Worship in the Wild

By Ron Johnson

Worship in the Wild
'Worship in the Wild' began in Fall 2023.

The summer is a fantastic time to reflect, connect, and celebrate the Fresh Expressions happening around our connection. As a worldwide denomination, we have the gifts of the stories of new faith communities happening locally and in the wider connection. Since the launch of Fresh Expressions United Methodist, churches in conferences around the world have started to use the methods of Fresh Expressions. Moving from webinars to the world, we can see the impact of our United Methodist adventurers, advocates, and authorizers in stories like the one I will share with you today.

As annual conferences come and go this year, you may be interested in what it would look like to start a Fresh Expression in your context. Perhaps you heard a story, participated in training, or picked up our free basics book at the Discipleship Ministries’ table. However you learned about Fresh Expressions United Methodist, we are glad to share this with you as you discern the role God is calling you to.

The first step in any Fresh Expression is listening. We start with listening to God, our neighbors, ourselves, and our context to hear the community. Ron Johnson of the Western North Carolina Conference started on a journey of listening in Asheville, North Carolina, about a year ago. Ron looked around and saw the natural setting of Asheville, where hikers often spend hours soaking in the sights. He started to connect with people on an app called Meetup to organize hikes with others who find spiritual connection through nature. As the fall colors and cool, crisp air crept in, the hikers embarked on their first hike together. Here is Ron Johnson’s story of what unfolded over eight months.

Since October 2023, we have led “Worship in the Wild,” a Fresh Expression in Asheville, North Carolina, that journeys alongside local hikers who find spiritual connection through nature. Our Meetup community has grown to more than 160 people, and we'll have anywhere from half a dozen to twenty people on any given hike, depending on the length and difficulty of the hike, the trailhead location, weather, and other factors.

Most of those hikers would never set foot inside a traditional church building. We meet at 9:00 a.m. on Sunday mornings, the same time as the church service. Before each hike, we'll do introductions and then pose a question or two for folks to reflect on as they hiked. Some of the questions we've pondered:

  • Who/What do you worship?
  • Describe a time in your life when you've experienced unconditional love as a giver or recipient.
  • After talking through the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), who is your neighbor in light of this story? Does this change how you should view or interact with him or her?

We'll then hike for a couple of miles to an overlook or scenic spot; then we'll spend fifteen to twenty minutes having folks share their thoughts. Typically, most have something to share.

Ron Johnson
Ron Johnson (left) says the hikes allow him to deepen his faith.

One of my favorite interactions occurred on a hike on Martin Luther King Day. I had read Romans 5:3-5, which is about hope that does not disappoint. Then, I read an excerpt from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. I asked how the Romans passage resonated with folks. One of the ladies hiking with us for the first time that morning was Buddhist, and she talked at length about the four principles of Buddhism within the context of this passage. This led to a deeper conversation where we overlaid the fruit of the spirit on top of these principles of Buddhism. It was a remarkably enlightening conversation, and everyone valued her contributions.

As we continued our hike, I had an opportunity to talk with her further. She was from Columbia (the country) and raised Catholic (because that's what you do down there). At some point in her life, she had reason to go to Nepal where she connected with a Buddhist monk, which led to her conversion. What I found most fascinating was that I was raised in the deep South as a Southern Baptist conservative evangelical (because that's what you do down there), followed by midlife deconstruction, and our life stories were remarkably parallel. It was fascinating to see how a former Catholic from Columbia who converted to Buddhism and I (South Georgia Southern Baptist upbringing that led to faith deconstruction) had so much in common!

It is truly an honor to be a part of this diverse group of hikers, and I'm constantly amazed as God uses every hike to do something to deepen my faith.

Ron Johnson
Worship in the Wild
Western North Carolina

In this story, we see clearly how Ron talks about people with differences gathering together around shared interests. The network of the local hikers has led to enlightening conversations and growth in each person. Similar to the gatherings of Jesus and his disciples around lakes, rivers and on mountainsides, these gatherings are happening in the rhythms of life with questions, dialogue, and connection. Ron listened to the community to see this need, began loving the people deeply, and started connecting them in groups where faith started to be shared, resembling the critical pillars of the church.

Thank you to Ron who was willing to share this story with us. There is hope, authenticity, and vulnerability in each United Methodist who is stepping out of a comfort zone to meet new people and connect with those people in new places and new contextual ways.

If you have a Fresh Expression, we would love for you to share your story with us! Email it to [email protected].

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