Back in May 2020 as the boredom of the pandemic was settling in, Brian called his friend Jeff who owns a bicycle shop. Brian asked Jeff what he had for him, an infrequent cyclist to date, but looking to take his exercise habits to wheels rather than just running. His advice was to wait three months until the pandemic is over and then “you will get a steal on a great bike, or you can overpay now.” It seems people had begun to rediscover the natural capital of their community after being stuck inside.
The assistant county manager in Harnett County, where Campbell University is located, echoed a similar comment recently when discussing the expanding greenway trails through the county. This initiative was being planned years ago but suddenly is gaining more attention due to the desire for people to be outside and active during the pandemic.
Harnett County roads are frequent places for cyclists to ride due to the limited traffic compared to the capital county just to the north. The manager also mentioned the usage rate of Raven Rock State Park for hiking and the Cape Fear River for tubing and paddling. An educated guess is that this has been true for many rural communities throughout the past year.
The Capitals Coalition defines natural capital as “the stock of renewable and non-renewable natural resources that combine to yield a flow of benefits to people.” As people of faith, the responsibility to care for natural capital is found in God’s commissioning of the first human “to till and to keep” the garden of God’s creation in Genesis 2:15.
Wendell Berry’s essay “Does Community Have a Value?” is a clear articulation of how natural capital connects with financial, spiritual, social and cultural capital. Berry makes the case for how rural communities have become “colonies” of urban centers, sending natural resources out of the community, and then turning around and making purchases of finished goods from the urban centers. Perhaps this is a description of the concern many rural communities have felt about the talent and resource drain from their communities, while simultaneously feeling a pressure to keep up with products from outside the community.
Multiple other capitals, most notably financial (money) and human (people), are effectively leaving the community and being used to build the urban and suburban world at an exchange rate that is slowly choking rural communities. For Berry, community is clearly rooted in natural capital, and more specifically, in the land itself.
Conflict over natural capital is evidenced at a policy level, as demonstrated by Flora, Flora and Gasteyer, who write: “As cities grow, rural-urban conflicts grow as well. Agricultural, environmental and urban interests vie to control water for purposes each value highly. As water increasingly is recognized as a ‘public good,’ legal patterns change and negotiated solutions, such as that between residents of the Catskills region (rural) and New York City (urban), occasionally can generate a win-win situation. Too often, however, parties still view the situation as a zero-sum game.”
“Church is where we reconnect to place and define our identity once more, and rural churches miss a piece of that when not connecting to the natural capital of the place.”
If communities of faith hold to a similar belief about a zero-sum game, then the church promotes scarcity rather than the abundance Jesus promised. Church is where we reconnect to place and define our identity once more, and rural churches miss a piece of that when not connecting to the natural capital of the place.
How the church approaches this next question is of paramount importance, not just to the community, but also to the faithful Christian formation of its members: How do we see God in place?
In their research article, “The Natural Environment as a Spiritual Resource: A Theory of Regional Variation in Religious Adherence,” Ferguson and Tamburello report that “regions with more beautiful weather and scenery have lower rates of religious adherence.” The study is not evaluating expressions of spirituality, but rather the quantitative data that is normally used to determine adherence and practices.
It is possible that in some cases people are choosing a Sunday morning hike over a Sunday morning worship service, but the lesson of this study might also be a different one. Rather, they argue that “beautiful weather, mountains and waterfronts are not so much competitors for time with religious affiliations but suppliers for connections to the sacred.” In other words, natural assets likely increase a sense of spirituality in people, whether tourist or resident. Natural assets are more than just recreational and financial resources; they are spiritual resources as well.
“Natural assets are more than just recreational and financial resources; they are spiritual resources as well.”
That brings us to this question: If the church isn’t connected to the natural amenities of place, then is the church missing significant opportunities for religious experiences?
The intention of the question is not to suggest Christian formation be replaced with pantheism, but rather that the church regularly claim its call in Genesis and how our spirituality is formed and rooted in place. Those places are more than metaphors we use of mountaintop experiences or valleys of despair. They are the places where our hands run through rich soil that provides food. They are the places where streams run, providing reflection and quiet. It is through place and/or work that families connect to generations past.
Beyond the imagery of place and our connections to it, there are rich and meaningful ways the role of the church can be demonstrated, depending on how the church discerns its calling. This might include:
- Advocacy of land use rights.
- Environmental conservation or stewardship.
- Blessing of the farmers.
- More outdoor services.
- Intergenerational churchwide retreats and outings to local assets.
- River or lake baptisms.
These are but a few ideas. We invite you to share ways your church is connected to the natural capital in your community.
Brian Foreman serves as executive director of the Center for Church and Community at Campbell University. Justin J. Nelson serves as assistant professor of sociology.
Other articles in this series on rural congregations: