There is a growing movement of people worshipping outdoors, whether as part of regular church activities, or as a special interest group that meets once in a while. There are of course theological motivations behind these activities, but recent events have increased the trend for other reasons. A number of churches chose to meet in a socially distanced way outdoors last summer in order to reduce the risk of COVID-19 virus transmission. Some churches are able to use their own churchyard for services, and others will need to ask permission to use a local park or green space. Depending on how things go in the coming months, this way of gathering together may continue to be one of the safest ways for churches to meet as better weather returns.
The various more formally organised outdoor church movements – Forest Church, Wild Church, Mossy Church, and others – include Christians from a variety of theological backgrounds. Some are more evangelical, taking the opportunity to join in with creation’s praise and reach out to people who like doing things outdoors, while others are more liberal and may draw on panentheism or include elements of paganism or nature worship – with everything in between.
The main thing to bear in mind when worshipping outdoors is to think Biblically and look beyond just moving our regular services outdoors and adapting them a bit so we can still run things as we usually would. It’s worth stopping to think about what is happening around us when we are outside. For example, the Psalms are full of the language of creation praising God. Are these passages largely metaphorical, or is there something about creation that brings praise and glory to God simply by being itself? I tend to go with the latter, and enjoy being aware of and join in with creation’s praise on my walks in the fields near my home.
The question is then, how can we run services that truly make the most of worshipping outside? Can we let ourselves revel in the joy and wonder of creation, feeding that into our own worship – whether in times of singing, prayer or silent reflection? Can we help creation to continue its praise by doing some litter picking or other care for creation activities as part of our time outside? Can we learn wisdom from creation, drawing on the Biblical wisdom literature in our teaching and readings?
Other more practical principles will hopefully be obvious: dress for the (current and potential) weather, and take some spare gear to share with those who might not have any. Again, caring for creation is also important: don’t damage anything, leave nothing behind, and preferably leave the space healthier than when you found it. Finally, please don’t forget to do the relevant risk assessments and take the first aid kit.
There is a wealth of resources available to help churches worship or learn in a Christian context outdoors. You may well find that your own denomination or favourite publisher has produced their own resources, but here are a few suggestions below.
There is a large collection of devotional pieces drawing on scientific and outdoorsy themes on Faraday Churches.
Rachel Oates, who was the Environmental Coordinator at Lee Abbey, explores the principle of participating in creation’s worship in her ‘Praying with Creation’ activity – which anyone could do in their own garden or local park (which includes a link to the prayer activity instructions at the bottom of the page).
Rachel Summers is a forest school teacher who has written a series of books: Wild Worship, Wild Lent and Wild Advent (Kevin Mayhew, £7.99 each), which I have often featured on Faraday Churches. The Lent and Advent books contain a series of two-page sessions, each of which which includes two devotional thoughts and a description of an activity to do (many are very simple and won’t take much – if any – preparation). Wild Worship contains several extra ‘make or do’ activities for each session, as well as Bible readings, songs and ways to pray , as well as a devotional thought and main activity. Kevin Mayhew also recently published a book of weekly devotions, God in the Garden, as part of the same series.
Sam and Sara Hargreaves of Engage Worship regularly run worship times outdoors, and have produced Outdoor Worship (paper book/pdf £6/£5, with some free online content). The activities would work well for children and young people as well as adults, and include some simple reflective activities as well as plenty that involve a bit more interactivity, time or equipment, such as playing games, geocaching or cooking over a bonfire.
Outdoor Church (BRF, £8.99) is by Rev Sally Welch, who is experienced in both working with families and children, and writing prayer and worship materials. This book provides five all-age sessions for each season of the year.
Creative Ideas for Wild Church (Canterbury Press, £19.99) is by Mary Jackson, a teacher and landscape architect, and Juno Hollyhock who is Executive Director of Learning Through Landscapes – a charity dedicated to enhancing outdoor play and learning for children. It contains a series of more detailed service plans including liturgy, prayers, talk outlines, activities and song ideas.
One of the most well-known books on outdoor worship is Bruce Stanley’s Forest Church. Unlike the above resources which are more evangelical or mainstream, Stanley’s expression of Christianity draws on panentheism and pagan spirituality. His writing contains insights that any Christian leader will find helpful in thinking about how to worship God. He also includes plenty of practical advice and ideas for activities, based on his own long experience of running Forest Church groups.
Grove Booklet by Cate Williams on the principles and practice of Forest Church
Church of England resources for, and about, outdoor worship
Joy in Enough on outdoor worship, with further recommended resources
Another outdoor worship book from the US (mainstream, contains liturgies for a wide range of outdoor services, as well as Biblical precedents for outdoor worship and information about liturgical gardens).
An evangelical perspective on outdoor worship movements
There is more to explore online!
 If it’s even possible to put them on a linear spectrum or neatly categories very diverse groups of people, which I suspect it isn’t.
 I am using the word ‘Worship’ here in a fairly broad sense, meaning the things we do when we gather together as a churches – prayer, singing, teaching, silence: any of the ways we use to meet, learn about or interact with God when we get together, as well as the times of more relaxed fellowship that inevitably proceed and follow our more formal activities (when that is possible).