As well as pushing churches online and into people’s homes, the pandemic has also pushed many of us to go outside. Not only have many churches been able to meet outside safely, to reduce the risks of Covid transmission, but people have been forced to meet outside for one-to-ones, street evangelism and even Bible studies.
But as churches are now free to meet inside again, we’re asking, should the Church continue to meet outside? And what useful things have we learnt from church life in lockdown that we can take with us beyond the pandemic?
This week, we asked our social media followers what their experience of outside church had been during the pandemic, and on Tuesday 15 June, we were joined by three experienced church leaders who shared their experiences.
Outside for Sunday services?
It was clear from both comments from our followers, and advice from church pastors that ‘outside church’ (for want of another term) has a different feel and flavour than ‘inside church’. One supporter on YouTube told us: “Praising God outside, looking at His marvellous creation is wonderful. I often go outside and praise Jesus, and it draws people who need to hear the gospel to Him.”
Taking church outside can be a positive step to reach all sorts of people with the gospel that might not usually set foot inside an actual church building. Kurt Erickson, pastor of Eleos Christian Church in Bethnal Green, was quick to point out the evangelistic nature of doing church outside, even if contains all the same elements as an indoor service: “The walls don’t make a difference; I preach the same inside or outside,” he said. “But there’s a rawness when you go outside, and an unexpectedness. Outside church tends to be more evangelistic anyway – it has to be, as you’re catering to all those who go past. Every time you outside is different, even though we use the same format. The difference is the ‘clientele’, if you like – it’s very fluid. A crowd draws people in, which you wouldn’t necessarily get inside a church. And I encourage our church members that come with me every week – we are ministers of the gospel.”
One of our team at Christian Concern also told us of her experiences of outside church: “A really encouraging thing to come out of the pandemic is that we had to do our evangelism outside and actually think about how to attract people to our outside area. So over Easter, we ran an Easter trail and were amazed with how many people came, just seeing the balloons and bunting and being nosey (and not having to actually enter the church!) was enough to get them to engage in an activity and talk to us. So we’re planning more outside outreach which we would never have thought of doing pre-pandemic.”
Other churches have found more creative ways of doing church outside as well. Wave House Church in Newquay was among the first English churches to do a drive-in service. Matt Timms, pastor of Wave House told us: “Little did we know the impact that was going to have – not just locally, but nationally. It captured the press around the country. We didn’t know the impact that was going to have, we just followed Jesus’ instruction to us to take the church outside. We explored the whole idea of drive-in church as a way of bringing the church together to worship God and have an opportunity to publicly preach Christ and be the church out where we are.”
Matt also told us about the reality of taking church outside – and perhaps the reason why some churches have struggled with it: “Worshipping outside requires a new level of sacrifice, of dying to self – it’s all or nothing with worshipping outside. It’s definitely been a learning curve for us!”
Why outside? Should we continue?
Yet despite the difficulties and the sacrifices one needs to make to take church outside, everyone seems to agree that it’s a good thing. Who could really argue that sharing the truth of the gospel with those who might not usually engage was a bad idea?
Matt told us Wave House would be continuing to put on outside church services throughout the year, whether or not there was a pandemic: “I think the Church needs to go outside,” he affirmed.
Adrian Elms, pastor of Darent Valley Community Church got in touch with us over email to share what his church had been doing: “Last summer, we took the decision to go open air and moved our services into Eynsford Castle. This proved very popular and people travelled considerable distances to join us. The castle itself remained open as a historic monument so people were still wandering in and stumbled on our service. We were also joined by many local non-church folk who wanted fellowship. We adopted an ‘open mic’ to allow many to share. It has also envisioned us so that we are doing the same again this year during July and August, whether there is a lockdown or not. We are taking our faith into the marketplace where it needs to be. Matthew 28 in the Great Commission tells us to go, not to sit in our churches to wait!”
Kurt Erickson also spoke into the need for the church to be outside: “Being outside, there’s a different dynamic on the street. Public praise and public reading of the word is a wonderful discipline that the church has lost – and it does bring people in. People are hungry for the Word, hungry for the truth and when you’re proclaiming it on the streets, people are drawn to it like moths to a flame.”
Tunde Balogun, pastor of Kingsborough Centre in Uxbridge, encouraged us on our livestream that churches shouldn’t necessarily feel the pressure to change the way they do their services on a Sunday. “We should be going outside. We should be reaching people. But it doesn’t have to be on a Sunday. The Bible says that where two or three people are gathered, He will be there with them. Where truth is being proclaimed, the people will come.”
Outreach and work on the streets
For many churches, it wasn’t simply about taking church services outdoors to be more evangelistic. One thing that frustrated many of was not being able to invite those we want to see saved into a physical church building (although sometimes it was possible to pass them a link to online church). However, the pandemic created a golden opportunity for Christians to serve their communities evangelistically and bring hope to those around them.
It was great to hear all of our supporters’ ways of getting involved in more outside ministries during the pandemic. One of our supporters on Facebook told us: “Evangelism is key for this time. I joined a network to do street evangelism. People from different ministries coming together to evangelise.”
Others got involved in food banks, clothing banks, childcare services, or by taking care of people on their street.
Tunde Balogun shared a little of what his church set up during the pandemic: “The pandemic created a great opportunity for us – we saw a great need that arose. We have a couple of nurseries that cater for children from 3 months to 5 years; we started the first foodbank in London in 2009. All of these services became essential services during lockdown, and it created an avenue to express the love of God to the people of our community. It got noticed by the council, who asked us to take over the food distribution for our area.
“We saw a lot of people whose incomes went down, or people who weren’t able to get to the shops either because they were ill or isolating. Numbers of these people increased rapidly. By April 2020, we were serving four times as many people as we had been in January. Sadly before the lockdown, most of our volunteers were over 70. So within about 3 days, we lost around 90% of our volunteers as they had to stay home to shield. So we were looking at what to do. We put word out, and people came in from all over the place, people who had been furloughed or lost their job. We were able to raise a great number of volunteers, drivers who would deliver. Everyday we were delivering food to people. Companies would send us leftovers for us to go and deliver.”
These kinds of encouraging testimonies, where God provided in the gaps, encouraged us greatly – and there was no shortage of them!
Matt Timms also shared what was happening in Newquay: “With the drive-ins we did, we had a couple of great stories – there was one surfer who heard the music as he walked through the carpark, a saw a Christian surfer movie we were playing. And he realised he was in church – although he wasn’t in church – and we managed to catch up with him after!
We also had one missional community, Store House, which pulls together various agencies to work together to reach different groups of people. One of them was a community kitchen – we got a bunch of furloughed chefs together, and they were churning out 1000 meals a week to people in need.”
Yet it’s not always easy to set up outside ministries – particularly during a pandemic, where fear is rife, people are isolating, and not many places are open.
Kurt Erickson told us: “We’ve had some form of outside church since 1994, so this was nothing new for us. The question for us was, do we continue to stay on the street during the pandemic? After about a month of praying, we felt confirmation and we were back on the streets again from July. We had services, feeding and clothing people on the streets. Meeting people’s needs. It was church for these guys – many of them don’t go to a church with walls, so we give them a church without walls. Of course, we want to get them into churches as well, and that’s a real burden that’s on my heart. But during the pandemic, that wasn’t even possible.
“We were working with addicts, too – many of whom had been propelled back into addiction thanks to the pandemic. We were able to work with them in the hostels, in the B&Bs. Dealing with these people post-pandemic is a challenge as well. But although we’ve had less people on the team to work with them, the team that God has brought together has been phenomenal – serving at all hours of the day, spending time with people. At the end of the day, that’s something the government can’t give. That’s where the Church can shine, to be the voice of God, the hands of God, the shoulder for people to cry on and talk to.”
Is pastoral and relational support possible outside?
What about pastoral support though? Can the outdoors be used well for discipleship?
Prayer seemed to be the easiest church ministry to move outside. Matt Timms told us that he’d been able to do lots of prayer walks by the beach in Newquay. Similarly, Tunde also told us how prayer had moved to the streets around Uxbridge: “Prayer became an area where we encouraged people to go outside – to go on prayer walks, or prayer jogs, whether together with someone or alone. We even produced a manual for people to use to get better at prayer outside!”
But it wasn’t just prayer ministry that moved outside. Pastoral support and counselling was also able to happen on the street for some churches. Matt continued: “I find that particularly men like to be doing stuff as they’re being pastored, so quite often, we’d use surfing together as an excuse to disciple some of the younger men in the church.”
Kurt Erickson told us that thanks to years of going out on the streets to counsel people in need, not too much needed to change for his church, other than people having to get used to social distancing. “I’ve been doing counselling on the curbside for years,” he told us. “People find it really helpful – it just provides them with an opportunity to talk, and people needed that during lockdown. I find that people can be very candid with you while sitting on a park bench! I’d really encourage more pastors to do it – as long you have a quiet place to talk, people will talk. It’s very conducive.”
How can pastors and churches move outside?
We asked our three church leaders on the livestream what advice they’d give to church leaders, and members of the congregation, that had a passion to take the church outside. The one piece of advice that all three deemed most important was simple: pray.
Kurt Erickson explained: “Having the will to go is half the battle. But after that pray. Look for the need, see where God wants you. If you have the burden, people will follow.”
Tunde Balogun agreed: “We all see need every day – but all too often we expect someone else to take care of it. Write down the vision and make it plain, commit to do something about it – pray – and do it!”
You can catch up with the full livestream below: