Previous | Next

Spring 2020 · Vol. 49 No. 1 · pp. 71–81 

When Ducks Come to Church: Worshipping with Wild Church

Katerina Friesen

Four mallard ducks waddled into church this past November. Much to our delight and surprise, they processed with loud quacks right up to the bread at the communion altar and attempted to partake. We paused our reflection time to watch their procession and without much ado, the ducks escorted themselves out and plunged back into the river.

Truly believing that God so loved the kosmos should translate into our worship and practices as congregations planted in a particular place on earth.

Over the past year, I have been nurturing an ecclesial experiment in Fresno, California, called Wild Church. I was inspired to start Wild Church with a friend after hearing about “Forest Church” from Mennonite pastor Wendy Janzen, who started an outdoor worship gathering in Waterloo, Ontario. 1 Only later did I realize there is a growing network of church groups meeting outdoors, called the “Wild Church Network.” Many of these groups are started by pastors who sense the Spirit’s call out of traditional ministry in order to encounter God in the wilderness and form community with creation. As part of our own Wild Church mission statement says, “In this time of ecological collapse and mass extinction {72} we feel called to create beloved community re-connected with the soil, water, plants, and all creatures of our watershed here in Fresno. 2

We meet outdoors once a month, usually on the banks of the San Joaquin River under a wide oak tree marked with graffiti in an area often littered with beer cans and trash. Fifteen to twenty people join our worship, along with the occasional mallard duck family! Mostly younger people and families come, some disaffected by “institutional religion,” and some involved in local congregations. Our gatherings include song, prayer, Scripture reading, group reflection, and a time for contemplative wandering before ending with communion. We praise God together with the river, the salmon making their way upstream, and the fertile earth beneath us; we also seek to pay attention to the pains of creation in lament: the polluted Central Valley air, rising summer temperatures, fewer and fewer insects and birds, and smoke from forest fires burning not far from us.

The name “Wild Church” may sound provocative to some, but we aren’t doing anything new. God met Abraham under the oaks of Mamre (Gen 18:1), Jacob anointed the place where he dreamt on a rock the “house of God” (Gen 28:10-19), and Moses encountered the God of liberation speaking through the burning bush and calling the Israelites to worship on a mountain rather than within a city or building (Exod 3). God used the wilderness again and again to re-form prophets and people apart from the domesticating patterns of empire. John called people to repentance in the wilderness and baptized in the muddy waters of the Jordan River (Matt 3), and Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness (Matt 4), a reminder of Israel’s forty years of wandering and learning to trust in God’s provision rather than that of Pharaoh. Most of Jesus’s ministry took place outdoors: on hillsides, near fields, or out on fishing boats, and he used powerful symbols from the natural world in parables and teachings: soil, water, sparrows, grain, and fire.

The early church met outside the temple complex in peoples’ homes, sometimes underground, and even by a river (Acts 16:13). Anabaptists in the sixteenth century covertly gathered in barns, caves, and forests to rediscover the roots of their faith outside of religion that had gone stale inside structures too rigid for the movement of the Spirit. Church, of course, is not a building, but the people of God gathering in scattered places, united as Christ’s body. Wild spaces within and outside of civilization offer renewal for church and a prophetic critique of the destructive ways of empire. They are a reminder of the deeper realities of God’s provision and ways apart from our own devices. {73}


How might reconnecting with the “wild” in worship shape us to respond faithfully to the unprecedented collapse that is happening now to God’s beloved earth? Wild Church seeks to be one contextual response to climate change and the interrelated crises facing life as we know it on earth caused by human greed and exploitation of the most vulnerable. In the following section, I’ll describe a few of the ways we are contextualizing church in this age of climate crisis and collapse of our life-support systems. I do not seek to convince the reader that climate change is happening, but merely to respond to the challenges and opportunities that it raises for the worshipping church.

Generally speaking, Christians have thought more about contextualizing the gospel in terms of culture and language than contextualizing the gospel in terms of place, the ground from which culture emerges. We have not often discerned how the gospel takes root in and emerges from the particular bioregions in which we live. When we think of sin, for example, do we consider the EPA-designated toxic waste dumps that leach into our local rivers, or the factories that pollute poor neighborhoods? Or when we consider our participation in God’s work of redemption, do we include the efforts of restoration ecologists to remove invasive plant species and reintroduce native plants for the healing of the land and creatures? When we think of salvation, do we include our entire watershed, or just human creation?

If we truly believe that “God so loved the world” (John 3:16, italics mine; Gk., kosmos), and not just humans, that should translate into our worship and practices as congregations planted in a particular place on earth. God loves the cosmos, from distant galaxies to microscopic soil bacteria, and invites us to flesh out that love in our own places as part of the global body of Christ. Jesus incarnates God’s love as the “Word become flesh,” the Spirit become material—cells, organs, water, and blood, vulnerable to destruction and violence. The beautiful hymn in Colossians 1:15–20 celebrates that through his resurrection from death on the cross, Christ becomes the “first-born of all creation,” not just of humans, but of all creation. 3 This represents our ultimate salvation hope: that in Christ, all of earth, from coral reefs bleached by warming oceans, to koalas burned alive in recent Australian wildfires, will somehow experience resurrection life in Christ.

Modern understandings of the gospel have so spiritualized and separated heaven from earth that concern for our home place has not been central or even peripheral to our formation as Christians. I, for one, grew up hearing that salvation was mostly about the afterlife of believers and the destruction of the earth in the end times. A shift happened in my faith through Bible study and the growing realization that God is making {74} “all things new” (Rev 21:5). Rather than whisking us up to heaven as disembodied souls, Revelation portrays heaven as descending to earth: “The home of God is among mortals.” 4 Ephesians 1:10 speaks of God’s plan “to gather up all things in Him [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth.” God is working to unite heaven and earth in Christ, and to thus renew rather than annihilate the cosmos, and each of our particular home places as part of that whole. 5 What a joy and challenge to be invited into this mission of redemption and reconciliation of all things!

One of the most instructive theological frameworks for Wild Church is called Watershed Discipleship. This paradigm, articulated by Ched Myers, offers a vision for bioregional faith and practice centered around learning and loving our particular place as defined by watershed. 6 A watershed is the drainage basin of a particular region (where the water flows) that can consist of large areas like the Tulare-Buena Vista Lakes watershed in the Central Valley of California where we live, or smaller watersheds defined by tributary streams and smaller rivers. If you look up your watershed on a map, it most likely won’t align with the arbitrary political dividing lines of cities, states, nations, or walls like the one along the US-Mexico border. Watersheds can be seen as alternative geopolitical communities that transcend human-made borders and unite human and nonhuman creatures in a “basin of relations.” 7 Whether we know it or not, we are all interconnected with others in our watershed through our need for life-sustaining water. This basic biological and geographical reality has theological and ecclesiological implications.

Watershed Discipleship is a “triple entendre:” we are in a watershed moment of economic and ecological crisis, we follow Jesus in a particular place defined by a watershed, and we are called to become disciples of our watersheds as we join the Creator’s work of reconciliation on earth as in heaven. 8 Watershed Discipleship is a response to both ecological destruction and the historic forces of settler colonialism and extraction that see no place as home. As North Americans, many of us descendants of European settlers, the framework calls us to work for the repair of the land as well as the repair of our relationships with Indigenous peoples and other communities harmed by distortions of Christian discipleship such as church-sponsored colonialism. 9

Watershed Discipleship emphasizes re-inhabitation of our bioregions through deep learning of the history, politics, and interconnected ecological relationships. “We won’t save places we don’t love / we can’t love places we don’t know / we don’t know places we haven’t learned” is an oft-quoted paraphrase in Watershed Discipleship circles that’s attributed to Baba Dioum, a Senegalese environmentalist. Knowing and loving our place leads us toward advocacy and action. And worship is an integral part of this transformative process. {75}

Seeking to learn and know our watershed means that we include science in worship. Science is not inherently separate from worship. It can be a different language for describing God’s creation that leads us into deeper appreciation for its complexity and diversity. Scientific understandings can help foster a sense of wonder and awe over the created world, as well as a sense of grief over how God’s creation is being devastated by overconsumption.

One recent Wild Church gathering focused on the theme of “living water” from John 7:37–38. Rachel, a field biologist, shared about her work with an inter-agency team of scientists from the Bureau of Reclamation and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to reintroduce Central Valley spring-run Chinook salmon to recently restored San Joaquin River areas. We were amazed to learn that our meeting place was only a few miles downstream from where scientists reported these threatened salmon laying their eggs in record numbers. For the first time in over sixty-five years, the intrepid salmon were able to complete their life cycle after hurtling over several small dams along their return journey from the ocean to the source of their birth in order to give new life and die. Rachel shared about the importance of undammed, flowing water in the river for these fish and so many other species dependent on them.

We pondered the metaphor of “living water” that Jesus uses in John 7:38, which in the context of first century Jewish life, meant water from the heavens that originated with God and was not channeled by human hands or technologies such as Roman aqueducts. 10 We considered what dams or obstacles blocked Christ’s “living water” from flowing through us and our world and prayed for the uninhibited living water from the Source of Life to run through us and our land.

During our time of Eucharist, I made the connection for the first time between Chinook salmon and Christ, who swam upstream against the current of his times and was willing to cross any human-made obstacle—even the cross—to lay his body down for the sake of new life. The perilous death and resurrection journey of the native salmon resting not far from us spawned new atonement metaphors for Wild Church. Learning about threatened local species enabled us to deepen our faith and love for God, and to realize in new ways the depths of love Christ shows us in his sacrificial death. Some Christians may fear that worshipping outdoors means that we are “worshipping creation,” and yet I have found that creation actually enhances and deepens our worship of God and interpretation of Scripture. The “book of creation” can complement and contextualize, rather than compete with, the Word of God in the Bible. 11 This is just one example of the kind of place-based contextualization of the gospel that we are learning how to do in our particular watershed. {76}

As a benediction at the end of our gathering, we blessed the waters of the San Joaquin River. In the following “Blessing of the River,” we recognize our interdependence with water, praise God for creating and tending water and all the gifts the river shares, and long for the new creation with enough for all. Rachel passed around “living water” she had collected from a free-flowing section of the Merced River (designated as a Wild and Scenic River under a 1968 Act of Congress). We scattered the living waters of the Merced over the dammed San Joaquin River, and also blessed one another with the water. This liturgical action sent us forth as living water in the world.

Blessing of the River 12

May God give a blessing to this River,
God bless this River from mountain to sea
from east to west
from granite heights to delta lowlands.

Thanks be to God!
Who saw the river wind and dance across the valley.
Thanks be to God!
for the floodwaters that brought fertile soil.
Thanks be to God!
for the people who have tended the River.
Thanks be to God!
for the salmon’s stubborn persistence.

May there be water at the right time.
May salmon return for their journey of rebirth.
May lamprey, steelhead, and caddisfly flourish.
May children drink and not fall ill.
May farmers rejoice, for there is enough for all.

Spirit, hover over these waters,
create something new!
Undammed, unfettered, flowing free. {77}


Worshipping with Wild Church is teaching me that it is essential to hold the twin tasks of lament and praise together in our response to climate change. We know that the whole earth praises God (Ps 148, e.g.) and that the whole earth groans in bondage for redemption (Rom 8:22–23). As church, we seek to participate with creation in both rejoicing and groaning in our particular watershed.

At each Wild Church gathering we praise by taking time to delight in being. We invite children and adults alike to create an altar with the leaves, flowers, feathers, and rocks we find and arrange them into a centerpiece for our circle. This has developed into a fun ritual that draws out our inner creativity and participation in the artistry of God. Jesus invites us to “consider the birds of the air” in Matthew 6:25–34, and to pay attention to the wildflowers, and our regular altar practices help us to pay attention with closer care to the rest of the natural world. When we slow down enough to listen and observe creation, we are instructed on how to live with less anxiety and greater trust in God’s divine economy of grace.

During the service, we share songs, poetry, silence, and praise for the created goodness of the Earth. One of my favorite songs is a simple celebration of this goodness experienced through our senses, called “Taste and See”: Taste and see / taste and see / the goodness of the Lord. The distractions of modern life, including our built environment, can so easily cut us off from the pleasures of tasting and seeing God’s goodness, and from the worshipful work of loving our own aliveness, the aliveness of the world, and the aliveness of Christ in all.

An essential part of our time together is about twenty to twenty-five minutes of silent time by the river to sit in prayerful contemplation, marvel at the wildflowers and weeds, walk in silent meditation, or just feel the warmth of the sun and the delicious breeze. This “placed” prayer practice emerges from longstanding contemplative spirituality within Christianity, which has taken such forms as labyrinth walks, contemplative prayer, and the “prayer of the heart” of the Eastern tradition. Contemplative practices help people to “get out of their heads,” so to speak, and come into a different way of knowing and listening to the Spirit in their hearts and bodies. Walking or sitting outdoors attunes us to the ways God moves and speaks through nature-based metaphors, images, sounds, and silence. We learn to be in the expansive presence of the Wild One who is not contained by our walls or words.

When we are rooted in praise of our Creator and gratitude for the beauty and belovedness of the Earth and of one another, we are better able to open our hearts to the pain of the world. We can’t help but hear the groaning of creation when we listen to the news or take time to notice {78} the breakdowns happening all around us. So many people—young folks in particular—are feeling fear, grief, depression, and anger during this time of such rapid losses worldwide. Climate chaos results in a massive destabilization of our understandings of meaning, purpose, and the future. To name just a few of the concerns I’ve heard and felt as a pastor: mass extinction and loss of habitat due to limitless human growth; migration of refugees and deepening suffering experienced by the most vulnerable; political instability and the rise of fascism and nationalism worldwide; economic struggles including high debt loads, depression, concerns about having children, or the unstable futures of those already born; frustration with the perceived paralysis of the church in response to collapse; and often a sense of despair about the continuance of diverse life on this planet.

The biblical language of lament offers a path forward through despair or denial toward bringing our pain before God in honesty and expectation. As Walter Brueggemann has written, lament is part of “responsible faith,” which emerges out of covenantal relationship with God. 13 We have the courage to lament as people of faith, because we are in relationship with a God who has the freedom to respond to our voiced hurt, pain, confusion, and grief.

For us, lament takes many forms as we connect to our watershed in worship. During Holy Week, for example, we held an Ash Wednesday service in a vacant lot near downtown Fresno, a “wounded place” neglected by the city and littered with trash. We lamented our own personal wounds as well as social and ecological sins, and mixed the ashes of native plants like sage and mugwort with the soil of the abandoned lot for our imposition of ashes. This served as a reminder both of sin and mortality, as well as our connection to the plants and soil of our local place.

Later during Lent, as Good Friday neared, we named the crucifixions we observed in our watershed: the evictions of homeless people and rising inequalities in Fresno, racism and extrajudicial police shootings of unarmed black and brown people, the loss of habitat for endangered species like the San Joaquin kit fox, among other deaths. Like the crosses used by the Roman Empire in Jesus’s day, ongoing forces of sin, violence, and injustice sacrifice those deemed less valuable for the sake of power and profit. We called out, “Lord, have mercy!” as we grieved the ongoing crucifixions and longed for resurrection for all creation.

Recognizing sites and experiences of crucifixion in our own neighborhoods and watersheds can be a powerful liturgical action, and a public way of exposing the powers and principalities that dishonor God by destroying human and nonhuman life. I believe it is vital to draw the connections between both social and ecological sins, as well as injustices in these times. All sin, by nature, is ecological in that it impacts a community {79} beyond individual selves. Greed, for example, affects all those living downstream both literally and metaphorically. The greedy steal from the poor and also from the gifts of the Earth that God intends to be shared so that all have their “daily bread.” Outdoor prayer and liturgies of lament can draw these crucial sociological and ecological connections, and unmask the sin within us and the world that continues to crucify the most vulnerable. 14

In another recent service, we lamented the impacts of fossil fuel pollution on the air we breathe. Sara, a young intern with the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition, shared about the links between asthma and other air-related health issues and the particulate matter from heavy traffic, industrial agricultural practices like heavy tilling, and methane produced by concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in our region. We prayed for the healing of our air even as we breathed in smog, and sang “Breathe on me, Breath of God”: Breathe on me, breath of God / fill me with life anew / that I may love what you do love / and do as you would do. Scientific learning and lament have deepened our prayer life and called us to a discipleship response of loving and doing alongside our Creator.


Though we are small, scrappy, and still in a formative phase, Wild Church and similar ecclesial experiments offer an invitation to the Body of Christ to widen our table of communion to include the body of Earth. Communion invites us not only to consider who we worship in relation to God, but with whom we worship. Wild Church forms us to worship God with and as creation. If we take the early Christian hymn in Colossians 1 seriously, our sense of interconnection with a redeemed creation expands; we encounter a reconciling Christ whose salvation is not only for fallen humans, but for the whole cosmos! In Christ who is our peace, we are bold enough to proclaim reconciliation with all things, and to seek to live out reconciliation in our day-to-day lives. Reconciliation with, in, and through the Christ who “holds all things together” (Col 1:17) broadens our sense of kinship with all life. 15 We discover that we are created beings who are not separate, but part of the living, breathing, buzzing, creation which worships God in myriad ways, from the mountains that burst into song, to the trees who clap their hands in joy (Isa 55:12; see also Ps 148 for a beautiful litany of praise for God from all creation). Our Wild Church time of Eucharist especially shapes us to widen our communion table to include nonhuman creation.

In our Eucharistic liturgy, we’ve started to include the following: Together with salmon and Valley Oak, with silty soil and the San Joaquin river, we praise You and bless You for these gifts, holy and gracious God, source of life abundant! 16 As a symbol of our communion and deep longing for the flourishing of all creation, we offer some of this feast back to the land and waters . . . {80}

We then offer the first portion of the bread and cup to the land and to the San Joaquin River, in acknowledgment of our communion with all creation in Christ. Somehow, in the solemn pouring of wine onto the soil and in the joyful sharing of bread with the river, we are united in Christ’s suffering death and resurrection as New Creation (2 Cor 5:16–17). 17 God’s love is poured out through Christ for the cosmos (John 3:16), and so we remember and are reconnected with that sacrificial outpouring on the silty soil of our particular place through our Eucharistic liturgy.

It’s a dangerous and beautiful thing to worship with the Wild. Mallard ducks have been known to rise out of the river and interrupt the service. Or a trail of ants might join communion. Or if we listen closely, we might hear the spawning salmon humming songs of praise with the river. Our hearts may be broken open by grief as we witness countless losses and breathe polluted air. This time of climate chaos offers us both great challenge and opportunity. Will we, like our brother salmon who shows us the way of Christ, pour out our lives to be offered for all creation? Can we as humans live out the “good news” of God’s cosmos-love, one watershed at a time? Or will we continue our “bad news” cycle of destruction and terror upon the earth? My prayer is that the church universal may live into a deeper communion with creation in these times, joining in the groaning and suffering of creation, and witnessing to the resurrection that, in faith, we will all experience in Christ, the firstborn of New Creation.


  1. See Tim Huber, “Forest Church Combines Worship with Great Outdoors,” Mennonite World Review, 18 November 2019,
  2. For more information on the Wild Church Network, see
  3. Elizabeth Johnson, “For God So Loved the Cosmos,” U.S. Catholic 75, no. 4 (April 2010): 18–21.
  4. Fred Bahnson and Norman Wirzba, Making Peace with the Land: God’s Call to Reconcile with Creation (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2012), 158.
  5. See Barbara Rossing, The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation (New York: Basic Books, 2005).
  6. For further reading on watershed discipleship, see Ched Myers, “A Watershed Moment,” Sojourners 43, no. 5 (May 2014): 20–24; and “From ‘Creation Care’ to ‘Watershed Discipleship’: Re-placing Ecological Theology and Practice,” The Conrad Grebel Review 32, no. 3 (2014): 250–75. See also the Watershed Discipleship website at
  7. Brock Dolman and Kate Lundquist, Basin of Relations: A Citizen’s Guide {81} to Protecting and Restoring Our Watersheds, 3rd ed. (Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, 2018), 6.
  8. Ched Myers, ed., Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith and Practice (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2016), 2.
  9. See my chapter, “The Great Commission: Watershed Conquest or Watershed Discipleship?” in Myers, Watershed Discipleship, 26–41.
  10. See Stanley P. Saunders, “Living Water,” @ this Point: Theological Investigations in Church and Culture 10, no. 2 (2015),
  11. Such highly respected theologians as Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin held “two book” theologies which affirmed that creation also bears witness to the Creator and is compatible with the teachings of Scripture.
  12. Written by Rachel Friesen.
  13. Walter Brueggemann, “The Costly Loss of Lament,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 11, no. 36 (1986): 61.
  14. For an in-depth theological account of the power of worship to disrupt the powers through “liturgical direct action,” see Bill Wylie Kellerman, Seasons of Faith and Conscience: Kairos, Confession, Liturgy (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991). 
  15. Fred Bahnson and Norman Wirzba, Making Peace with the Land: God’s Call to Reconcile with Creation (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2012), 22.
  16. This adaptation of the Eucharist liturgy was inspired by the Salal + Cedar Wild Church community. See their liturgy at
  17. The literal translation of 2 Cor 5:17 is, “if anyone in Christ, there—new creation!!” I interpret this in light of Col 1:9–20 as proclaiming that anyone who lives in Christ joins the whole renewed creation (human and nonhuman).
Katerina Friesen works with the Insight Garden Program, which uses “inner” and “outer” gardening to reconnect people in prison with themselves, their communities, and the natural world. Katerina is also an adjunct instructor at Fresno Pacific University and provides pastoral leadership to Wild Church in Fresno, California. She has an MDiv from Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary.

Previous | Next