Located in the town of Marquette in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, UP Wild Church is among the newest ministries in the growing movement of “wild” outdoor worship communities. The church holds its worship and prayer services outdoors and hosts nature walks, wilderness reflection and field trips to explore God’s creation amid the scenic beauty of the peninsula.
An ecumenical ministry of the Northern Great Lakes Synod and the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Michigan, UP Wild Church was started in 2019 to attract younger people and those disenchanted with traditional church, and to foster a deeper spiritual connection with God outdoors.
Lantto is passionate about the outdoors and brought to UP Wild Church a wide social media network, a heart for social issues, relationships with local residents, history with the local Lutheran and Catholic communities, and boundless energy.
Jim Duehring, assistant to the bishop of the Northern Great Lakes Synod and a director for evangelical mission, supported Lantto in starting the ministry. “Knowing that Lanni has both life experiences and passions for doing this work well—and the fact that she is a layperson and not a pastor—provides a model for the creative ways that the church can be church in today’s day and age,” he said. “One doesn’t have to be a pastor to be a good mission developer.”
Lantto said she dreamed up UP Wild Church while watching her son play in a park and talking to her high school friend Lydia Bucklin, canon of the ordinary for the local Episcopal diocese. Bucklin sought ways to partner with the ELCA in reaching younger Christians and those who had stopped attending church.
UP Wild Church was formed as a collaborative 501(c)(3) nonprofit between the ELCA and the Episcopal Church, which acts as financial agent for the ministry. As a synod-authorized worshiping community (SAWC), the church exemplifies the ELCA congregational vitality team’s vision of training mission developers to launch startup churches that are agile, creative and culturally in sync with their geographic area.
“The traditional church will remain,” Duehring said, “but we’re always looking for ways to connect to people and affirm that God is still creating in our world.”
With 15 to 25 regular members, UP Wild holds services on the first Sunday of the month, with Lantto providing prayers and reflections and encouraging worshipers to explore the outdoors. A recent gathering, for example, focused on how the Beatitudes relate to daily life. Other activities have included a “Wonder and Ponder” walk, a mobile prayer group and field trips to local operations supporting environmental sustainability (e.g. a thrift store).
Lantto assumed that most attendees would be younger people, so she was surprised by the new church’s cross-generational spirit, which appeals to middle-aged and older adults.
“In this age of mass extinctions, we feel compelled by the love of Christ to invite people into intimate relationship with some of the most vulnerable victims of our destructive culture: the land, waters, and creatures with whom we share our homes,” reads the network’s site.
Lantto added that pastors often come to experience the outdoors together. “People connect to the outdoors in so many different ways,” she said. “What draws us closer to God outdoors is that God created it. It’s a living cathedral. When we go outside, we step into God’s world, full of mystery and wonder and awe. When we feel this, we have a connection to something higher than ours
There are approximately 100 wild churches in the United States and more around the world that are returning to nature as a spiritual practice. Over the past few years these churches have formed the Wild Church network to support startups.
UP Wild Church is sustained by ELCA and Episcopal grants, donations and member gifts. Its five-year expansion plan includes starting a branch in the Rapid River area.
Duehring pointed out, “This is one model in which churches need to explore the term ‘holy experiments,’ trying new ways to be church, connecting with people and seeing how God is already present in people’s lives. Instead of insisting that the only way we can be a Christian community is to use the model used for generations, there’s more than one way to be a community. Being outside the walls is a metaphor for the way of Christ. We gather and we scatter.
Lantto sums it up best: “Where has the reverence, the wonder and the awe of the natural world gone? Have we built too many walls, over, through and around ourselves so we can no longer see or feel the mystery of God who creates all things?”