At Foley United Methodist Church in Foley, Alabama, outdoor worship has been the norm for decades. Since 1951, the church has hosted a Galilean Beach Service for members and vacationing guests every Sunday morning from Mother’s Day to Labor Day.
The Rev. Nolan Donald, lead pastor, calls the beach setting “God’s greatest sanctuary.”
“This is one of the most evangelistic things we get to do. You get people who aren’t regulars or who have moved away from church and you get a chance to help them hear a message,” he said.
“We can still spread out since it’s a big beach,” he said. “Everyone brings their own chairs, so there’s not any cleanup. It’s not like we have to clean the sand.”
The amphitheater was built in 2007 as more of a community gathering space. Scout troops and other neighborhood groups had met there, but it had not been used for worship until the pandemic lockdowns began.
The first outdoor service was for Pentecost. Now, the amphitheater has become the church. Each Sunday, in-person worship begins by the lake at 9:30 a.m.
The Rev. Ingrid Beguinistain Akers, the church’s pastor, said that she’s “just loving this.”
“People can come; they can be casual. They can pull their boat up to attend if they want. It’s meeting people where they are, which is exactly what Jesus does for us.”
Though not every church has a beach or lake nearby, many are making use of parking lots or open spaces on their grounds.
Louisiana Avenue United Methodist Church in Lafayette, Louisiana, sits on six acres of land with enough open space for people to sit in their cars and listen to the Rev. Robert E. Johnson Sr. preach. The service is also broadcast live on the church’s Facebook page.
Johnson cited a survey he recently conducted with the congregation that showed only 26% of members felt comfortable returning to the sanctuary.
“So we’ve done this for a month or two now, to give people some kind of normalcy without being in the building,” he said. “We have enough space outside to accommodate more people than we can currently allow in the building.”
Johnson also pastors two smaller churches that he said are able to meet in person in limited capacity, but with Louisiana Avenue averaging 130-150 in worship, that would mean literally turning people away from church, which he is unwilling to do.
“We don’t know who needs on any given Sunday to be healed, to hear that message, to be in the presence of others,” he said. “To turn people away because we’re full is not Christ-like. Can you imagine if Jesus did that to us?”
Worshipping in the park with the community has become the norm for members of First United Methodist Church in Pierre, South Dakota. After lockdown restrictions began to ease, First United Methodist joined four other area churches to plan an ecumenical outdoor worship service, which they call One Hope.
Each week, one church takes the lead planning the worship, preparing everything that is needed, and including the other congregations. First United Methodist provides the technology for sound, projection and livestreaming. All three churches broadcast the service on their Facebook pages.
"People were enthusiastic and really enjoyed the opportunity to be in worship with others," said the Rev. Greg Kroger, First United Methodist’s pastor. "It went so well some of us thought we would continue the effort."
The first service was June 28 and will continue each Sunday for the remainder of the summer.
Since summer lasts a lot longer in Gulf Shores, Donald said the beach service could run past its usual Labor Day cutoff.
“We may continue the service here a few more months until the weather cools down, or we may move to downtown Foley, where there’s a big park in the center of downtown. Just to make it a little more accessible to our community.”
Grantham was raised in the Foley church and though he is now a member of a United Methodist church in nearby Bon Secour, he still comes back for the scenery.
“Sometimes we’ll be sitting here, and the preacher is facing us. We’ll see dolphins in the water and the preacher will have to ask, ‘What are y’all looking at?’”
Butler is a multimedia producer/editor and DuBose is staff photographer for UM News. Contact them at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected] To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests. Lindsay Peyton, writer for the Texas Conference Cross Connection, and Doreen Gosmire, Dakotas Conference director of communications, contributed to this story.