A View from the Pew: Outdoor Spaces

What happens outside a church building on its property can impact what goes on inside.

I have been reflecting on church’s outdoor spaces more lately because I find myself chairing an ad hoc committee to address our grounds. Through a series of circumstances involving the sale of a portion of its property, our church has the enviable task of redesigning and redeveloping our outdoor space.

Naturally, I’ve been paying more attention to what other churches are doing. In my normal route to work, I pass a church with a gate which stays closed during the week. There might be a very good reason for the gate, but it sends an exclusionary message.

There’s another church from a different tradition with a more ornate building and clear Asian influences. There are many ethnic Asian Christian churches in our area, and just from the architecture, the church alerts passersby about who might feel most welcomed there.

The church where I met my wife had amazing grounds complete with an amphitheater. We had intended to be married in that outdoor venue, but rain forced us into the sanctuary. Just being on the grounds gave you an appreciation for nature, and the well-tended lawn and gardens let the world know there was great attention to detail at that house of worship.

I am very concerned about both the message and the function of our outdoor space at our current church. The sale of the portion of our property resulted in the development of a neighborhood, so what we decide will impact more than just our membership. There once had been a preschool on the property, so there was a fenced-in playground, but both the fence and playground have been disassembled and we are on the cusp of determining what happens next.

In those rare transitional moments in a church’s life when it can undertake a project of this magnitude, I think it’s useful to consider architectural and design considerations; accessibility, particularly as the average age of church membership continues to climb; functionality and flexibility, particularly for outdoor services and events; considerations for children and youth; signage; and messages about worship.

Although the familiar proverbs tell us not to, we can’t help but judge books by their covers. We also judge churches by what we see when we drive by. It’s important to get the outdoor space right.

It’s been both challenging and fun to imagine what our outdoor space should include. Items in our design documents so far include a pavilion for picnics and outdoor events, an outdoor kitchen with grills and a sink, the installation of a new playground, a multi-sport court, and a prayer labyrinth with appropriately complementary landscaping.

It’s been nice to see the addition of a tiny community library and reading area with benches and river rock gravel built by a Boy Scout in our church for his Eagle Scout project. It’s situated on a corner of the property closest to the new neighborhood, and it invites those in closest proximity to us to make themselves at home and take or leave a book.

All this talk of our outdoor space has inevitably led to discussions of legal liability and protecting the church. It’s a sad reality in our society that we must take into account, and we are assessing the risk management aspects of our plans.

My hope is that when someone drives by or comes for a visit, they feel welcome, appreciative of beauty and attention to detail, and eager to worship with friends and family. I hope they do not feel locked out, mistrusted, or viewed with suspicion.

Maybe Jesus had something to say about our outdoor space. Maybe it should reflect our love of God and love of neighbor. If we get that right, I think the rest will fall into place.

Lance Wallace is a Baptist layperson and member of Parkway Baptist Church in Johns Creek, GA. He earns a living in higher education communications and writes a blog at newsouthessays.com.

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