Stephanie Smith on Starting an Outdoor Church
People treated as the last and the least often feel unwelcome inside churches. That is why some church plants create a worshiping community outdoors. Many of their discoveries also apply to indoor churches.
Stephanie Smith is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. She pastors Cathedral in the Night, a Christian community that worships outdoors in downtown Northampton, Massachusetts. In this edited conversation, Smith talks about “worship in the radical tradition of Jesus.”
What do you mean by “worship in the radical tradition of Jesus”?
Each Christian tradition has a part of Jesus that they claim. The word radical comes from a Latin word for root. We say we’re in the radical tradition of Jesus, because we are rooted in doing what the gospels say he did—feed souls and bodies in outdoor settings. Also, Jesus was radical in whom he welcomed. When he said, “Let the children come to me,” we think, “Oh, how sweet.” But for his time that was radical. He was standing with the marginalized. At Cathedral in the Night, we’re creating community with everyone, because we are church together.
Why would people rather worship outdoors, even in cold or rainy weather?
To walk through the door of a church, many people assume they have to agree with everything said to them inside. Outside, they can be skeptical or watch from afar. I’ve been a pastor in an indoor church. Unconsciously, we gave or received the message that we all had to be on the same page.
Being outside feels safer for many people experiencing homelessness or poverty. If there’s a fight, which rarely happens in our services, it’s easy to walk away. And nine times out of ten, if someone is ornery, they are hungry. So we offer food. They need to be fed and heard.
Outside, God has surprised us in how welcoming we can be. We welcome people to come as they are, even if they’re intoxicated, as long as their behavior doesn’t harm others. Instead, there’s a kind of sacredness that people feel.
Where and when did outdoor worship start in your community?
I started Cathedral in the Night in January 2011 along with Chris Carlisle, an Episcopal priest, and Eric Fistler, a Congregational minister. Before then, we three spent six months talking with people at places where they were already gathering, like soup kitchens and social service agencies. Once we gained someone’s trust, that person would introduce us to another. We also spent time getting to know which agencies provide which services.
We worship every week—rain, snow, or shine. We have a tent when the weather is bad and light when it is dark. About seventy of us meet every Sunday at 5:00 p.m. near the front steps of First Churches of Northampton. Some stand. Others sit in wheelchairs, on steps, or on low walls between the church lawn and sidewalk. People from some of our thirty-five-plus partners participate in the liturgy and provide a hot meal for our community.
What are your worship services like?
Our worship is similar to a twelve-step recovery community in that we respect and honor each person’s beliefs, even if we disagree or it doesn’t work for us. We meet people where they are and realize we all have something to learn and to offer. It’s the most theologically diverse community I’ve ever been a part of. Everybody knows that however God speaks to them is acknowledged and valued. We are loved by God not because of what we do but because of who—and whose—we are.
How do you convey that sense of welcome?
We always say, “God is good all the time. All the time, God is good. And no matter where you’ve come from, you are welcome here.” Then we sing a song our peer chaplains picked: “Lord, Prepare Me to Be a Sanctuary.” We remind each other that we, together, make this space in ourselves for God and each other. We say “The Serenity Prayer” in solidarity with members in recovery. Then someone leads us in saying the Lord’s Prayer together.
I remember one person, Robyn, who wanted to be clear: “I’m just here for dinner.” He had been hurt by a church and lurked on the edge of the group. When we pass the peace, we go to the edge and welcome people. Gradually, Robyn began to trust us and trust God. He started leading parts of worship, and now he’s a peer chaplain.
What are your sermons like?
It’s important to keep them short and to preach in a conversational style, especially outdoors, where so many other things compete for attention. I want church to feel like everyday life. When worshiping indoors, it seems easier to speak with beauty and poetry. Outdoors, I want to sound in my sermons the same way I sound when I’m talking with my friends.
Stories of Jesus healing and feeding people resonate in our community. The preaching is only half the sermon time, because anyone can agree, disagree, or share where it touches their lives. Sometimes someone will shout out, “I don’t buy this, and I can’t believe you do.” We say, “You are welcome to share as long as you don’t use threatening words or violence.” Anyone can get the microphone. I hadn’t realized before the power of handing a mike to someone. People receive that as “I hear you. You matter.”
How does your liturgy embody the idea of everyone having something to learn and give?
We begin by making the whole service participatory, and everyone can lead a part of the service. For example, our offering is different from that of most inside churches. Asking for a financial offering would divide our group into haves and have-nots. We have a wooden box in the shape of a cross, and we put out what we call tokens—rocks, shells, and wood figures. Some tokens have words or phrases, like listening, kindness, being sober, or being loving. We also put out markers so people can write their own gifts on blank tokens. People put a token in the cross box to symbolize the gift they want to offer to God. We remind people that offering a piece of themselves is greater than a financial gift.
One of our peer chaplains has a son who lives far away and can only visit for a few weeks once a year. The son came to church and put kindness in the cross box. After his son returned home, the dad began choosing kindness each week. It was a ritual that connected him to God and to his son.
How often do you celebrate the Eucharist?
Every week. I say the normal words of institution. Then I briefly retell the story from the sermon and tie it to communion. If the story was about the feeding of the five thousand, I might compare communion to having dinner together or describe it as a gift we never could have imagined. “God bless to us this bread” is our benediction, and we go straight from the Eucharist to a dinner offered freely to all present. Congregations and restaurants prepare, donate, and help serve the meals.
Who leads your worship?
We started with an inside church model—the pastors did it all. Now we have broken up the simple liturgy into elements that anyone can help lead. Someone can volunteer to be the person who signs up people for their parts, such as leading a prayer, reading Scripture, or passing the microphone. We say we are pro-participation, anti-perfection.
What do your people especially need to know about God?
They need to know that what a colleague of mine, Nadia Bolz-Weber, says: that God’s favorite thing to work with is nothing or broken things, and that they are loved just as they are in this moment. The Dutch Catholic priest Henri Nouwen often wrote about the upward mobility of the world and the downward mobility of Christ. The world defines our success and value in financial terms. But Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.” People living in poverty and injustice are often labeled as “takers.” Many of our people have internalized that. I’ve heard several say, “I feel as if everywhere I go, I need something, like food or shoes.” People need to know they have something to offer too—that they are so much more than their need. This is why we welcome people to share their gifts and be leaders.
I preach a lot about shame. When you feel ashamed, you also feel alone. But when you are honest and talk about your shame, you find out you’re not alone. In sermons, I admit where I’ve fallen short and confess when I’ve messed up. I ask people to teach me all the time. John 1 is one of many passages about how the light shines in the darkness. When you shine a light on something, it can’t stand up and won’t grow. We also remind each other that mental illness and addiction can occur in anyone, regardless of socioeconomic class or education. God should be known at least as accepting everyone.
What do you wish more Christians knew about people experiencing homelessness and poverty?
I wish they knew how hard people in my community work to deal with their issues. Many are disabled, so jobs aren’t available to them. About a third of our worshiping community is truly homeless, meaning they couchsurf or they sleep on a bench, in a tent, or in a shelter. Most would like to become housed. Lots have vouchers for Section 8 housing, but there are long waiting lists to use them. You can have a yearlong wait to get accepted into a shelter, and seasonal shelters are always at capacity.
Also, those of us in the middle or upper classes have been taught that we have many choices. But people living with poverty, homelessness, addiction, physical illness, or mental health challenges often have control taken away from them. It’s important to let them make their own decisions, even if you don’t think it will be helpful. Trust them to know when they’re ready to come inside or start rehab.
Attend a Cathedral in the Night Training Institute weekend to start something similar in your area. Read Souls in the Hands of a Tender God by Craig Rennebohm. Take Mental Health First Aid classes to learn how to respond to an overdose or mental health crisis, including someone contemplating suicide. These classes are evidence based, peer reviewed, often free, and offered in many countries.