church and landscape

What does landscape have to do with mission? I would argue that what surrounds us always informs us spiritually. What we see and walk on and interact with has a profound effect on our soul. Just ask yourself what images come to mind when you reflect on your earliest experiences. For me it was the urban life of concrete sidewalks, rough rocks jutting out of hills made from backfill, dog berry trees (not sure what they are technically called), Lilac bushes with strong aromas, it was both beautiful and ugly all at the same time. As I think of my childhood I think of a place that was scarred by abundant poverty and yet places of community and mystery. The poverty led to crime and the crime to time away and violence. Drugs and alcohol led to broken lives. It was both a rough childhood and a sheltered one, my parents were middle class.

That physical experience of beauty and rough cold realities were part of my conversations with God about what I was to do, who I was and where I should be moving in my life. I was not afraid of poverty or pain but I was also determined I could make a difference. I also never romanticized poverty, never assumed that money could cure this challenge, though I knew money was part of the solution. The physical landscape was more than a backdrop, it was part of the culture of my early life and it deeply informed who I was becoming.

I think churches should take consideration of their physical surroundings when describing their mission and what they can offer to their communities. Churches in communities with little green space can offer urban gardens, benches, garden parties (with lemonade!). Churches with a lot of green space can offer places of reflection. In a previous church in the suburbs there was a swamp next to the church, a rather large one. We cleaned it up of all the garbage drivers would discard on their commutes and we put in a walking trail around the swamp and benches for people to listen to peepers and reflect in a very busy space.

Another landscape offering churches can offer meeting space, places where the community can meet, and enjoy relationships. I know a church in Truro that has defined its mission by using its space to bring its community together; economically, spiritually, different orientations, cultures, age groups. I know several people who chose that faith community specifically because of how that church chose to use its space.

Walk around your church. How do you feel, what do you see, what are the visuals? Imagine that God is asking you to include that experience in the mission you are being called to, in the way you offer an encounter with the divine. No more will churches be divorced from their surroundings, our times now demand that nature and human experience be held together in the Spirit. What a blessing.