Worship Outside the Walls

January 1st, 2019
This article is featured in the The Future of Worship (Feb/Mar/Apr 2019) issue of Circuit Rider

I follow an itinerant rabbi. Homeless might be one description. That’s basically how Jesus described himself to potential disciples. When a Jewish religious leader offered to follow the Savior “wherever you go,” Jesus warned, “Foxes have dens to live in, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place even to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). When this ancient scribe discovered the cost of following Jesus, he turned away. It was more than he could give.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus moved from town to town, even when people begged him to put down roots. To explain, our Lord said, “I must preach the Good News of the Kingdom of God in other towns, too, because that is why I was sent” (Luke 4:43). And not just other towns, but places in those new communities far beyond the normal worship sites. Jesus preached in synagogues, but was equally willing to take church to a crowded marketplace, a hillside, or even a house party thrown by a tax collector.

What about us? Why have we allowed ourselves to get glued in one place?

A city block,

An acre of land,

A church building.

We are followers of an itinerant rabbi. And yet, when we think about reaching “the lost” we invariably beg them to come to us. We try to make it as appealing as possible, of course: snazzy worship bands, updated worship space, slides, and relevant sermon series. “Please come over here!” we call out to the lost. This isn’t wrong. But it’s certainly not the only way to worship. Jesus did not glue you inside your church building. It’s okay, even important to also worship outside the walls, in the places ordinary people already go: the modern markets, hillsides and homes.

Two years ago, my church was running three on-campus services. All were full. Sometimes, new people took a look inside our sanctuary, turned on their heels, and headed back out the door. How awful! The obvious solution was to build a bigger sanctuary, but we knew the cost would be enormous. And even with a bigger sanctuary, there were many people who might be interested in God, but not willing to come on campus, no matter how friendly and approachable the congregation. They wanted to know God better, but the hurdle of meeting God on our turf was too great.

So we began to dream of taking worship out into the community. We were especially interested in places non-church people already felt comfortable: parks, restaurants, even bars. We ended up partnering with a local distillery. They were just getting started and the owner loved the idea of a built-in Sunday morning crowd. A seed congregation from my church along with a lay pastor and song leader started No Walls Worship. Members invited their friends and were delighted when they said yes. Word began to spread at the local Crisis Ministry. People who had never joined us on-campus had the courage to worship with us at the distillery.

No Walls Worship happens in a bar so searchers can approach Jesus on their turf. The impact has been tremendous. People have come to faith. Lives have been changed and even saved. Every month, people who would never interact with believers in their daily lives meet us at a bar. Worshipping outside our walls is having making an impact. Our lay pastor overheard the owner of the Distillery telling his head bartender, “These Christians are f---ing awesome!”

When you start to see the world as your church, the opportunities for innovative worship are endless. Wilson Pruitt, pastor of Berkley UMC in Austin, TX, created “Church on a Trail.” Pruitt realized the people around his church were young, healthy, and outdoorsy. Instead of begging them to sit down in his sanctuary, Pruitt imagined worship in hiking boots. Church on a Trail is advertised on outdoor hiking boards and meet-up apps. Once a month, Pruitt goes to a trailhead and waits for his “congregation” to arrive. A varied group gathers, prays and sings as they hike. It’s been a tremendous way to reach the neighborhood.

Pamela Dykehouse serves a church right off of the beach in Corpus Christi, TX. She realized the community around her church was intimidated by the old, stately church building that the members so dearly loved. So Dykehouse began offering Yoga Chapel, a worship service where you just might pray in downward facing dog, or listen to a message in Warrior pose. People who drove past the church building for years are now active worshippers, all because Yoga Chapel took worship to them.

I’ve stood alongside Highway 71 at a local Feedstore on Ash Wednesday to impose ashes and pray for motorists on their morning commute. We’ve held Palm Sunday in community parks, vineyards, icehouses and amphitheaters. Holy Thursday moved from our sanctuary to a lakeside park. We seek, not just to call to the lost, but to go out into the community and meet them where they already are.

Worship is not just what we do in our building. Church doesn’t only happen on your campus. Where at the lost sheep in your community? What are the spaces where they already feel comfortable? Could you take worship to them? Could your next service be outside the church? Let’s reclaim our heritage! We are followers of an itinerant rabbi. A homeless Savior. The one who did not call us to stay put and wait, but to “go and make disciples of all the nations…” (Matthew 28:19).

Where does God need your next worship service to be? I suspect it’s not inside the church.

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