28 May 2012 a post by Matthew Arnold

Pentecost and the Birthday for East Midlands Forest Church

In 2010, as a result of my own spiritual awakening to the ancient history of Christian spirituality, I began writing a series of workshops, held in the evening on the third Sunday of the month at my then church. All were attempting to teach others various spiritual exercises to enhance their quiet times with God and, for me, as a personal exploration of the more contemplative side of alternative worship. We were learning as we went along, including the combustible properties of communion tables whilst using incense! What do Baptists know about the use of incense anyway?

pathway into forest

In my final workshop, July 2011, I wanted to take church outside of the building. Playing safe, I wrote a series of meditations based on trees in our local arboretum. At that time, only local Christians attended, simply due to the timing of the event, mid-way between two MBS events. The meditations were based in Scripture using various Christian resources, as well as in the accounts of the various trees throughout history (primarily using Porteous’ “The Forest”).

We turned up, foldable chairs in hand, walked along the route I’d created and, at various points, pitched ourselves under the various trees. There we’d learn about the tree, read Scripture, have some open-ended questions which naturally led into a time of quiet reflection / meditation. Listening to the wind blow gently amongst the leaves high overhead, the birds singing their own evensong and feeling the warm glow of the Sun on my face, this was an experience that was something I could only describe as “other”. Towards the end, we walked down a dark avenue of Yews. But, as God would have it, the warm, pink ball of the setting Sun lit the avenue from the far end – we were literally walking into the light! At the end, we celebrated communion using the Celtic Daily Prayer liturgy from the Northumbria Community. Celebrating communion outside has been something I have wanted to do for many, many years, but no church that I attended ever did that sort of thing. Change was afoot, and it was exciting. I was experiencing a different style of church than I’d been used to and it had no walls!

communion elements outside in a forest

My sense of longing to take church outside of four walls was deepened during the ROMBS conference in Sheffield this year, especially during the final service in which we gave thanks to God for the fruitfulness of nature as part of the Eucharist. I felt God call to set up a similar sort of worship experience, but to take it outside, beautiful as the sanctuary is in Church Army HQ. At the end of the service, what can only be describe as one of those “weird” moments of my life occurred. Someone who I hadn’t spoken to at the conference came up to me and said that I should “Go ahead and do it, God will bring them” – whoever you are, thank you for your encouraging words!

A few weeks passed and I was still pondering, praying and chewing things over in my mind as to how this would pan out. Then, out of the blue, a posting by Bruce Stanley appeared on Mystic Christ advertising the concept of Forest Church that matched my ideas for how this could work. My spirit leapt and I responded offering myself to help with this venture.

understorey of wild wood

Being a school teacher with the exam season upon us, my evening time has been limited and I’ve been waiting for a break to arrive in order to settle down and give the project some real, quality time. However, with the recent warm weather, my wife and I felt that spending the morning of Pentecost Sunday at church inside a blacked out hanger with its air conditioning, loud music and flashing lights wasn’t for us. Yesterday (Saturday before Pentecost), we decided to call some friends and “go for it” - create a Forest Church style service in the local Eakring Woods. As we were going to be taking our children along for this one, it needed to be child friendly, with lots of kinaesthetic activities for them to engage with rather than lots of contemplative material (which we will use for people who are older). Fortunately, our foray into multi-sensory worship for the Christian Spirituality course had primed and provided us with a plethora of ideas for how to achieve this. This morning my wife typed up and printed out the service, which was already in her head thankfully. I grabbed some fresh bread and non-alcoholic wine (memo to self – kids hate this stuff, use grape juice next time!).

The one friend who could make it at such short notice arrived at our house. We piled into her seven seat MPV and I guided her to the location. We didn’t know exactly where in the woods we were going to do this, but having been there before, we knew roughly where we could feasibly set up an altar and rugs.

forest church gathering

We arrived in a suitable location and set up. Everything went remarkably smoothly, kids were scurrying around trying to find various things that would represent the four elements and we placed them on our makeshift altar at appropriate points during a multi-person reading of Psalm 104. We heard the story of the first Pentecost through the language of the New Century Version (great for kids). We celebrated communion and then stuck things we’d foraged to card leaves I’d created for another project in the pipeline at the local MBS fairs I work in - a “Blessing Tree”. Having picked up some “Pray It Forward” blessing cards at ROMBS, I have developed the idea into “Bless It Forward” leaves (based on the leaves of the Tree of Life in Revelation). Blessings from the Bible are written onto paper leaf shapes and loosely tied to branches using garden twine (all biodegradable). Passers-by can read the words on the leaves, be blessed and are instructed to take them and pass them on to others to bless them.

blessing prayer on a leaf tied to a tree

Afterwards, we packed up and walked back having experienced the beautiful presence of God and a sense of wonder and peace that being outside in God’s beautiful creation often brings.

During the drive home, I mentioned that we had decided the day before to just “do it” rather than sitting on the idea any longer. Godincidently, our friend had been given a passage on a postcard which she’d put into the car that morning – Hebrews 10:22-25 (MSG)

“So let’s do it—full of belief, confident that we’re presentable inside and out. Let’s keep a firm grip on the promises that keep us going. He always keeps his word. Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out, not avoiding worshiping together as some do but spurring each other on, especially as we see the big Day approaching.”

We started very small, but as someone yesterday pointed out in Zechariah 4, what’s in your hand rarely looks like what’s in your heart… but don’t despise small beginnings.

forest church participants

We’re going to be working on a programme and hope to have something concrete in the next couple of weeks. Keep watching!

[If you want to get in touch with Matthew, send an email to us via the ‘contact’ link above]


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Your comments:

It may be worth saying that this is an area of Christian worship I’ve had little to do with in the same way Matt has. Having three small boys and no family close by, a lot of things we have to do separately so that one of us is with them - so Matt has almost gone ahead without me on this. However, I do have a lot of experience in children’s and family ministry, and a lot of the things I have done have been very tactile - for example I led a multi-sensory family prayer session as part of our previous church’s ‘Prayer 24’ ministry. It’s been amazing (and humbling) to see how our different callings can work together, and that although at times we’ve struggled as a couple with not working alongside each other in the same way we did before our children were born, this was all part of God’s rich plan, and now the two streams of our ministries are starting to flow together.

It humbled me to see how quickly Saturday’s seed grew into Sunday’s sapling. A couple of ideas came to mind immediately, Matt shared Psalm 104 in another context which sparked off more thoughts, and before I was really aware, we had a liturgy! For this to have come together so quickly, it has to be of God.

“It’s not the one who plants or the one who waters who is at the center of this process but God, who makes things grow. Planting and watering are menial servant jobs at minimum wages. What makes them worth doing is the God we are serving.” 1 Corinthians 3:7-8 MSG

#1. By Jo Arnold on May 28, 2012

Matt and Jo
great to see this happen and i think we’ll see more of this not just here but elsewhere would love to see the liturgy you used and especially the kids ideas online - i am sure others will want to learn from them
just one tip however from my Pagan friends - i love the blessing leaves idea but for some leaving paper in the area is littering it - many Pagans have a similar problem with the rags tied at sacred sites. the answer i think is to use soemthing more biodegradable now here i’m not a hundred percent sure but my biodegradable waste accepts card not paper so perhaps plain card?  sorry to raise a problem but thinking things like this trough may be part of bringing a truly nature aware expression of faith into being

#2. By Steve Hollinghurst on May 28, 2012

Don’t worry Steve, as Matt said above, we made sure we only used biodegradeable materials (the leaves are cardstock, not paper) :o)

#3. By Jo Arnold on May 28, 2012

Jo really good to know that - thanks

#4. By Steve Hollinghurst on May 28, 2012

Where in the East Midlands are you please? I’d be very interested in hearing more about this. Thanks

#5. By Anja Beriro on August 28, 2012

Hi Anja,

We live in Newark and work mainly around that area, but there’s no reason why we should restrict ourselves primarily to that area if there are some fantastic locations in other parts of the East Midlands.

I’ve replied by email to you directly with some more info which I hope helps.

If anyone else wants to contact us, we can be contacted via the Forest Church East Midlands contact area at the bottom of the main FCEM info page.

Be Blessed,

#6. By Matt Arnold on August 29, 2012

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