Renee Reimer on Being Rooted and Grounded in God’s Creation
Worshiping outdoors and bringing nature into worship helped one church experience more connections between God’s creation, worship, and neighbors.
Renee Reimer is the youth and outreach ministries director at Rainbow Mennonite Church in Kansas City, Kansas. She was the project director for Rainbow’s 2016 Vital Worship Grant from Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. In this edited conversation, Reimer talks about how to design worshipful experiences, both inside and outside, that are rooted and grounded in all of God’s creation.
What do you mean by the phrase “rooted and grounded in all of God’s creation”?
In Ephesians 3, Paul prays that the Ephesians will be rooted and grounded in Christ’s love so that, together with all the Lord’s holy people, they may be filled with the fullness of God, who created all things. We explored that theme with our WorshipArts participants (K-5th grade children) and also in a Lenten worship series. Our pastor, Ruth Harder, collected favorite short stories, songs, poems, and prayers on the subject of gardening—clearing, digging, planting, watering, and thriving—for Lenten sermons.
Why did Rainbow Mennonite choose to focus on being rooted and grounded?
We are an urban church blessed with substantial outdoor space. Yet, over the years, we had begun to think of it more as space to be maintained than as places to invite people into contemplation, wonder, and praise. We remembered again that being faithful stewards of creation—including our land and property—can be in and of itself a worshipful practice.
As Christians, we believe Jesus was a real, physical part of creation, so we wanted to experiment with our outdoor space and help the congregation find new ways to interact with nature. Many groups use our outdoor space, including Head Start and our church’s summer enrichment program for local children. Kids learn to cook and eat food harvested from our community garden. We wanted to provide ways for people to connect with God’s creation, both inside and outside the four walls of a Sunday morning worship service.
Can you describe your church’s outdoor space?
We have several gardens, including a community garden, Remembrance Garden, a new butterfly garden, and a new orchard. We also own and maintain Whitmore Playground, which is used every day by neighbors and church folk. It is the only playground for miles around and used to be part of Whitmore School. When the school was closed and razed, a company wanted to buy the property to bury old oil drums. Instead, Rainbow Mennonite helped buy the property and has continued to maintain it. This playground is now a handicap-accessible space with playground equipment, easy parking, basketball hoops, picnic areas, and original artwork and sculptures.
What worked best for bringing the outdoors into worship?
We invited every church committee to find ways to implement God’s gift of creation. They all had good ideas, especially the visual arts committee. They used natural materials to picture worship themes, like a bush made of sticks for a Burning Bush sermon series about Moses and the Exodus. Each year Mennonite congregations collect coins for Mennonite Central Committee’s global relief, development, and peace programs. We did ours during Lent. We had shovels and dirt in the worship space, and kids used a wheelbarrow to collect coins while we all sang “Garden Song.”
In Sunday school, our preschoolers build and layout each week’s Bible story on a story table. Instead of using pictures of nature, we brought in leaves, sticks, and pinecones for the story table. The Christmas program committee created a lighted meditation walk outdoors and had the children “bring the light in” to start the program.
In what ways did you bring worship outdoors?
One thing is something we’d already been doing. We collect paper prayers during the offertory and then scatter them in the compost bin as a way to seep our prayers into God’s evolving world. We had an intergenerational Sunday school session where youth and adults paired up together to take pictures of things they noticed in our church’s green spaces.
During our All Saints Day service in November, we asked worshipers to write names on paper leaves. Some wrote names of deceased loved ones. Others wrote names of those they were praying for, for example the people of Syria. We ended the service outdoors in our Remembrance Garden, so people could hang their leaves on a string. This garden is a place to scatter ashes of loved ones. We also ended our Memorial Day service there, as a way of remembering loved ones as well as the homeless, the abused, refugees, and those who have perished as a result of the wars that dominate our world. We had a special blessing and song, and the youth handed out daisies.
So many Bible stories take place outside, and it feels powerful to hear them outdoors. We had an Easter sunrise service during which we dramatized Jesus comparing himself to a vine, Jesus teaching on the road to Emmaus, and Jesus sharing his last breakfast on the beach. To end worship, people of all ages helped plant seeds in our community garden. We sang “Garden Song” and then headed indoors to eat breakfast together.
How did you use outdoor space to connect the church and neighborhood?
During Advent, we lined Whitmore Playground with luminaries and had an outdoor Christmas carol sing.
People from many committees helped plan the Whitmore Jubilee. There was free food, music, and family activities. We created a temporary labyrinth by spraying eco-friendly paint on the grass and invited people to line it with cones, stones, and other natural elements. In the spring, we used poles and yarn to do a UNITY project. Communities all over the world have created this public interactive art to look at how we identify ourselves.
On the next day, Pentecost Sunday, we did an intergenerational Sunday school session in the playground to add to the UNITY project. We’re all connected by something, and it’s our diversity that builds strong and vibrant communities.
What practical tips can you share about bringing worship outdoors?
We learned to be very aware of weather. We had planned to worship outdoors at an all-church retreat, but it rained, so we did it inside. When we were setting up for our outdoor Easter sunrise service, there was dew on the ground and a light rain. Everything dried before worship started, but we had a backup plan to worship in the church foyer, because we’d still be able to see the community garden from there.
We learned a lot about sound. For example, the portable PA system worked fairly well outdoors, but it uses microphones on stands. While doing dramas outdoors, we realized it’s harder to get to a standing mike than to use lapel and headset mikes like we do indoors. Some of our members feel unsteady when walking on grass, so we made sure to help them get to seats near the road.
What practices developed during your grant year will you continue?
We hoped to implant the idea that worship happens not just during one hour on Sunday. Using our outdoor spaces for worship reminded the congregation that we can use, worship in, and celebrate these spaces as well as maintain them for community use.
Having all or part of a worship service in various outdoor spaces helped our congregation realize that there are many ways to worship. We became more mindful of disabilities as we worked to make outdoor worship accessible to everyone. One member said she had never really noticed some of the gardens until we used them during worship experiences. Now she visits them often. Our WorshipArts children will continue pouring leftover communion juice on our church land as a way of spreading God’s love.
The outdoor Christmas caroling and Whitmore Jubilee were ways to tie together the community and church in a place used by both. Adults began to see the playground as a place they can use too. I hope we continue to come together as neighbors and church folks to find new ways to use our outdoor spaces together. Some people who use the playground or summer program claim Rainbow as their church, even if they never come on Sundays.
Do you have rooted and grounded worship ideas for churches that don’t have much land?
You can organize an all-church retreat day offsite at a place where you can be outside together. One year we listened to different sounds at an outdoor retreat and experienced various prayer forms. That experience inspired us to explore more about bringing spiritual awareness into our everyday lives out among nature.
You can ask people to bring things from home, like produce from their garden to create a worship display for Harvest Sunday. The teachers in your congregation may have good ideas on how to integrate creation and worship. It also helps to read and discuss books together, like Richard Louv’s books Last Child in the Woods and The Nature Principle or Rooted and Grounded: Essays on Land and Discipleship edited by Ryan D. Harker and Janeen Bertsche Johnson.
Read about Rainbow Mennonite Church’s Vital Worship Grant projects in 2014 and 2016. Rainbow belongs to Mennonite Creation Care Network. Renee Reimer recommends GreenFaith, Nature Explore, and Reggio boards on Pinterest for ideas on emphasizing the beauty and wonder of God’s creation.