You are planning an outdoor service or event for your church. It sounds so quaint. So rustic-nouveau. So ... vulnerable to a meteorological and logistical disaster.
I know what it’s like to take church services to the great outdoors. From intimate baptism services for a few people at a lake, to renting out the local Triple-A ballpark for a 12,000-person event, we’ve seen, done, and experienced it all. The end result of an outside event feels like the Israelite Exodus: either you just entered the Promised Land, or you barely survived a modern-day version of the Egyptian plagues. There’s rarely anything in between.
Why would anyone risk clouds of insects, impending darkness, hail bombardment, or hordes of frogs? (Okay, that last one might be less likely than the others.)
There are several good reasons to take things outside. Church outside the norm brings excitement to your congregation. It stirs up stagnant waters and forces you out of ruts. If you’re a multi-service or multi-site church, this is an opportunity to get the entire family together under no roof.
There are also potential wins for outreach. Few things will bring outsiders and insiders closer together than taking insiders outside. Outdoor services allow your church to invite your community to a non-threatening, neutral environment. Neighbors may feel skeptical about walking into the sanctuary at First Baptist, but they’ll let down their defenses if they’re heading to the neighborhood park.
You can use the momentum of an outdoor event to bless your city by partnering with a local charity, or inviting attendees to bring food for the soup kitchen or blankets for the homeless shelter. You might lean into existing partnerships or ask your team to help forge new ones.
But to pull off this kind of service, you will need to be intentional. Outdoor events take more planning than indoor services. Churches can’t just close their eyes, toss something together, and hope for the best. When you uproot your entire congregation and move them to a new location, you will need contingency plans for your contingency plans. So cool your jets, extend your timeline, and think about the details. Here are a few things I’ve learned from the many outdoor events I’ve helped coordinate.
1. Gather your brain trust. This is not the time to plan solo. You need your whole leadership team involved: your music team, tech team, kids’ ministry team, communication team, and preaching team. Pull in creatives who can think outside the box. Toss in a project manager with an eye for details and a few IV drips of coffee. Find a highly organized leader to be your point person.
2. Find your purpose. Don’t do this just to do it. Rally around something. The primary purpose of the gathered church should always be to celebrate Jesus. But this is also an opportunity for the body of Christ to give back and bless the city. We have used outdoor events to partner with under-performing schools and throw a block party for families, leveraging that time to build relationships and provide resources to the school and students. We’ve created opportunities to raise money for local refugee ministries. We try to devote a large percentage, of not all, of the offering to that organization. This allowed us to highlight that ministry’s name and mission in front of everyone in attendance. Here’s the bottom line: don’t make your gathering just about you. Invite others to the party, and bless them as well.
3. Grab a spot. Depending on your church size, the venue might be your tallest hurdle to jump. If you’re small or medium-sized, your own property or a city park might suffice. Larger congregations will need to think through a few more details. Stadiums or school football fields may be options, and some are surprisingly affordable.
4. Pick a time. Unless you live in a bio-dome, plan on being unable to plan for weather. The nature of your event will drive the season in which you host it. A 50-degree night may be great for a fall festival, but not so great for a baptism service. Beyond the chance of chilly rain or scorching heat, take into consideration school vacation schedules, local sports teams’ home games, existing community celebrations, and other conflicting events.
5. Assemble your team. I’ve found that large outdoor events are an exciting opportunity to pull out all the stops when it comes to creating spaces for people to serve. Congregation members who don’t normally step forward are far more likely to lean in when they perceive a big need and organizational momentum. Highlight “one-time-service” opportunities, and you might discover that people stick around long after the big event is over. This also gives you an opportunity to see, in real-time, a person’s previously undiscovered gifts and talents.
6. Plan for safety. Sadly, we no longer live in Mayberry where old friends can gather for an impromptu concert at the band shell with nothing to fear but spiders. Larger churches should consider hiring off-duty security. Smaller churches might try to work with their local police department to develop a comprehensive safety strategy.
7. Sweat the details. Is this a kid-friendly service or will you provide on-site childcare? Is there enough parking to accommodate your crowd? Do attendees pay for parking or do you subsidize? Will you provide food or ask people to pack a picnic? Will your venue’s built-in audiovisual equipment suffice, or do you need to truck it in or hire an outside professional? Do you need to secure permits for crowds and sound?
8. Deliver the wow. This is no time to pinch pennies. When it comes to outdoor services, go big or go home. Hardwire this into your budget. Go the extra mile with programming. Pay attention to the special touches: If it’s hot, provide sunscreen and bug spray. If it’s cold, pass out hot chocolate and hand warmers.
9. About those contingencies. What will you do if it rains? Do you relocate or reschedule? What happens if too many people show up? Will you have to turn some away? We have dealt with everything from the minor—early morning rain which resulted in a few dozen volunteers being outfitted with towels and deployed on a search-and-dry mission—to the major—a suspicious package, which led our venue hosts to evacuate 2,000 people 20 minutes before the start of the service. I can’t tell you how to prepare for every possible issue, but I can remind you that you will have issues. Anticipation and flexibility are key. As Getting Things Doneauthor David Allen says, “Over-prepare. Then go with the flow.”
10. Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. I don’t care if your church members have been to the venue dozens of times before, they’ve likely never been to a church service there. So answer their questions before they ask. Let people know what time the doors will open, what the options are for their kids, what you’ll provide to eat, and how long the service or event will last. Communicate those specifics in written (email, website, mailed letter), verbal (Sunday announcements), and visual (walk-through video, if possible) forms to cut out the confusion.
By moving services outside, we have created some of the fondest corporate memories in our church’s history. As we look back on the last decade of our existence, many of the high-water marks were moments where the entire church family came together, celebrated Jesus, and invited friends and neighbors into the story of the gospel.
Danny Franks is connections pastor at the Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina.