Strains of “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” and “Standing on the Promises” wafted across the grounds and over the pond on a recent Sunday morning as people of all ages showed up in shorts and other casual attire at a Lenexa park.
One family brought a dog. Others carried blankets or lawn chairs.
Although churches typically see a drop in attendance during the summer months, Lenexa United Methodist Church schedules this additional service, “Worship in the Park,” at 8:00 a.m. Sundays from Father’s Day through August near the gazebo at Sar-Ko-Par Trails Park.
The church launched the service in 1986, after then-pastor Ron Holland suggested trying something different, said Linda Stokes, the church’s business administrator.
Originally, it took place once a month or three or four times in the summer. One guitarist provided the music.
The service grew in popularity over the years, and now draws 50-70 people each week.
On a recent Sunday, eight members of The Park Players, provided music using guitars, a banjo and tambourine.
“It seems like, the more casual, it’s less intimidating for folks,” noted the Rev. Peggy Hillmon, the current pastor.
Hillmon has no plans to stop offering the outdoor service. “I’m an early riser, so 8 doesn’t feel early to me at all,” she said. “I love being outside.”
Ted and Anne-Marie Gartner echo that sentiment. They’ve been attending the park worship service for years. “We’re the kind of people who relate to the outdoors,” Ted said. “You see birds, and a fish jump occasionally.”
Gartner admitted that those things can be distracting. “But that’s part of the fun,” he said.
The distractions might seem like a drawback to a preacher, but Hillmon doesn’t see it that way. “The ducks fly over or the geese sometimes will walk up into the congregation, but those are good things,” she said. “That’s part of being in God’s creation, and sort of why you’re there.”
The recent soaring temperatures have not kept worshippers away. Hillmon credits the service’s early hour and the usual presence of a breeze.
“Whether it’s 100 degrees out or maybe a little bit cooler, it’s still nice,” Ted Gartner said.
Drew Uptergrove, from Jefferson City, attends the service with his wife and two sons whenever they’re in town. “There’s nothing like this at home,” he said. His in-laws, Doug & Linda Barttley, are members of LUMC, and fans of Worship in the Park.
“We always come to the outside service, because we like it,” Linda said. “There are diehard people who love coming out here and never miss. They’re always here.”
Hillmon believes others would attend if they were aware of the service. “There’s been times when people have been walking or fishing and will come up,” she said, adding that visitors are welcome.
“We have that beautiful location. It’s absolutely perfect,” Hillmon said. “I just think God is present in nature.”
One recent Sunday, traffic sounds from 87th Street were overridden by birds chirping as prayers were lifted. Hillmon gave her sermon, and considered the question, “If Jesus were living your life, what would He do differently?” Joggers and cyclists crisscrossed the path around the lake as the band led the congregation in singing, “Awesome God.”
And then the group quickly dispersed — some to the church for Sunday school or the next worship service, some to other obligations and some onto the nearby path for their weekly walk in the park — smiling and refreshed.
“I just really like the relaxing setting — it is a worshipful space,” Hillmon said. “We do enjoy being there and welcome anyone to join us. “