Monday, August 20, 2012

Outdoor Worship

It was a distraction to driving, the sign I saw by a local church indicating they’d be having outdoor worship from May through September. It sure slowed me down to make sure I read it right.

I did. For five months this congregation was to abandon a very welcoming structure for the joys of the summer environment. A well-appointed interior would serve only as a retreat on a rainy day.

This is only one of many churches offering such an option at least for one service on summer Sundays. It seems to be a somewhat popular, if not trendy way to worship in the warmer times.

Having attended, and even led, outdoor services from time to time, I’ve come to wonder what the real attraction is—and what benefits such communing with nature offers to the people’s work of worship.

What I’ve been told is that outdoor worship invites parishioners to dress informally. From what I’ve seen in recent years, not many people have needed any encouragement for casual attire inside the Lord’s House, at any season.

Maybe a congregation likes to go out front or back or on the side, just for a change of locale, a refreshing occasional alternative. That way, worshipping in the familiar space inside will be more appreciated.

Others have suggested that worship in plain sight of the roadway or other public paths may entice non-church-goers to stop and share a prayer or two. This has always smacked of something Jesus was slapping down, as quoted in Matthew Chapter Six, Verse Five. At least it seems somehow to be showing off.

Here and there a congregation will advertise its worship-in-the-yard experience as an introduction to a larger social feast—like the church service that was to be a prelude to a Barbeque, “so come on down!” This is so perverse I’m sorry I mentioned it.

I suppose there are other reasons and rationales given for praise and prayers among the tamed wilderness of church properties, I just don’t know what they might be.

On the other hand, by experience, I can list several reasons why this is, generally speaking, a poor idea.

I remember clearly attending a wedding held in the formal garden of a nearby college, on a beautiful early summer day, under the warm sun with a cool breeze. Idyllic though it was, the zephyr blew toward the officiating clergyperson, and carried the sound away from the congregation. It was like watching a silent color movie.

Out of doors, sound is always an issue. It’s not only the breaths of wind that distort speech, but the sounds of traffic, emergency vehicles, the neighbor who decides to mow the lawn, and who knows what else will compete for attention.

So, the next thing is to provide an adequate amplification system, haul it out, set it up, drag wires from interior power sources, tune it up, and blare away. Even then, it’s no guarantee that everyone will hear clearly. And if the speakers woof and tweet too much, irate phone calls from neighbors can be expected.

One could go on about the bugs and bees that want to share the space with worshipping humans, especially if there are flowers around, or the other discomforts of unseasonal heat or cold that distract from liturgical focus. Yet there are other more important issues.

Evacuating the normal worship space for the pastoral scene pulls the congregation away from the continuing visual accents supporting worship. The centrality of Font and Table along with Pulpit is usually neglected in such circumstances. The art and architecture of the building are not there to help center thoughts and prayers.

The quick response to this last remark, of course, is that God’s creation as viewed in the great outdoors does what art and architecture cannot. This kind of worship experience places us in the venue of God’s garden, it’s claimed, bringing us closer than ever to the Divine.

This is, however, a sentimental reply. It sounds nice, with emotional content, but totally out of sync with reality. Were it true, we could tear down all our places of worship and spend Sundays communing with God on the golf course. But, as the old joke has it, “In spite of the theological language one hears on the fairway and green, it’s not really the same as being in church.”

Does your church ever hold services outdoors? If so why? What are the benefits? What are the problems?


  1. I understand all of the fine reasons that you share and agree with them. Our church does not do outdoor services. I have had plenty of problems with outdoor weddings. Still, I am reading a book titled Nature Principle about the positive benefits of people connecting more with nature:
    I also know educators and spiritual directors working in multiple intelligences have a category relating to nature. Different spiritualities nurture different personalities. I wonder if our churches can be more sensitive to these concerns while still dealing with the practical issues that you correctly raise. Grace and Peace, Bruce Gillette

  2. I used to lead an early morning (not quite sunrise) Easter Day service on our church's front lawn. Yes, there is Jesus' admonition against public piety in Matt. 6; but there is also the imperative to proclaim the Gospel. I don't say an outdoor service does that in and of itself, nor do I think it should be the norm; but as an occasional reminder that the church (the gathered assembly, the ekklesia) exists not for itself but for the world outside the "sanctuary" doors, I have no objections.

    Besides, sometimes during the summer it's actually cooler outdoors than in (if one's building doesn't have central air).

  3. We do not worship outside. As usual, your comments are right on!

  4. We hold outdoor worship on the same day as our church picnic. Yes, the logistics of sound, etc. can be an issue, but we had a gorgeous day for it on Sunday and people, I think, did have an occasion to thank God for the gift of nature. It isn't bad for a change-of-pace one Sunday in the year.

  5. For a number of years we held a "Mass on the Grass" midweek. While the first few years it was well attended, it was only held early July through Labor Day. A weekly midweek service grew out of the experience (obviously indoors).
    When the first summer rolled around we considered an outdoor liturgy - and decided against it. Why move outdoors and leave the AC? Not to mention dealing with the bugs and noise and humidity! An occasional beach mass had become the outdoor worship alternative. But we've learned that in a resort town like ours, visitors who spend their days at the beach actually prefer being indoors for worship.

  6. We have annually shqared an outdoor worship with two other congregations - in response to an invitation several years ago. It is a wonderful reminder that the Church is where the people gather in God's presence - not tied to a particular congregation or building. We have communion. The pastors and laity share planning and leadership. The choir is combined. It is not perfect i.e. the points you have made. However, there is theological integrity and value in this Sunday - sure, we could meet on any Sunday evening, but because we choose to be together on a Sunday morning, the experience is valued and folks show up.

  7. Frankly speaking, an outdoor worship is an ideal setting for worship and for the very reasons you indicate above I would argue are the very reasons to have an outdoor worship. Doing away with the constructs that we have created to set God apart in altar, building and paraments is to truly experience God in the world. God did not create the church building, we did from the world around us. To sit in nature and truly exist with God in all that he created is to take a moment to return to Him and do away with the wants, the needs, the constructs and the desires of humanity. We are God-like, and need to be reminded from what we came and from what he created before us.


Thanks for joining in the conversation!