Next to our office in South Austin, the Strickland School has a very simple place for worship under a stand of peaceful shade trees. Alongside the fields designated for sports and athletics, this place, though only occasionally used, conveys a direct connection to worship, and it is entirely outdoors.
Since the earliest times, we humans have experienced the spiritual in nature. I conducted a workshop a few years ago with a class of architecture students preparing to take on their semester project - the design of a church. I asked them to imagine a place that they felt was the most sacred or holy. For those who did not have a specific religious faith, I suggested they think of a time when they felt a deep sense of the spiritual and then to identify the place or location. In nearly every instance, these young adults all had associated an outdoor location with their most spiritual or holy experience.
In our Western, mostly Christian faiths, we have a tradition of places that connect worship and landscape. The sacred grotto, for me, has always been a place of mystery and magic. Many older churches, especially Catholic congregations, continue to maintain outdoor shrines or devotional sites. We have prayer gardens in some churches, and there’s a long tradition of the sacred cemetery or columbarium, a site for interring ashes of the deceased.
And in many evangelical churches, the revival, or tent meeting has offered a dynamic setting for encountering preaching, singing, and praising the Lord outside the confining walls of the traditional church. Many camps or retreat centers offer some place or space to gather and worship outdoors. The Strickland School’s set up is striking in its simplicity. The very basic arrangement of benches, a fixed pulpit, and a cross convey a clear indication of a community gathered in prayer. Even with no one there, it stands ready at any time to become a place of worship.