded – literally. Rev. Stephanie Price is the founding pastor of The Land, a congregation that worships outdoors under a large tent on Saturday mornings. For members of this new church, having four walls and a roof overhead are less important than the chance to reconnect with God through the natural world, and to breathe new life into the community around them through relationships and care for creation.
A CREATIVE PATH FOR NEW LIFE
Rev. Price explains that Aurora, a sprawling suburb-turned-city adjacent to Denver, is developing in ways that are economically segregated. The Land is surrounded by middle and upper-middle class neighborhoods, but “There is a distinct lack of community gathering spaces,” she notes. “It’s a reflection of Aurora’s insufficient financial resources through property taxes.” There are no public funds for recreation centers or libraries. Instead, developers commit to building a school or a community center, “but all of those community centers are segregated by which [homeowners’ association] you belong to. So the resources are really available to the people who can afford to live in the nice houses.”
Rev. Price goes on, “Our vision was to breathe new life into community by creating bridges between these very segregated new neighborhoods that are developing. We wanted to do it in a way that we were developing alongside these neighborhoods… to see a visible, unified gathering place.” Such a place would be accessible not only to the wealthier residents, but also to the 430 families living in a mobile home park half a mile away. Inspired by seeing families from different neighborhoods come together to organize around recent oil and gas developments, Rev. Price adds, “There are places of commonality, we just need spaces to create these relationships that cut across socioeconomic boundaries.”
Yet The Land is more than just a geographic gathering space. Rev. Price talks about what discipleship for the 21st century means to her congregation:
“Our vision for discipleship comes down to food, faith, and farming:
- Food as a source of resistance in a culture that abuses people, the planet, and animals. How can the food we eat and the way we gather represent a peacemaking process for all people?
- Farming as a way through which we participate in the production of that food, but also connect with creation and the source through which all creation is provided to us to care for.
- Faith is an expression of our everyday actions. And hopefully through gathering together and sharing our experiences of seeing the divine or the holy in creation, we’re able to lean further into faith as a form of perseverance, as we become spiritual advocates for a new way of living.”
Saturday morning worship gatherings seek to express these values in a way that allows people to relax and reconnect with the earth, with God, and with each other. Participants gather outside, under a tent, sitting on hay bales, and many bring their dogs. Worship begins with a question that ties in to the Scripture and theme of the gathering, for people to share some insight or experience with one another.
Rev. Price describes what follows: “We use Father Thomas Keating’s welcoming prayer, then a time of silence. I call it a ‘noisy silence’ because of the dogs and trucks passing and planes overhead. We have Scripture, a message, and a time of Communion. Dogs do participate in Communion, which has led to one million hilarious stories. We do an offering that includes compost that people have brought, financial offerings, then a prayer walk around the perimeter of the property together. We begin at 10, sometimes people don’t leave until 12:30 because people are eating and talking, there’s a relaxed feel. We tend to attract people who enjoy being outside, and see that as an event in itself.”
PRESENCE AND CREATION
The Land has a clear mission relating to environmental stewardship, a focus that could be connected to the ancient Celtic Christian belief in God’s presence throughout creation. The congregation shares this commitment to caring for the natural world, and members are active in community events to raise questions about environmental policies.
For Rev. Price, it all comes back to the example of Jesus: “[That] is my motivation for getting up and continuing to do this work. This person lived, and decided to sacrifice his life on behalf of people who were vulnerable and marginalized. At any point, I think he could have stopped it or run away or done something different, but he chose to continue to bring life to suffering people… That motivates me. I see us gathering together from such diverse viewpoints, backgrounds, committed to a process that I don’t know if it will come to full fruition, but in the process, there’s an experience of the Holy Spirit, the comforting presence as we go through this process that Jesus set us on.”
If all goes well, that process will result in developing The Land in some creative ways: creating a two-acre edible labyrinth, an outdoor amphitheater for outdoor worship and educational events, and a cathedral greenhouse, all of which will both offer space for people to connect with God through creation, while also producing fresh food for neighbors in the community.