Rewilding The Dales – Part 3: The Great Rewilder

Farmed fields, even those sown with mixed crops, sustain only a few species of plants and animals compared to their wild equivalent. Our heather-capped moors similarly support a shorter list of living things than the mixed forests that once covered these hills. Equally, the Biblical vision for the church was always for a community where everyone, young and old, wealthy and poor, socially accepted and those on the margins, would find a welcome and a place to belong. Yet, today the church may have more in common with our fields of managed pasture than the vision that brought it into being.

Steve Aisthorpe, author of ‘Rewilding the Church’ and the inspiration for this series of reflections recently undertook a serious piece of research mapping the personality types of people who follow Jesus but who were not part of a traditional congregation, alongside those who were able to find their place in church. What he discovered was remarkable, a little shocking but not all that surprising. Without going into detail, the data reveals that our inherited church has become a place where certain ways of interacting with the world and other people are extremely common, and other ways, though commonplace in the general population, are critically endangered. Put simply, in our churches some people fit in well, and others don’t, and sometimes this is simply a question of personality type. If this interests then I would recommend you read his book. But, the reality is that if you have ever wondered why you have struggled to find a place in the inherited church, it may well be because your personality, the way you perceive the world and process both ideas and all your senses, is different to everyone else there. And it is hard to be different, the odd one out is often the first one out of the door. It seems that monocultures are not just a product of our farming methods, they are often what we produce when we get together with other like-minded people. When we find somewhere we fit in, we often miss the fact that many don’t, and from our place of comfort surrounded by other people who are just like us we lose sight of reality and quite how diverse human beings really are.

When faced with ecosystems denuded of diversity rewilders have discovered how dramatic it can be to actively reintroduce a missing keystone species. The reintroduction of apex predators, such as eagles or wolves can lead to a proliferation of plant and insect species, as the populations of herbivores that once grazed unchecked come under natural control. Equally, beavers, once common in the woods that filled these dales’ valleys, when reintroduced in a responsible manner, will transform the flow of water through their range, as the dams constructed from the trees they fell create natural ponds and clearings, and oases for wildlife previously edged out by their eradication. The reintroduction of a few creatures having a disproportionate effect. The ripples of positive change transforming the places where they live.

Few of us have experienced what it was like for our ancestors to decide to build a church or chapel in one of our Dales’ villages or towns. There would have been opposition, challenges to overcome, money to raise, huge sacrifices to be made, a need for a place for teaching local children who otherwise would have had no schooling, a vision for a centre from which the community could be cared for before state-sponsored social services, and underneath all this a desire for somewhere for all comers to meet and worship God. In more recent years the activists and pioneers, have become scarce, and the church we have inherited, more like a carefully manicured garden than the wild frontier it once was.

And, I wonder where Jesus would fit into all of this? The gospel writers describe him as someone who disturbed the status quo, one man whose introduction into the social and religious life of first-century Palestine had an impact far beyond that which you might expect. They wrote about him as the missing keystone, the life which made community come to life, the cornerstone which was foundational to all that was to come. He was the one who challenged, and changed, he was perhaps the ultimate rewilder. If he were to be released from our limited expectations, and we were to refocus on the wild and non-conventional Jesus, then we too might see new life appearing in places we never imagined it could or would again.

Some of us have, it seems, a reluctance to embrace change, and a desire to conserve the things we have inherited. In nature, it can seem that a mature landscape of well-established trees and plants must be the goal we hope for. But yet a closer look may reveal that in such places the diversity of life is limited, often by the organisms which have been growing there for the longest time. For the greatest diversity of life to thrive a level of disturbance is necessary. Devastating as they often are, forest fires, fierce storms or periodic floods, clear areas of mature growth and at the same time release trapped nutrients and stimulate the emergence of dormant seedlings and colonising animals who wait for the opportunities these apparent disasters bring.

God’s promise is that his kingdom will come to this his earth, and that our lives, relationships and communities will be transformed in his presence and by his power. That when the fertile seed of his word and soil of our lives come together we will see his kingdom grow in this place. When we allow what is barren and unproductive to die, maybe then we will begin to see new things growing and flourishing. When we learn to listen to God, rather than settle for doing our own things, when we move beyond the edge of our institutions, and instead follow Jesus outside the walls, we might find ourselves in the centre and not just on the edge of what God is growing in this post-Christian wilderness.

Yet all of this will take a renewed vision of God’s wild kingdom, and a willingness to allow the fire of God’s Spirit to move and act freely in our lives, changing this land and the way we perceive it. I pray that God will turn our anguish and our apathy into resolution and resolve, and our love for this place and its people into a passionate persistence to seek his kingdom, to serve our neighbours and join the great rewilder in his work of rewilding his church. There is fertile land in and around these Dales, to some it appears to be a place on the margins, a forgotten backwater. But who knows it may yet be at the centre of what God is doing next.

Be encouraged!

Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
The wild animals will honour me… for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people… so that they might declare my praise.

(Isaiah 43:18-20 part)

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