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Finding sanctuary in the outdoors

Minnesota Lutheran congregations find drive-in services a summer draw

Worship participants at First Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Duluth, Minnesota, can look at Lake Superior during summer services. Photo provided by First Lutheran Church

Summer in Minnesota means sunny days and beautiful weather. And for some statewide congregations, it means an opportunity to bring worship outside the chapel walls and into the outdoors to be surrounded by God’s natural creation.
For First Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Duluth, Minnesota, the natural backdrop of God’s creation is Lake Superior. Each summer in July and August, members of First Lutheran host worship in the park for their 10 a.m. service.
“When worshipping outdoors [in Duluth], we compete with birds and the beauty of a ship blowing its horn. That is just part of worship in the park on Lake Superior — waves, horns, birds, the sound of the bridge lifting. Those things just happen at worship in the park,” said Pastor April Larson.
With a more contemporary feel to their outdoor worship service, they have used liturgies with musicians such as Dakota Road. This summer the liturgy will be “Behold, I Make All Things New,” a liturgy written by Larson’s late son Benjamin Larson, who died in the Haiti earthquake.
“It was our director of music’s idea to feature this,” Larson said, adding, “It’s just a lovely liturgy.”
Notably, the congregation will celebrate Lake Superior Day on July 15, a day that First Lutheran’s website states will “remind people of the importance of the lake and its natural resources to our quality of life. It encourages everyone to take action to protect it.”
Additionally, during the first Sunday in August each year, the congregation hosts a baptism in the lake. One of the most highly attended services of the summer, worship attendees head down a path from the park to Lake Superior, where they perform baptisms of babies to adults.

First Lutheran Church musicians lead a weekly worship along Lake Superior, Duluth. Photo provided by First Lutheran Church

Outdoor worship at some congregations is done drive-in style, where members literally sit in their cars during worship and tune into the service through their car radio and honk their horns instead of applauding.

This unique outdoor worship has been a great outreach tool for First Lutheran.
“We always have an interesting group of people,” Larson said. “Members, guests, and those who become acquainted with our congregation through worship in the park; it’s a really good outreach.”
In fact, the worship in the park service is such a successful outreach to the Duluth community each summer, Larson said that First Lutheran has often seen several worship in the park guests become members of the congregation.
To learn more about worship in the park, visit First Lutheran’s website

Drive-by worship

For other statewide congregations, outdoor worship is done drive-in style, where members literally sit in their cars during worship and tune into the service through their car radio and honk their horns instead of applauding. One congregation that has found great success through a drive-in worship program is Augustana Lutheran Church (ELCA) in West St. Paul, Minnesota.
Pastor Megan Torgerson, associate pastor at Augustana Lutheran, said part of the appeal of their drive-in worship, which takes place June through August each summer, is the novelty of the worship experience. Torgerson said each service, which takes place at 9 a.m., draws about 400-450 people, about half the average Sunday attendance they see during the remainder of the year among three services.

The ushers at Augustana Lutheran Church, St. Paul, have to work a little harder to collect the offering at the church’s drive in worship. Photo provided by Megan Torgerson

Augustana has also considered their outdoor worship to be an outreach opportunity.

While Torgerson notes that a number of its fairly-regular worshippers attend the outdoor service, they also see two other distinct groups of drive-in worshippers: visitors from the Twin Cities who want a casual, mobile worship experience and people who have disabilities or illnesses that preclude them from going into a church building for worship.
“That one was surprising to me,” Torgerson said. “It is a very different group of people. They actually need this. I have a number of people who say to me, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t wait for drive-in to start so I can go to church again.’ It’s kind of beautiful, I think.”
Augustana has also considered their outdoor worship to be an outreach opportunity.
“Some people’s first introduction [to Augustana] is at drive-in worship. We will see them in the fall and hear them say they’ve been worshipping at drive-in all summer,” Torgerson said. “For some people who haven’t had a lot of encounters with a church, it makes them think that maybe they will give church another try. It’s kind of neat to watch that happen.”
To learn more about Augustana’s drive-in worship service, visit
Seeking more drive-in worship opportunities this summer? Trinity Lutheran (ELCA) in Stillwater offers a drive-in worship at the Hilltop Drive-In in Houlton, Wisconsin. Learn more at
Those heading up north for the summer can also attend a fairgrounds drive-in worship hosted by First Lutheran (ELCA) in Bemidji, Minnesota. More information and worship times are available on First Lutheran’s website at

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