Church #37. Meet Carmen Retzlaff. She is the solo pastor at New Life Lutheran Church in Dripping Springs, Texas. The interesting thing about this congregation, which has an average worship attendance of 60 on a given Sunday, is that everything they do is outside: worship, Sunday School, gardening camp. And guess what? Like many things outside, it’s growing!
West of Austin in Texas Hill Country, New Life started worshiping outside in 2014. New Life is a mission start congregation that had received seed money from the ELCA. They worshiped in a rental space in an office park. But New Life caught a mission-oriented vision: being out on the land. Owned by the ELCA, the land they use now was held in trust for New Life had a purpose in their ministry that essentially became their ministry. The people from this congregation decided to take a leap of faith and start something new – worship without a building, church without walls, to be a congregation of the land. (In temps below 55 degrees or rain – a tent is used just to keep everyone safe and dry.)
New Life takes pride that there are no walls to tend, only the earth. Worship takes place under three live Oak Trees at 9 am every Sunday. A horse trough with a stone in it is the altar, and they use Bibles and hymnals.
No PowerPoints. No Copier. Just the basics. “It has become church for people who have not found a church,” says Retzlaff. She goes on to say that “Many people feel closest to God in nature. At New Life, our people have found God and a community in something they love, nature.” This way of worship has become popular with families and have a growing all-ages Bible study after worship. (They of course use Godly Play – a Montessori-based approach to children’s religious education that uses earthly elements to nurture children’s spirituality!)
The vision of several years ago has now become a reality. The land is the ministry of the people at New Life. The congregation has built community walking trails and a labyrinth. There is a community garden with produce that serves the local food shelf. The land has become a sanctuary to not only the congregation but for others that use the property including Scouts camping out and Master Naturalist meetings. The congregation also meets and serves out in the community rather than church classrooms – for Bible studies in coffee shops and dance halls, and on downtown streets for day laborer’s in search of coffee and fruit.
Why does this story matter about worshiping in God’s creation? It matters because of how God created the world in Genesis 1 – a world with rich and fertile land. It matters because of the tent stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who lived off the land in all kinds of weather and harsh conditions. And Retzlaff says it matters because of what it says in Job 38:25-27:
Who cuts a channel for the torrents of rain,
and a path for the thunderstorm,
to water a land where no one lives,
an uninhabited desert,
to satisfy a desolate wasteland
and make it sprout with grass?
God invites Job to see the majesty of God’s work in creation: creating rain in dry places, providing water for the desolate, thunderstorms that make water accessible. That’s what New Life in Christ is all about. Seeing God’s creation as life giving resonates with this congregation and makes worshiping outside a priority to its mission.
For more information on this story, please contact Carmen Retzlaff at 512-894-0155 or at firstname.lastname@example.org New Life is an outdoor church with an online presence: you can follow them on Facebook and Instagram, and check out the ELCA-produced video about their ministry.