We didn’t imagine being in this position. Our building is off limits for church, and the parking lot is the center of ministry.
Here’s something else we never imagined: we like outdoor church better than church indoors!
Maybe it’s that we’re all desperate for the fun things we used to go and do. Everything is postponed or cancelled because of the pandemic. And church outdoors, with our beach chairs and blankets, feels like a tailgate party – even though we’re socially distanced and masked-up.
See the first part in this series here: how to hold an outdoor church service that people love.
Here are 13 things we’re learning about the logistics of having church in the parking lot.
We started the service at 9:30 am during the overcast June days in San Diego. When it warmed up in July, we moved the service to 9:00 am. Changing the time wasn’t the communication feat it would be in normal days because most of us have less on our schedules.
As more cars fill up the parking lot, we’re looking at adding a second service, but there isn’t an ideal choice. 11:00 am will be too hot. Saturday or Sunday evening will be dark in a couple of months. By October, the 11:00 am sunshine will be an asset. Do we choose the best time for this month, or to take us through the winter?
Maybe that’s why our predecessors decided that church indoors is better. It solves the weather issues. In the meantime, we’ll be flexible and encourage our attenders to go with the flow.
Our Spanish-speaking daughter church is meeting on Sunday afternoon like always, but now they are under the portico at the front of the building.
We started with the stage against a hillside at the side of our parking lot. It was a nice backdrop, but we decided it was better to have people face the front of the church. It feels right… like we’re going into the house of the Lord… even if we’re not.
We have a driveway right in front of the church, and plants in a border between the parking lot and the driveway. At first we wondered how to put the stage in front of the church because the plants would block the view. We solved it by putting the plants behind the stage.
The plants help provide a backdrop rather than blocking the view. The congregation sees the stage, plants, and the church behind it.
We feel like we’re a church plant again, doing all the set up every weekend with a “whatever it takes” attitude.
We started with a 24” stage, because we had the pieces for it in storage, but weeks later we elevated it two more feet so the people in the cars would have better sight lines. In California, a 48″ stage requires a railing, so ours is 47 inches high.
We have shade fabric above and on two sides of the stage. It keeps the worship team and the preacher cool, and gives the stage a sense of space.
It is work to set it up and take it down each week. Now that we’ve built the higher stage, we’re leaving it in the parking lot during the week, just taking down the shade screen, and praying it won’t be vandalized.
Good sound is the most important thing. Here are a few lessons from our worship pastor:
If you don’t know how to set up sound outside, ask for help from the person in your congregation or the friend from college who does know sound.
The person in charge of the sound will need some new team members to help with set up and take down.
Develop a process and smart storage for the equipment when you take it down each weekend because it will be faster to set it up next week. It’s worth thinking ahead to next week’s set up, and to get better at how you’re doing it each time.
Put the sound table in the middle of the congregation so the sound person hears what everyone else is hearing.
We’ve been tempted to think that we need to find a way to get a big blow up screen. But then we decided that part of the vibe of the outdoor service is that it’s casual. We decided to aim for the balance between excellent sound and feeling unplugged.
It’s all one big team these days.
As people arrive, they are welcomed by our most joyful greeters. They are handed a program and are directed to turn to the front of the church if they are going to stay in their car, or to circle around back and the far side to park, drop off their kids, and grab their chairs to join the mosh pit.
When the stay-in-the-car people turn into the front parking lot, there are greeter/ushers stationed frequently to direct them to a parking space. We are parking cars in every other spot so people are never parked next to another car.
The greeters have learned where people like to park and try to direct them back to their favorite section. It’s a little slow because first-timers have questions about what to do. Once people have come one time, they know how it works.
We began outdoor services with no program because we thought people wouldn’t want to risk being handed a piece of paper potentially glittering with COVID-19.
We quickly realized that people need a program, and they could refuse it if they were worried about the virus on it.
Initially, we used the same tri-fold program we were using pre-coronavirus.
Then we realized they needed the song lyrics. And more thorough message notes. And the Bible verses from the sermon. Everything that used to be on the screen, we now put in their hands.
We’ve tried printing it landscape with double staples in the middle. Last week we printed it vertically with a staple in the corner.
We hand them an offering envelope and a connection card separate from the program as they drive in.
We’ll keep tweaking it based on feedback and our observations until we’re satisfied.
At first we had someone with a bucket collecting the offering and connection cards as cars exited the parking lot. But they had to stay at their post for 45 minutes until the last worshippers left.
Now ushers walk the buckets to the people in the mosh pit and then to the cars around the edges during the final song. The usher extends the bucket and the giver drops in their offering and connection card.
We continue to encourage people to give online.
Back in the day when we had church inside the building, we had prayer partners along the front of the stage during the final song. We encouraged people to come up and get prayer for whatever they needed.
In the early weeks of our parking lot services, people were hesitant about prayer partners. It’s hard to pray for personal concerns when you’re socially distancing. We spread the prayer partners across the front of the building away from each other and the congregation.
The problem? No one went to get prayer.
These days during the last song the prayer partners stand on either side of our stage. They are easy to see and it feels normal to go and get prayer. There is enough volume from the band and social separation to give the prayer huddles the privacy they need.
We have an usher in front of the main doors, which are closed, to keep track of people going inside the building to use the bathroom. Most people plan not to need it during the hour they’re at church. It hasn’t been an issue.
When we started the outdoor service, we were just thankful to have church, and we focused on the most essential things… like where to put the people and can they hear.
As the weeks have passed, we’ve added back the things that make church our community.
We do communion once a month with the all-in-one sealed communion cups. People pick them out of communion trays from the greeter as they arrive. When the time for communion comes, I’ve explained how to open it to get to the cracker and not splash the grape juice since the sealed up communion elements are new to us.
One weekend we set up our portable baptistry in front of the stage and baptized a new believer. That was a joyful moment.
We’ve welcomed new members into the congregation. Like in the old inside-days, they come onstage, I introduce them, give them a New Song t-shirt, and pray for them. The only thing that’s different is that now I ask before I set my hand on their shoulder to pray for them.
Same as new members, except there are babies and kids on the stage, and we give them a hand-knitted blanket and a certificate.
When it was time to approve the budget in June, just like always, we told the congregation, made the budget available for review online, passed out ballots with the program, and collected them with the offering.
Normally, we recognize staff for serving 5, 10, 15 or 20 years at our leadership conference in August. Oasis was cancelled this summer, so we celebrated the staff milestones during the service one weekend. It was good for the congregation to see the longevity of the staff, and the staff appreciated that moment of recognition.
We’re a church, pandemic or not, and we need to carry on with church life. We try to have some church-life moment in the service almost every weekend. It’s working well, and it encourages people to see that our community continues.
We opened our children’s ministry in mid-June. The first week we did a soft opening with staff families to work out any bugs.
The next weekend we officially reopened our children’s ministry with 17 children. Then that week Governor Newsom dialed back re-opening, and prohibited indoor gatherings.
So, since we’re practicing being fast and flexible, that week we made plans to move our children’s ministry outside. We bought pop-up tents, and blew up balloons, and moved the tables and chairs and cubbies outside for the weekend service.
There were 48 kids. And their parents came to the service, many for the first time.
These days the team has it dialed in. Set up and take down are like portable church in our own building. There isn’t video or all the toys, but there is excellent kid-style worship, and the Bible lesson is taught by our outstanding teachers. The kids know the safety protocols, even the preschoolers. My grandchildren come out happy every week.
Outdoor children’s ministry will grow your outdoor church service.
We all need a little fun these days, so we’re giving some weekends a little extra pizzazz.
On Father’s Day we had a barbecue after church. With our best CDC cooking, serving, and eating guidelines we served grilled chicken and ribs for a few bucks after the service. Some people ate in their cars and others in their chairs. Some chose not to. It brought a little bit of normal life to the weekend service.
A few weeks later, to celebrate the Fourth of July, we had a Cub Scout Color Guard, a Marine from the Marine Corp Band played taps, and our Youth Band sang the national anthem. And we rolled out barbecue after church.
One weekend we went Hawaiian. We encouraged everyone to wear their Hawaiian shirts. We handed out leis with the program as they arrived. And we served shaved ice after the service. It added a layer of summer-life-can-be-fun joy to the service.
As football season begins-or-not, we’ll have a weekend where everyone wears their favorite team’s jersey. We do that every year because seeing the fans throw down shade as brothers-in-Christ never gets old.
It’s enough to make a pastor’s head spin.
For several weeks I was filming our online sermon indoors. It occurred to me that people who are not going outdoors might be more blessed if I had outdoor scenery behind me, so we switched to outdoor filming.
This week on Monday, I re-filmed this weekend’s message for the online service because they were tree trimming at our outdoor film location last week.
On Friday, I’ll film the message for nine days from now. This Sunday, I’ll preach outdoors the sermon I filmed nine days ago. I’m writing sermon-based small group materials for our Life Groups, and a message recap for the people who aren’t coming to our online or outdoor services.
The discussions are more complicated in our staff meetings. “Which weekend are we talking about right now?” But it’s worth it to pursue getting better in both our online and outdoor services.
What is your church doing during the pandemic? Is it time to do something more to grow your outdoor church service?