Experiencing God in the Great Outdoors
More than 93 million Americans will get outside to backpack, hike, mountain climb, camp, raft, mountain bike and enjoy other activities this year. These outdoor enthusiasts want to explore nature and will spend nearly $290 billion to make that happen.
The most passionate enthusiasts, known as Outdoor Nation, usually aren’t impressed with the “big box church” approach to connecting with God. While they don’t innately gravitate to a traditional Sunday service, many are open to carrying a 40-pound backpack into a canyon to hear the story of Jesus.
With 16 parks, a trio of lakes, over 450 miles of trails, and 1.25 million acres of the surrounding Prescott National Forest, visitors come from all over to enjoy the natural beauty of Prescott, Arizona, population 43,000.
Four beautiful seasons and a moderate year-round climate make the mile-high Prescott a “trailhead town,” according to Pastor Steve P. Lummer of Discovery Church. The community attracts people who love outdoor adventures and connect best spiritually by being out in the wild. Lummer says Discovery Church is trying to reach this Outdoor Nation, whether they are local residents or visitors from far away.
After a decade-long effort to reboot a dying work failed, the discouraged Lummer earnestly sought the Lord’s direction. Lummer, a 1980 graduate of Central Bible College, cites two tipping-point moments as catalysts for the beginning of the Discovery Church vision.
The first occurred in Pine Creek Canyon in Zion National Park seven hours north of where the church is located. In 2011, Lummer attended a leadership retreat there in which participants hiked Half Dome and listened to a dozen speakers, including Pastor Mark Batterson, whose National Community Church meets in movie theater campuses. Batterson’s proclamation that there are ways of doing church that no one has thought of yet resonated with Lummer.
The following year, Lummer went to a “pastors adventure” in Zion National Park hosted biannually by the Arizona Ministry Network, led by Superintendent Stephen L. Harris and Secretary-Treasurer Leigh Metcalf. The event, designed to get pastors out of their offices and allow them to build relationships with each other, marked Lummer’s first experience at rappelling the scenic and challenging slot canyons of Utah. Canyoneering guides Kevin McFee and Matt Simpson of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Chi Alpha in Prescott encouraged the pastor to dream again.
Within a short time, Lummer and others began to gather to worship and study together as they shared outdoor adventures. The church started to grow with each new event, and Lummer found people actually enjoyed having worship services outdoors as much, if not more, than they did inside.
“We encourage people to get outside and let God speak to their inside,” Lummer says. “We don’t worship creation, but we sure do appreciate it."
Creation provides a powerful backdrop for the church’s goal of connecting people with the Creator. In stark contrast to most of today’s preaching, over half of Jesus’ teachings occurred in the outdoors. He spent time in the wilderness, took His disciples up on a high mountain to be alone, and spoke outside to the masses who gathered to hear Him.
Whitewater rafting, hiking, canoeing, and mountain biking help bring people together to experience creation. At almost every adventure with Discovery Church there is a roaring fire and camp chairs to ignite conversation about the Creator.
Discovery Church now leases part of a local college campus to hold weekend services, but whether the meeting is inside or outside, the tribe vibe always seems to include nature, the outdoors, and some type of flannel shirt. Chacos are the footwear of choice, and the latest or nearest trip is a driving force of many conversations. Almost everyone in leadership at Discovery is an outdoor enthusiast.
Church leaders and adherents connect with Outdoor Nation in a simple way. People end up in the Grand Canyon or on a Jeep trail, and spiritual discussions occur naturally. When someone receives Christ as Savior or is baptized in a river, they receive a waterproof Bible, a local trail map, and a backpack. So far, over 300 backpacks with waterproof Bibles have been distributed.
Discovery’s outdoor activities and events are intentionally designed to connect people to the Creator and to each other. Trips to Yosemite, the Redwood National Park, rafting at the Grand Canyon, and an annual weekend event called Stars, which gives God praise for all He has created, provide opportunities for creation to showcase the Creator. This year’s three-day Stars event is July 28-30. Each month the church focuses on some adventure that will get people outside together.
“There is no Wi-Fi in the forest, but the connection is better," Lummer says.
"We worship in outdoor classrooms to acknowledge that there is a center of the universe, and we are not it."
Discovery also serves the local community by providing a bike valet service at a nationally recognized annual off-road mountain bike race in Prescott. A tribe favorite is the yearly “Gear Share Sunday” where people bring extra tents, clothing, rafts, and bikes to help others enjoy getting outside.
In 2016, the church began developing the “School of Discovery,” an internship program that includes both Intelligent Design and outdoor leadership classes. Discovery Prescott leaders recently traveled to another trailhead town, Bend, Oregon, for a prayer walk and float down the Deschutes River. Soon after, they decided to begin the process to plant “Discovery Bend.”