A 'forest church' helps Christians connect with nature - and non-Christians connect with the church

Rev Cindy Rigney helps a young Forest Church member with a project(Photo: Diocese of Blackburn)

A rural Lancashire church is tapping into the area's natural beauty to help people connect with nature while at the same time establishing relationships with people who might never step foot inside a church building.

'Forest Church' is modelled on 'forest schools' that offer children hands-on learning experiences in a woodland or natural environment. 

The idea is to take the children outside of the conventional school classroom setting to broaden their experiences and understanding, while at the same time instilling an interest in the outdoors and the natural environment. 

St Mark's Church, in the village of Dolphinholme, has adapted the idea to launch its new Forest Church initiative that welcomes people of all ages to learn more about God's world through informal nature-focused activities. 

Forest Church runs once a month and has proved very popular with families. 

Activities so far have included a bat walk led by experts using bat detectors; river dipping with a local river expert; and a session exploring the wild flowers and fauna in the churchyard. 

The project has been set up by vicar, the Rev Cindy Rigney, and the church's 'Vision Champion', Jackie Hough.

Forest Church families try their hand at willow making(Photo: Diocese of Blackburn)

Rev Rigney said: "We identified that a number of people in Dolphinholme appreciate the beauty of where they live, but don't necessarily connect with the church.

"I was aware of the work of 'Forest Schools' and it occurred to me that St Mark's was very well placed to offer something along those lines. I did a bit of research and then contacted Jackie who has well and truly run with the idea." 

Ms Hough said: "My favourite quote, that to me summarises the ethos behind our Forest Church, is from naturalist John Muir who said: 'I'd rather be in the mountains thinking about God, than in church thinking about the mountains'."

She said that caring for the environment and wildlife translates easily into Christian beliefs.

"For me, Forest Church is all about encouraging people to engage more with nature and with each other; to stop for a moment and really look at something. Maybe it's an animal track; maybe it could be what creature might live in the local environment and so on," she said.

The project has even won an award - a bronze certificate from the RSPB Wild Challenge, an award scheme that recognises programmes that help children to connect with and learn about nature through fun and engaging activities.

Ms Hough stressed that the missional element of the programme has been important to the church, with every Forest Church starting with a prayer or a short Bible passage and participants receiving a flyer advertising St Mark's family service. 

"All attendees get their name on our prayer tree and they have sticker charts too, for any service they attend. Our Forest Church congregation is growing very nicely and we have 'brand new' people coming, which is amazing," she said. 

The FREE Summer Explorers resources are available at www.bdeducation.org.uk/product/weekly-summer-explorers More information about St Mark's Forest Church from dqowbenefice.co.uk/st-marks-dolphinholme/