“Re-Wilding” in Every Generation

by | Jan 17, 2018 | Reflections Blog | 0 comments

I don’t know if you’ve seen it before, but I’ve used it a few times at leadership retreats. It gets people thinking about “church as an ecosystem” rather than as something people can mechanistically control or manage.

It starts off with wolves howling loudly, calling to each other across snowy valleys, as if they are announcing their presence to the trees and creatures around them, or longing to hear the sound of other wolves howling back in response. If I don’t warn participants before I push the “start” button, they usually burst out in nervous laughter, thinking, “Where is Tom going with this!?”

As the video begins, however, they quickly learn about “trophic cascades,” an ecological process that starts at the top of the food chain and tumbles all the way down to the bottom. It tells the story of one eco-experiment in 1995 where wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park after a 70 year absence, and how a regeneration of wildlife has taken place since then.

The narrator says, “In some areas, the height of the trees quintupled in just six years. The numbers of song birds and migratory birds started to increase greatly as did the numbers of otters and muskrats and ducks and fish and reptiles and amphibians.” It is a beautiful video about what happens when a habitat is restored to its God-given state, how organically and robustly life returns when an ecosystem is returned to health

Take a look. How Wolves Change Rivers

I’m not an ecologist, so I’m not going to argue the science of “trophic cascades,” or even the lasting effects of the Yellowstone experiment, but I do want to say how much I resonate with the video’s premise, that the world is even more fascinating and complex than we thought it was. If it is true that the restoration of even one species can make such a radical difference to the health of an ecosystem, it makes me wonder what needs to be restored in our congregations or presbytery life that will cultivate similarly beneficial outcomes.

Creating Space for God to Work

As I pondered this question, I came across a term that I like very much. It is called “re-wilding.” In environmental circles, it sometimes involves reintroduction of a missing species, taking down fences between habitats, or changing hunting rules.

But there is another element of re-wilding that makes a lot of sense to me. Once an element of an ecosystem is restored, the leaders step back and let nature take its course. As George Monbiot says in his Ted Talk on the subject, “Re-wilding has no view of what a ‘right’ ecosystem is or a ‘right’ assemblage of species looks like. It doesn’t try to produce a rain forest or a meadow or a coral reef. It lets nature decide. And nature is pretty good at deciding.”

In church life, of course, we would instead say, “God is pretty good at deciding; perfect, actually.” And, those of us who seek to lead God’s people are striving, by faith, to do no more or no less than to help people encounter God and live according to God’s Spirit. At the congregational level, that means orchestrating meaningful worship which brings people into the presence of God himself and empowers them to walk with Christ into a world in need of redemption. At the presbytery level, it means setting up the circumstances where congregations have the most potential to flourish.

As we begin 2018, I’m struck by the re-wilding potential of our presbytery’s current mission plan. Its strategies are few and restrained, and seem to create God-space for God’s Spirit to work among us.

I think that’s why we sometimes speak about our current strategies in terms of artistic expression: “The art of neighboring, the art of starting new churches, the art of living, loving, and serving God together in diverse community.” We recognize that every congregation is unique, and every Session, with God’s help, is faced with the imaginative challenge of re-wilding its existence for each generation.

I look forward to hearing you howl this year. Happy 2018!