How to Hold an Outdoor Service That People Love

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Here’s why we’re loving our outdoor church service and what we’re doing to make it work.

We held our first coronavirus-inspired parking lot church service on May 31st, just as California was emerging from our stay-at-home lockdown.

Now, two months later, we’re loving it and seeing it grow.

Here are 13 benefits, principles and perspectives that might help you as you rock your outdoor church service. Plus I’ll give you my take on the ultimate parking lot service question: in cars or chairs?

Let’s start with the benefits to having your church service in the parking lot.

4 Benefits of an Outdoor Church Service

When we strategized about an outdoor service, we didn’t know it would be so fun and encouraging. We just thought it was our best option. Since starting, we’ve discovered four benefits to doing a service in parking lot services.

1. We are spreading joy and hope. People are so glad to see their church friends, to be sort-of together, and to do something that feels slightly normal. There is social happiness in our parking lot on Sunday morning. You see it in the smiles above their masks, and you feel it every time people honk their clapping.

2. We experience powerful worship. Deeper than the social happiness we feel is the power of the worship. We know that we are frail people coming into the presence of our loving and faithful God. Worship is sweeter and stronger because we know our need for Jesus.

Or maybe it’s because we’re looking straight up to a blue-sky heaven.

3. People are returning to church. Some are coming back because they’re adjusting to this new weird world and have decided that they just need to carry on. They have been surprised and delighted to experience community in a COVID-safe environment.

Some families with young children came back the week we opened our children’s ministry. They knew that trying to listen with their kids in a car was not going to be a happy experience. Now they’re glad to have the kids learning about Jesus in our outdoor PromiseLand, and for a few precious minutes to pay attention to God themselves.

4. Newcomers are showing up. We have several new families each weekend. They saw the sign on the street or they were invited by another family. The vibe is cool, the service is powerful, and they’re coming back.

6 Principles for Developing your Outdoor Service

It helps to think through your rationale before you work on your logistics. These principles underlie our decisions.

1.Be curious and willing to learn new ways and try new things

We’re all learning new ways to do church these days.We never imagined that church in the parking lot would be our best option. These are unprecedented times and our best response is to venture out and try some risky things and see what works.

2.Do the best you can with the resources you have.

We wish we had lots of money to put a sail over the parking lot to shade everyone. You may wish you had a few thousand dollars to get the sound equipment you need. We all wish all of our volunteers were back, but many are higher-risk and are watching the online service at home and some of them are coming, but staying in their cars to avoid close contact.

Do what you can. Each week you can do a little more. Practice Philippians 4:6-7.

3.Expect that circumstances will shift as soon as you adjust to them.

The Weather

We began our outdoor services with no umbrellas because we didn’t want to block sight lines, but even in balmy San Diego it gets too hot in July to sit in the sun for an hour. Now we’re encouraging people to bring beach umbrellas and be considerate of the people sitting behind them.

During summer, people are also using their vans and SUVs for shade. They pop up the back, pull out the lawn chairs, throw down a blanket, and church starts to feel like a tailgate party.

When the seasons shift into fall and winter, and staying warm becomes the issue, we’ll adjust again.

COVID-19

Our Executive Pastor is on a county-wide call each week to learn the latest guidelines. We fully intend to comply with local, state, and CDC guidelines. Two-thirds of the congregation are fearful or obedient, and they want to see us exercising diligence and caution.

That means that we have to be ready to change what we do in a few days time. We launched the outdoor service quickly, opened our children’s ministry two weeks later, and then moved the children outside two weeks later when our re-opening was dialed back in California. We’re aiming to be fast and flexible.

We are also pursuing what we believe is right for the body of Christ. When Governor Newsom mandated that we couldn’t sing, even outside, we respectfully disagreed.

4.Evaluate and improve every week.

Every week at the staff meeting we evaluate how it went last weekend, and we decide what to improve, fix, or try in the coming weekends.

We consider and implement the best ideas, listen for trends, and focus on fixing problems. Sometimes the staff disagree as we work toward the best solutions.

I like what Matt Damon, playing the scientist Mark Watney says in the movie, The Martian:

“You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem and you solve the next one, and then the next. And If you solve enough problems, you get to come home.”

That goes for pastors and church leaders, too. We just begin. We solve one problem and then the next. And as we solve them, people will come to church and to Christ… even in a pandemic.

5. You can’t please all the people.

We know that success brings new issues.

Last week the parking lot got a little crowded. We had cars disregarding our every-other-space parking mandate, and some kept their engines running to keep their air conditioning going. Those in nearby cars didn’t like that and I heard about it.

We listen and sympathize with concerns and criticism, and try to draw people into being part of the solution. We ask for patience and grace while we work out solutions to new issues as they pop up.

6.Pray for wisdom.

Take a fresh look at James 1:5 in the Amplified Bible: 

 “If any of you lacks wisdom [to guide him through a decision or circumstance], he is to ask of [our benevolent] God, who gives to everyone generously and without rebuke or blame, and it will be given to him. 6 But he must ask [for wisdom] in faith, without doubting [God’s willingness to help],”  James 1:5-6a

And that’s how we navigate church leadership in a pandemic. We ask God for wisdom, trusting that he will guide us as we lead.

The Most Important Decision: Chairs or Cars

Now it’s time for my take on the most important question about outdoor church services.

Do you choose to have people stay in their cars, or sit in their beach chairs? I know churches who have people park their cars facing the stage. Others have everyone sit socially-distanced by families.

The short answer? Both. It gives people more options. My feeling is that hybrid is best.

Here are advantages and disadvantages of each option.

Everyone Stays in their Cars

Advantages:

  • It’s safer from the coronavirus because everyone keeps their distance.
  • You won’t get arguments from your county Public Health officials.
  • People listen on the radios in their cars, so you don’t need to set up sound equipment outside each week.
  • It’s less weather impacted.

Disadvantages:

  • You don’t really get the feeling of being at church together. You can’t hear others sing and it isn’t as easy to see your church friends.

Everyone brings their chairs and sits socially distanced.

Advantages:

  • It feels more like church. And that’s a great feeling.
  • There is more socializing before and after church. There’s something encouraging about standing in front of a friend you haven’t seen. Even if it’s six feet apart.
  • Outdoors with masks on is okay with the CDC at this point, so you’re having church and obeying best coronavirus practices.

Disadvantages:

  • It’s more possible to be exposed to COVID, and more likely to be seen unfavorably by members of the congregation and local officials, as a gathering of more than whatever is the current acceptable number of people to gather.
  • It’s harder for parents of preschoolers to enjoy the service since they have their tribe right there where they can distract everyone.

Provide both options: cars and chairs

Advantages:

  • People can do what makes them comfortable.
  • More people will come.
  • It’s easier to adjust to the weather and unfolding CDC requirements.

Disadvantages:

  • It’s more work to set up a stage and sound equipment for the people in chairs, and manage parking and FM sound for the people in cars.

What we’re experiencing by doing both feels like we’re mixing church and a tailgate party. And these days, everyone can use some joyful God-centered fun.

This article first appeared here and is used with permission. 

Hal Seed is the founding and Lead Pastor of New Song Community Church in Oceanside, CA. He mentors pastors who want to lead healthy, growing churches with resources at www.pastormentor.com.

Dr. Hal Seed

Dr. Hal Seed