I am meeting in a local coffee shop this morning with other area pastors to plan our annual Labor Day community worship service.
Our Labor Day ecumenical worship actually began as a sesquicentennial celebration on July 3rd a few years back. Every small town in Iowa has its special summer event—Watermelon Days, Fun Days, Beef Days—and my little town has always celebrated its birthday on the third of July with food in the park, bands, a parade, and fireworks at the end of the evening. When your 150th birthday comes around, however, you have to go all out. I was approached by the planners of the three-day event about helping to coordinate a community worship service in the park on Sunday during the middle of the celebration.
That first year, the city provided bleachers and a sound system on the stage in our town square... all set up already for the bands the night before and the concerts later that day. A local instrumental group had already been contacted about playing and the community choir was willing to sing. I contacted other pastors in town and we set to work creating a service to celebrate our community, give thanks to God for our long history, and to preach the word in the midst of people who might never set foot in our doors.
Our initial time of worship went so well that we were told we had to do it again next year! Not quite realizing all of the behind the scenes work, I said yes without hesitation. And then discovered what a job we had to do!
Choosing a Date and Time
Iowa is hot in July. And August. And sometimes September. So the first thing we decided was to move our service to later in the summer to avoid one of the pitfalls of outdoor worship: heat. Plus, our town's annual July 3rd celebration would not always fall on a Sunday and we wanted to connect our worship service with an important time in the life of the community. We chose Labor Day Sunday in order to lift up how a secular holiday is also a chance to lift up the grace and power of God.
Another difficulty came in choosing the time to worship. In the previous year, we were given a limited time frame by the planners of the sesquicentennial, who had other events planned for the morning on the same stage. But with a morning wide open, we tried to plan the event at a time when the most people could come. Some churches decided to cancel their services that morning and worship with the community. Others wanted to worship as a body and then come out and join us. We chose a later time of worship, 11:00 a.m., in order to make room for all—including those from churches in our town that would not participate in the planning but might have members who were singing or playing or simply wanted to attend.
Once we set a date and time, we went about contacting the same groups that had led worship with us the year before: the Civil War Band and the Believers Choir. Both were willing to participate, but in their own way. The Civil War Band accompanied our hymns, which limited our selections to songs already in their repertoire. About a month before the service, they shared a list of about twenty hymns they regularly played in their concerts and we chose from those. The community choir works on a set list of songs each year and they offered to sing three songs all together near the end of the service. We chose to have this during the offering and time of communion so that there would be minimal transition time. Working with outside groups, flexibility is the number one requirement! We were blessed that both groups were able and willing to play for no cost.
Our ecumenical ministerial alliance started planning the details of the service about a month ahead of time. We planned a liturgy based on the resources of our churches. We found liturgists from all four mainline Protestant churches and as the pastor of the United Methodist church, I volunteered to preside over communion.
The sharing of a sacrament in this type of ecumenical service can be controversial, but to be honest it was not a major discussion in our group. My tradition holds that all Christians are welcome at our table. We believe that anyone who desires a relationship with God through Jesus Christ will find a place there. With Labor Day being on the first weekend of the month, it was a communion Sunday already in all four of our churches. To celebrate that sacrament together seemed like a no brainer. We combined our time of offering and communion so that those who did not feel comfortable participating (especially our Catholic and LCMS brothers and sisters) could still come forward and give their offering without partaking.
Behind the Scenes
For the most part, planning this service felt like planning any other time of worship. As the point person, our church printed bulletins and simply printed more than usual. Each church was asked to provide two ushers to direct folks to the seating area, where people set up their own lawn chairs, and to hand out bulletins and help distribute communion.
But I quickly realized there were some new wrenches in this planning to discern. The use of the stage in the park was free, but the sound system had only been temporarily installed for the community event the previous summer. After asking around, I learned a church in the area could loan us a small portable sound system with two large speakers and two microphones.
We also needed to provide chairs for the band and the speakers as well as a table for the communion elements. I recruited a crew of five people to meet us at our church about an hour before the service to load up the back of a pick-up truck with the things we needed.
Worshiping outside provides its own challenges. You need to account for the wind and place all of your preaching and liturgy notes in a three-ring binder, and weigh down things like the napkins that cover the communion bread. You need to make sure that the sound carries to the back of the area where people will gather. And you need to have a plan for what will happen if it rains.
Getting the Word Out
A successful event involves people showing up. Bringing together four churches in our community, we knew that we could count on between 100 and 200 people. However, this event is also about welcoming in people who do not regularly attend our churches. Our local paper ran a story in the paper the week before and we placed a small ad reminding people about the time and to bring their own lawn chairs. Each church was responsible for using its resources: newsletters, bulletins, etc. to pass along information, also.
But often, it is simply the gathering of people that draws a crowd. Last year, as we were setting up, a little girl was playing on the playground next to the stage. She came over to see what we were doing and helped us to catch papers that had flown away. And during the entire service, she sat on the edge of the stage and drew me a picture of God. She didn't belong to any of our congregations—she had simply been playing in the park. But our very presence in our town square caught her attention. And it caught the attention of people going in to breakfast at the three restaurants that surrounded us and the gas station, and those who were driving by.
Maybe they stopped, maybe they didn't. But if they did, they would have heard us singing the songs of praise and thanking God for another year of life and of work.