Can a person truly or appropriately worship God in the "great outdoors," or does it require a structured religious service in a man-made building?
Can the awe-inspiring red rocks of southern Utah, the serene and peaceful Wasatch National Forest or the exaggerated grandeur of the Grand Canyon move one closer to the divine and take the place of an organized church?
Long before man created church buildings, nature had its own. For example, anyone who has visited Cathedral Valley in Capitol Reef National Park knows the reverence the monuments there can foster.
Yosemite and aptly-named Zion National Park boast huge rock monoliths that stretch toward heaven. Canyonlands National Park and others have similar features.
And the outdoors has been used for special spiritual retreats in the past, according to the Bible. For example, Jesus Christ went in the wilderness to fast for 40 days and nights and to be tempted of the devil prior to beginning his ministry. Moses climbed Horeb, the "Mountain of God," and that's where the Lord appeared to him at the burning bush.
But what do today's churches think of worship in nature?
Catholics believe that they should worship and give thanks to God in Holy Mass. The Catholic Conservation Center, conservation.catholic.org, urges: "Contemplate the wonders of God's creation in the woods, by the sea, in a park, on a mountain, on a farm, or in a garden. Many people can sense the presence of the Lord in the midst of nature."
"Faced with the glory of the Trinity in creation, we must contemplate, sing and rediscover awe," Pope John Paul II said.
"To be aware of God in nature should also lead us to praise the Lord in worship at Mass. And our experience in Mass should make us more aware of God in nature. The relationship between experiencing God in nature and in worship is truly of mutual benefit!"
The Rev. Steve Goodier, pastor of Salt Lake's Christ United Methodist Church, said it is not a sin if a United Methodist fails to attend church services. However, he stressed that "by not attending, you are missing community, the people. ... We need people to grow," he said.
The Rev. Goodier said when a person usually mentions going to nature instead of church, it's just an excuse they are simply not interested in attending services.
"Jesus founded a church," the Rev. Goodier said, adding that people need a spiritual family.
In contrast, he said of the great outdoors, "That's like God's sanctuary." He believes a person can have a private worship in nature
and get closer to God in the process. That's one reason why his church offers annual camping experiences to young people.
"Being immersed in the wilderness certainly has its advantages," said the Rev. Tom Goldsmith of Salt Lake's First Unitarian Church.
He has no doubt that the outdoors can touch a person spiritually, but he questions if some outdoor activities like golf or tennis can do that.
The Rev. Goldsmith also describes solitary outdoor activities as "kind of self-serving."
He said, "I think you need to be part of a (church) worship experience," and stressed there is no other substitute for that association with others.
"My ministry is into social justice," he said, and that endeavor doesn't take place among people who only enjoy the outdoors.
"We believe that God is all around us, coming to us through nature through other people, through events. We speak of the 'still speaking God' to indicate that God's message comes to us continually through many different forms and people," said the Rev. Dr. F. Russell Baker, pastor of Bountiful Community Church, a congregation of the United Church of Christ.
"Therefore, we can receive impulses from God through nature, and indeed, there are times when we do worship outside of our church building. The church is not a building but a gathering place for worship, service and mission."
Jehovah's Witnesses believe church meetings are essential for worship, instruction and encouragement. They take their meetings seriously and often have the highest attendance among churches, in terms of the percentage of members who attend.
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been commanded by modern revelation, in Doctrine and Covenants 59:9-10, to attend organized meetings each Sunday and partake of the sacrament. "And that thou mayest more fully keep thyself unspotted from the world, thou shalt go to the house of prayer and offer up thy sacraments upon my holy day. For verily this is a day appointed unto you to rest from your labors and to pay thy devotions unto the most high."
Some churches in the summer may offer seasonal outdoor worship services. This may offer the best of both worlds, but it still involves a structured service of worship with others.
Many national parks also allow religious services to be held each Sunday inside park boundaries, as a community service to visitors.
Still, Tod Bolsinger, a pastor at San Clemente, Calif., Presbyterian Church, wrote in his "It takes a church ..." blog at bolsinger.blogs.com on June 9, 2005, that some confuse worship and inspiration.
"Inspiration is when God illumines our lives with his gracious presence," Bolsinger wrote. "Worship is our response to those moments. If we truly want to honor the God who gave us perfect swells, clear trout streams, ski slopes, golf greens, beautiful children and loving spouses, we should enjoy those things six days a week and then give God the worship he commands on the seventh. Worship always includes gathering with God's people and participating in 'spirit and in truth' (John 4:24).
E-mail: [email protected]