There is a church near my home that is named after a major freeway. The founding members chose a place for the congregation to gather just off a strategic exit so that people could easily drive to church on Sundays from as far away as possible. The worship and sermons are geared toward learning biblical and spiritual principles that, for the most part, are broadly aimed at an individual’s spiritual development and evangelistic practice. Other than supporting a few local food banks and ministries, there is no stated commitment to the particular social or ecological needs and issues of the area.

I am sure that the people are kind, the leaders well-intentioned, and that they do meaningful things together, but there is nothing that appears to set this church within its particular place. This church could be located anywhere, named for whatever highway provided the most convenient off-ramp. This critique may sound harsh, but this type of church is prevalent, especially in North America, and is producing generic, placeless followers of Jesus.

This is a problem because the Bible's big story of creation-to-new-creation, which we explored in a previous post, has universal meaning precisely because it tells the story of particular people in particular places. The specific landscapes in which these stories take place - Eden, Egypt, Israel, Corinth, etc. - are part of the story, part of God's plan to bring healing and redemption to the whole world. Jesus did not come to earth as an idea, but as a first-century Palenstinian Jew on the edges of the Roman Empire. And this is how God still works; we cannot grow in faith, be part of a church, love our neighbors, and care for creation in the abstract.

We need to shift our discipleship to a more place-based, localized expression of faith. To do this, we need to ask the following question: What does it mean to follow Jesus in this place?

What is This Place?: Discovering Your Bioregion, Ecoregion, and Niche

Most people talk about where they live in political terms – their country, state, province, city, town, etc. - and know their area’s basic geographical features – major landforms and bodies of water, some of the flora and fauna, and the basic makeup of human communities. Place-based people go deeper; they are interested in the specific earth-based features that define a place’s border and boundaries, and seek to know the features within those borders intimately. This entails localized knowledge, and one way to build that knowledge comes through understanding the bioregions we live in and our particular place within them.

Imagine a map that defines areas of the earth based on unique geographical features, ecological systems, and human communities. It might look something like this rendering of the earth’s major bioregions.

Bioregions are large areas that contain a defined ecological system which supports a unique community of plants and animals (think of the Amazon rainforest or the Alaskan tundra). I live in the Pacific Northwest Coastal Forests bioregion (often called “Cascadia”), which stretches from the Santa Cruz Mountains in central California to Graham Island in coastal British Columbia (People place the borders a little differently, as per the two maps below). The region is defined by its forests, mountain ranges, connection to the Pacific Ocean, and strong environmental ethic.

Within each bioregion are particular ecoregions, which are unique ecological areas within the larger whole. My ecoregion is called Puget Lowland Forests (#4 on the map above) and is comprised of the area around Puget Sound that extends south to the Willamette Valley, east to the Cascade Mountain foothills, west to the Olympic Mountain foothills, and north to the east coast of Vancouver Island. It is a temperate, fertile region that can support massive forests, extensive prairies, and an abundance of wildlife. Millions of people live here, with more coming every day (I moved here 15 years ago); while the region has a strong environmental ethic, humans have significantly altered and degraded the region.

Within each ecoregion are smaller ecosystems that have their own integrity within the whole. Circlewood cares for 40 acres of forestland on Camano Island, located about 60 miles north of Seattle.

Camano island is in Possession Sound, a small section of Puget Sound. It is accessible by car and is approximately 95 square miles. It was originally called Kal-lut-chin (“land jutting into the bay”) by the Snohomish tribe, one of the main tribes that fished and foraged around the island for centuries. The island was covered with old-growth forest until European explorers and settlers came through and extensive logging began. Today the island is home to 13,000 permanent residents, and swells to 17,000 in the summer months. Development pressure exists, which is one reason Circlewood (the organization behind The Ecological Disciple) is seeking to model ways to inhabit the land that not only preserves, but enhances the health of the forest.

Looking eastward over the Circlewood forest, Possession Sound, Whidbey Island, and the Olympic Mountain range.

Bioregional Discipleship

I share about my bioregion as an example of what you can learn about yours. If you want to learn about your bioregion, go to am stiill at the beginning of my educational journey, which is ultimately about understanding the particular corner of creation I call home and what it means to follow Jesus there. Matthew Humphreys, an Anglican priest and writer, calls this “bioregional discipleship.”

It is my conviction that rediscovering the ground as our common ground is crucial to discipleship today. This could begin in a community garden, a riverside cleanup, a march to save the wetlands, or a protest against a pipeline. It will undoubtedly require listening to the indigenous peoples who have inhabited our land as well as standing alongside them in efforts to care for it presently. If the bioregionalist authors are correct, as I suspect they are, we must confess we cannot care for the planet. Yet by joining together with our families, neighbors, churches, and communities, we can effectively begin to care for all of our places right now.

One way to put this into practice is to identify and care for your particular watershed, the area of land within which all living things are linked to a common water source. Watersheds are as large as continents, and as small as your backyard. Author and activist Ched Meyers calls this approach “Watershed Discipleship,” and invites us to see an intentional triple entendre in the term:

  1. Recognizing we live in a watershed moment of ecological crisis.
  2. Learning to be disciples in our watersheds.
  3. Developing awareness of the ways our watersheds act as our rabbis (teachers), pointing us to God.

Identifying and learning about the local creek, pond, river, lake, or ocean that makes your life, and the life of those around you, possible is a great way to further your understanding of the interconnectedness of creation as a whole and the particular dynamics and needs of your place.

Another way to practice bioregional discipleship is to localize your devotional practices. When you pray, bring the particular people, animals, plants, and ecosystems of your place before God. Try walking prayer, which is simply inviting God to help you pay attention to what your senses experience as you move through your ecosystem.

You can take the Bible outside as well; it may help you notice just how much of Scripture takes place on mountains, around lakes and rivers, in fields and pastures. Such reading can help us imagine what God might be doing in our places.

You can also bring the outside, inside: fresh, local flowers for Sunday worship; locally baked bread for communion; artistic works that represent your bioregion on the walls of your home and church. The key is to embrace your place.

What does it mean for you to follow Jesus in your place? I'd love to hear your thoughts and questions.

With you on the Way,