The pandemic isn’t over, but an end appears to be in sight. As we consider post-COVID worship, it might be wise to continue outdoor church gatherings — and not just for safety.
For many churches, outdoor worship services provided a way for congregations to safely gather in warmer months instead of streaming sermons in their living rooms. Particularly for small churches, where social distancing in sanctuaries was not an option, meeting at a local park or setting up a stage in the parking lot allowed members to share a space and sing together. It wasn’t perfect, but for many, singing from behind masks at a safe distance was better than isolation.
As cases decreased and restrictions rolled back, many churches reinstated in-person gatherings early this year. And as we reach a turning point, it appears sanctuaries may become more full, and maskless faces will be singing again. And if churches are safe, I’m all for it. But I hope many will continue to meet outdoors this summer and into the future, as the benefits go far beyond health and safety.
Outdoor church requires faith
It’s easy to understand why many churches returned indoors as soon as it became feasible. There’s a greater element of control. Weather won’t cancel indoor worship services, sound and light levels are easier to manage, and people inside a confined space are likely less prone to distractions than they would be outside. Meeting in a comfortable, hi-tech sanctuary is more conducive to creating an efficient, well-run service.
But what if God doesn’t care much about running an efficient, well-run service? Throughout Scripture, there are warnings about God rejecting worship that isn’t offered in a manner of humility, faith and trust. While I believe worship leaders and pastors should dedicate themselves to offering their best, I also believe the desire to produce a perfect event too often supersedes a desire to create an atmosphere conducive to genuine spiritual experiences.
An outdoor service offers several chances for things to go wrong. The lead singer’s voice may not carry as far. It’s harder to adjust the lighting and set a meditative mood. Car horns, barking dogs and children are distractions, and a strong gust of wind or surprise thunder shower can shut the whole thing down. But what a great opportunity for worship leaders to understand that Sunday morning is not about their skills or production abilities, but about their willingness to serve and trust that God will use even the distractions and imperfections for his glory.
Putting worship on display
During the pandemic, I don’t know if churches ever stumbled on a better marketing tool than a good outdoor worship service.
For nearly a year and a half, the nation has been thrown into anxiety, confusion and isolation. Many people confronted mortality and loss, and others dealt with constant uncertainty. Hope was needed more than ever.
For many Christians, the ability to (safely) gather and worship was an act of defiance against hopelessness. For many nonbelievers, I imagine the site of people finding a safe way to still meet and sing back the darkness provided a glimpse of normalcy and warmth. How many people who were mourning found solace in watching a congregation sing across the street on Sunday mornings? How many people lost in thought on a walk decided to join in to the gathering?
The pandemic will end; the need will not. And a church displaying hope and joy instead of cloistering in a building can be a powerful thing.
Outdoor church is gathering, not a show
We didn’t attend as many outdoor services last summer as I wanted, but I will admit that when we made it, it was always a positive experience. The thought I walked away with was often: wow, that didn’t feel like church.
I don’t mean that to sound insensitive or flippant. But there was a casual nature to our outdoor services that didn’t always carry over to our indoor ones. Inside, you’re more aware of people looking your way. The congregation’s voices are a bit hushed, and everything’s focused on the music or the pastor. It feels less like a family meeting and more like a show.
Outdoors, the casual nature reinforced that this was a gathering of friends, not a chance to watch a performance. Kids ran around laughing. We spread out a blanket and waved at friends. I might not remember much of the sermon from that day, but I know we were more prone to stand around and chat after. Meeting outdoors, away from the trappings of the service, we never felt like we were attending a concert, lecture or business meeting. It was church; a chance to unite, sing together, meet with friends, laugh, and see what prayers were needed. It didn’t feel obligatory; it didn’t feel stuffy. It felt like family. And I’d love for churches to keep that going.