Labyrinths like this one take advantage of outdoor locations. (author photo)

​Church or other worship services outside is a new 2020 idea that isn’t new at all. From a COVID-19 perspective, indoor worship as usual has some problems: lots of people, indoors, in close proximity, for an extended period of time. Singing, shaking hands, hugging – all a viral playground. 

Move the service outside, and it’s a lot less risky. In my career as a landscape architect, I’ve designed plenty of prayer gardens, memorial gardens, and other outdoor spaces for churches and temples. Here’s a place to start:

Five ways to make church outside work:

Make people comfortable
Shade, air circulation, comfortable seating (maybe everyone brings their own chairs). Less obvious: make it easy to look at what you’re supposed to look at, when you expect people to be there. So no glare behind the pulpit or other spot where the speaker will stand. Facing the morning sun of the east has historical meaning behind it, but facing north or south is a more practical choice for minimizing the squinting for both leaders and congregation. What do you do if it rains – a tent? Umbrellas? Cancel? Make a decision and work that into the plan.

Quiet really matters
You need to be able to hear people talking, without amplification, so no spots next to the highway or the loud HVAC units. If your service includes music, people need to be able to hear it. Don’t make anyone yell. Basically, noise = amplification = more trouble and expense in AV equipment. But also, sound is important to creating a spiritual atmosphere. Maybe that’s windchimes or bells, or the wind in the trees, or the whispered prayers of the other parishioners. 

Accessibility
Outside is full of potential obstacles to those with mobility problems. Make sure your worship space is as level as possible, with a smooth surface that allows those using canes or walkers to navigate it. No steps, especially between parking or drop-off and the space. Also important for people with infants in strollers and for anyone setting up and tearing down before and after services. 

Restroom access
You’ll need it. Glorious as it might be to have a service in the woods way out behind the building, the trek to the restroom will be less glorious for every small child, pregnant lady, and older man with prostate trouble. No steps between the restroom and the space, either. 

Tap into outdoor traditions
The difference between being forced outside into a miserable substitute for normal and having an enriching and meaningful new tradition is mostly attitude and a little bit of effort. What’s your faith tradition’s history of outdoor worship spaces? From ancient rituals and gardens to 20th century camp meetings and revivals, there are a lot to explore.

Finally: yes, it is absolutely worth it to create an outdoor worship space in places where it snows. It’s August. Snow is months away, and the effort you need could be as little as having people bring chairs to set up in a shaded spot. Once this long hot infectious summer finally wanes, there’s ways to create a good Winter Space, too, and if necessary, that could include spaces at your church. Another post on that, coming soon.

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