New Life’s Evolving Outdoor Ministry (Rev. Carmen Retzlaff)
Two and a half years ago, on Maundy Thursday 2014, at New Life Lutheran Church of Dripping Springs, Texas, when we stripped the altar in that great liturgical moment of the church year, we carried the altar and other furniture out to the land, leaving behind the air-conditioned comfort and cushy pews of the office rental space in which we were worshiping. We’d already moved our Bible studies to bars and coffee shops, and our prayer group to homes and started going out ourselves into the community some Sundays to get to know and to serve our neighbors. We’d already started worshiping outside on a beautiful piece of Texas Hill Country land, and begun to think how to share it with our neighbors.
But it was still hard. It was still a leap of faith. Could we worship outside every week? In all weather? Could we create a space for people in our town and area to find sanctuary and come close to God? Could we create a sanctuary for local flora and fauna right in the middle of one of the fastest developing parts of the country?
Did we have a choice? As a mission church, a Christian church, we came up hard against the reality of what our job is. Our job is not to make a comfortable church for US. Our job is to share the bounty, to build the Kingdom of the master, the lord and landowner. We work for some one else. We are called to share the good news of God’s amazing love. And we have a beautiful piece of Hill Country property. We were called to put our faith in action.
We’ve worshiped outside for two years now, in all kinds of Central Texas weather. On nice days, we worship under three huge live oak trees, with an old livestock water trough that has been converted to an altar. Bible study meets at picnic tables after worship, and children gather for Godly Play, hearing a story while seated on a circle of stones, under one of the majestic oaks. We have an event tent for when it rains, and walls and heaters for the tent for when it is cold. We raised money for a gravel parking lot when the rains made too much mud.
There are walking trails and mediation spots corresponding to the scriptural stations of the cross, and a bird blind for bird watching, a prayer labyrinth, and a new community garden that is growing food for local food pantries. We invite our neighbors to eat lunch at our picnic tables. Almost every day New Life members are out on the land trimming, mowing, planting, praying.
This year we had our first children’s Gardening Camp - a half day, one-week adventure in outdoor activities for children in our community. It was amazing—we planted our fall vegetable garden, sang songs, danced in fields of grass, did nature-based crafts and games.
We are practicing new ways of being church, and now that we’ve offered outdoor worship in the Hill Country, many people tell me that they hope we never build a structure here. We are bound to honor nature and worship in and with it, because we’ve let that loose here, the Holy Spirit is not contained. We’re not going to be able to go back to church the way it was, with Bible studies in the building, and work projects in the fellowship hall. We’re on a new path. We’re gathering people from all faith walks, some of whom never knew that fabled Christian church of the glory days—and some of whom walked away from that.
I think Jesus wants us to include everyone. The people who come here to work in the gardens, or to walk the trails. The ones who like church, the ones who don’t care about church, and the ones who just like to be outside.
Sometimes we’re a bit of a mess at New Life. Sometimes the rain blows into the tent or the propane runs out on the heater, and sometimes people are crabby and imperfect.
Well, we’re always imperfect. But the other part is that God is always God. And one of the things about New Life is that we can really see that, every week. God is always here. The birds sing with us, the deer walk by. After a cold rainy day, we have a perfect blue sky the next Sunday. God’s promises hold. The rabbits eat some tomatoes, but the earth sustains the new seedlings, and the land is fruitful. One year we are short on wild grapes, the next year we have a bumper crop of communion wine.
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