Sunday School: Taking it Outside

[Ed. note: This article is part of our weekly series of church activities, called Cultivating Community, published on Thursdays.]

Open window with curtain.

There's a whole wide world out there! (cc image courtesy Chiot's Run via flickr)

In many parts of the U.S., September is summer’s last gasp. (If this is not the case where you live, enjoy that sunshine for the rest of us!) Before the weather gets cold or rainy or windy, we gobble up the season’s vestiges, hurriedly scheduling in our bike rides and apple picking outings to fill up on enough warmth and sunlight to see us through the winter. Why should that compulsion to spend every moment en plein air be stifled when it comes to our time in church? September is the perfect month for taking a Sunday school class or small group outdoors where, as George Washington Carver wrote, “…the woods…speak with the voice of God.”

We all know that taking traditionally indoor activities into nature can be better in theory than in actuality. September is a great month for getting outside, but no one likes to be struck on the head by a falling chestnut mid-Scripture reading. So here are some suggestions for taking your weekly worship outdoors in a way that will simultaneously glorify the Creator and allow everyone to fully enjoy his creation:

People, Get Ready
Schedule a day to take class outside, and let your Sunday school or small group participants know the date and details ahead of time.

  • Weather – Decide from the beginning about meeting during inclement weather. Will you take a rain check? Huddle under a tent if it’s not too bad and your group is hale and hearty? In either case, encourage folks to dress for the weather and bring a blanket or sunglasses, as the case may be, to be comfortable on that day.
  • Accommodations – Let everyone know where you’ll be meeting and what the accommodations will be. Will there be chairs or should people bring their own blankets or chairs to sit on? Will there be shade and water for comfort if it’s hot? Letting everyone know what to expect will increase the chance that they’ll enjoy the experience and come back into God’s creation for more.
  • Other Distractions – From squirrels bounding through the grass to loud airplanes overhead, any gathering in the outdoors comes with its quirks and distractions. Acknowledge this up front with the allowance that lessons, worship, and prayer may look different in nature, and that’s OK.

Set Up
On the day of your outdoor gathering, take some time to set up your meeting space.

  • Location – Choose a location that won’t only get your group outdoors but that will, if possible, expose you all to the glory of creation. If a patch of grass is all you have, so be it, but if a garden, a nearby park, or the edge of a forest is accessible, gather there. At the same time, don’t venture so far that the walk will take an inordinate amount of time or be unsafe. But do your best, within reason, to find a spot that is distanced from what humans have made and delightfully close to what God has made.
  • Comfort – Taking age and health conditions into considerations, make this outdoor spot an accommodating one for your group. You may want to provide chairs or blankets for seating, umbrellas to shade folks from the sun, and some bug spray in case some insects crash the party.
  • Refreshments – If refreshments aren’t usually a part of your group’s time together, provide a special treat in the outdoors. If refreshments are common, consider making a seasonal snack to emphasize our interrelatedness with creation. At the very least, if the day is hot, provide water for everyone to drink.

Change it Up
Where you gather can and should affect what you discuss and how you worship during your time there. Your time in the

Girl worshiping in a field.

Change your perspective in the outdoors. (cc image courtesy {Salt of the Earth} via flickr)

outdoors will look different from your time indoors, so take advantage of the changes.

  • Reflection and Prayer – One form of meditation is to stop and really notice where you are. You may want to encourage everyone to be silent and still for a while in this new place, worshiping God by being fully present in what he has created. You may also want to offer prayers of gratitude for the beauty and sustenance of the natural world, or prayers of intervention for the crises creation faces—and that we face with it. This particular prayer, from the Book of Common Prayer, is for stewardship of creation: “Oh merciful Creator, your hand is open wide to satisfy the needs of every living creature: Make us always thankful for your loving providence; and grant that we, remembering the account that we must one day give, may be faithful stewards of your good gifts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”
  • Learning – Simply casting out a question like, “What does stewardship mean to you?” or “How can we best ‘tend and keep’ creation?” will spark plenty of discussion among your group. But if you’d like more direction in your learning time together, consider discussing some of the questions Dr. Cal DeWitt raises in his slim volume, Earth-Wise or that our friends at Blessed Earth explore in the Hope for Creation and Hope for Humanity series.
  • Worship – Explore this list of creation-related hymns and songs for a familiar few that you can sing as a group. Your voices might sound thin in the outdoors, but that can be a gracious reminder of how great our Creator is and how majestic is the world he has made.

Related Posts at Flourish
Church Activity: All the earth, let us sing!
Nature Observation Walk

Further Reading
Hope for Creation, Hope for Humanity

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