|Nature Connects Churchgoers 8 to 80|
Monica Moore got hooked on fishing when she joined the Union Park
United Methodist Church Camping Conservation Club on a recent trip to the lake. It was the first time the 11-year-old had ever gone fishing.
Photo courtesy of the Camping Conservation Club.
It would not be unusual to see a sign on the front door of Union Park United Methodist Church that says, “Gone Fishin'…Y’all come!”
That is because there is a good chance the Rev. Lee Webb has joined members of the congregation’s Camping Conservation Club (CCC) for a day of angling channel cat, crappie and largemouth bass on nearby Easter Lake in Des Moines, Iowa.
“I’m very much about worship in community whether that happens in the church sanctuary or God’s sanctuary at Easter Lake,” Webb said. “In fact, CCC isn’t just about having fun; it’s actually meeting a spiritual gifts, discipleship and relational need within our congregation, our neighborhood and the larger community.”
Jim and Calleen Kerner, church members and avid outdoors people thought about out-of-the-box and away-from-the-fellowship-hall ways to bring people together and started the CCC.
“We thought outdoor activities were a good way to get people reconnected with church – especially the younger folks,” Jim Kerner said. “When we looked around our congregation, it seemed the kids and grandkids just weren’t involved. We figured maybe we could interest them in a little fishing, camping and hiking as a way to get closer to God and to each other.”
Ronald McClelland agrees. One reason the 70-year-old retiree got involved in the club is his belief that young people have lost touch with the outdoors.
“Today in churches, we lose youth about the time they get to high school age,” he said. “We thought if we made church more interesting for them, maybe they’d come back.
“And if we can take kids out into the wilderness and teach them what nature is really all about,” he continued, “maybe they will pass that along to their children.”
At least once a month, members of the club – ages 8 to 80 – load up the minivans and stock backpacks in preparation for an outdoor adventure. Whether it is a snowshoe hike in 25-degree weather, a canoe trip down the Raccoon River or a visit to see the wild pheasants, turkeys and ducks at the county park, the group combines fellowship with conservation. Most outings include picking up trash, cleaning up debris and learning about the environment.
“We’re really adamant about being good stewards of the land,” Kerner said. “It’s not just a love of the outdoors, but a strong feeling that we need to be partners with God in taking care of what he’s given us.”
“We consider everything we do as a devotional,” he said. “We devote everything to God and use Genesis 1:26-28 as our meditation.
God spoke, “Let us make human beings in our image, make them reflecting our nature
So they can be responsible for the fish in the sea,
The birds in the air, the cattle,
And, yes, Earth itself,
And every animal that moves on the face of the earth.”
For McClelland, Kerner and their fellow nature lovers, service is also a way of worshipping.
“I get a feeling out in nature that I don’t get in a church building,” McClelland said. “Who can look at a wild animal and see its markings and not be amazed? Who can see a tree that is changing colors in the fall and not be impressed? God created those things, and it should show us how strongly he feels about nature. It’s his gift to us.”
Pastor Webb applauds the efforts of the group – which he labels as theological “freethinkers.”
“These are folks that aren’t shackled by the common expectation that as a church we have to do things the way we’ve always done them,” Webb said. “These folks and others discovered that unless we do things differently, we wouldn’t have the opportunity to serve Christ as a church anymore.”
According to Webb, Union Park used to be a “fortress church” – cut off from the community. Thanks to guidance from the evangelism committee, some soul-searching within the congregation and the creative thinking of groups like the CCC, the church has reinvented itself.
“We decided that our mission field was more in our own backyard and that we had the potential to reach people in other churches and our neighborhood if we came up with some nontraditional church ministries,” Webb said.
Now filling the church calendar are English and GED classes, an after-school program and job assistance. In addition, Union Park’s doors open to meetings of addiction-recovery groups, and the congregation partners with a local prison ministry providing support for families of those who are incarcerated.
“The neighborhood has noticed we are changing,” Webb said. “Our small church has had 17 members join in the last year, which for a church of our size is unheard of. We’re attracting not only people who want to put their discipleship into action, but also people who have been helped by the actions we’ve taken and the ministries we’ve started.”
That is good news for the Camping Conservation Club.
Kerner said, “If our little club helps get one person back into a church, we will be ecstatic!”
Find the Camping Conservation Club on Facebook: Union Park United Methodist Church Camping Conservation Club