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Churches hit home run with services in ballparks and stadiums as COVID-19 cancels sports

By Emily Miller
South Bend City Church Four Winds Field
South Bend City Church gathers for worship at Four Winds Field in South Bend, Indiana, during summer 2020. Photo by Adam Raschka

It was sunny and 73 degrees, the perfect day for a baseball game. But that’s not why the crowd filled the stands Sunday at Four Winds Field in South Bend, Indiana, home of the South Bend Cubs.

They were there for a church service, complete with worship leaders on the third-base line and Scriptures on the Jumbotron.

South Bend City Church — a 4-year-old church that draws on a number of Christian traditions for its music, messages and mantras — has been meeting at the minor league ballpark since the novel coronavirus pandemic threw a curveball into large gatherings like worship services.

“In March, we shut down gatherings pretty quickly, and we’re really, really grateful to work with the Cubs to have a place that’s safe and spread out and be outdoors,” said Jason Miller, lead pastor of South Bend City Church.

South Bend City Church Jason Miller
South Bend City Church lead pastor Jason Miller speaks at service at Four Winds Field on Sept. 20, 2020. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

Amid stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines, churches across the country have found creative ways to touch base with their members this year.

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Many churches have moved online. But, Miller said, it’s not the same when Christianity “is inherently communal.”

“Digital is great. It’s a wonderful tool. But I think we all know the difference between Zooming your parents and hugging them at Thanksgiving,” he said.

Those churches that have continued to meet in person in their buildings have done so with smaller gatherings, social distancing, mask wearing and other measures meant to protect worshippers from COVID-19. Others have hosted drive-in services.

And, with many sports canceled for the season, some churches — like South Bend City Church — have filled the stands at the empty stadiums and ballparks in their neighborhoods.

First Baptist Church McKinney in McKinney, Texas, encouraged members to wear their favorite jerseys to its ” Stadium Service ” last month at the local school district’s football stadium.

And Zion and Lake Hanska Lutheran churches in Hanska, Minnesota, met every other week this summer at the baseball field about a block from Zion.

Church leaders said the ballpark turned out to be an ideal set-up because it already had a sound system, and its fence helped delineate space so nobody could get too close.

The executive pastor of South Bend City Church, Matt Graybill, said taking the pandemic seriously was a “no-brainer” for his church.

“We do not want to put people in harm’s way either within our church gathering or out in our city,” he said.

Initially, South Bend City Church stayed connected with its members through podcasts and video.

But when church staffers heard minor league baseball was canceling its season, they reached out to the South Bend Cubs and have been meeting mostly at the Cubs’ Four Winds Field since June.

South Bend City Church
Scripture is displayed on a Jumbotron during a South Bend City Church worship service. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

The baseball field is practically South Bend City Church’s backyard, too.

The nondenominational church — which emphasizes making room for everyone and their doubts — normally meets just across the street, inside the old Studebaker plant, a symbol both of the Midwestern city’s decline and now its rebirth.

The seating in its sanctuary circles the pulpit, which underscores the church’s mantra emphasizing shared practices over performances. But it also makes distancing difficult, according to Graybill.

The church would have to hold a dozen services in the sanctuary in order to leave 6 feet between seats and accommodate the 700 to 800 people who attended services pre-pandemic, Graybill said.

The church has taken those precautions seriously, in part because of another one of its mantras — “Everyone an icon” — meaning it believes everyone is made in the image of God, the executive pastor explained.

“I think we have a part as a church (to say), ‘Hey, there’s this pandemic that’s happening, and there’s people that are really vulnerable to this. And so what does it look like to love not only our church community, but the people outside our church community?'” Graybill said.

Next week, when the ballpark is hosting a viewing party for a Chicago Cubs game, the church plans to meet for a socially distant tailgate party in the Studebaker parking lot.

It’s a little ironic, Graybill said, because most of the church staff is “so oblivious to sports.”

“Most of our team has spent more time in a stadium for church than they ever have for a sporting event,” he said.

But both the church and the minor league baseball team feel like they’ve hit a home run with the arrangement.

Like the church, South Bend Cubs President Joe Hart said, “At the end of the day, we try to be an organization that is very community minded, and this is just another way to help out.

“Obviously, with no baseball season, we have the venue, and it was sitting empty, so let’s try to utilize it the best we can and, in the process, help out,” Hart said.

Angela Logan South Bend City Church
Angela Logan attends an outdoor service. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

The church plans to meet at the stadium through October, and, as the weather chills, its pastors already are thinking about how they can continue to gather through the long winter months. One idea: The church may leave its nearby sanctuary open for individual reflection this Advent, the season leading up to Christmas, according to Miller.

But Sunday was warm, and the lead pastor preached about compassion fatigue and the parable of the good Samaritan, asking, “How can we open our hearts to all of this pain?”

Sitting in the stands was Angela Logan, a professor at the University of Notre Dame who has been attending the church from the beginning.

“This is a very big change, and yet I joke because I’m a sports girl and so sports stadiums are, to me, somewhat sacred,” Logan said.

Like religion, she said, sports share a commitment to something higher — an emphasis on the team, not the player.

And there’s a sacredness to the ballpark, she said, if for no other reason than meeting there takes Jesus’ call to love one’s neighbor seriously when health experts say meeting outdoors makes it more difficult to spread COVID-19.

“This is as safe as you can be in this season, and I think it’s an incredible reflection of God’s love and grace to be able to do this for people, even for myself,” Logan said.

Emily McFarland MillerEmily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for Religion News Service.



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15 Responses

  1. God can open doors no man can close. This is a great story. There are many Large venues in the city..sitting EMPTY…where the Body of Christ can meet.
    “We have not because we ask not. All we have to do is…ASK.

    1. I agree. But it’s not simply because Christians do not ask. Unfortunately, many Christians have decided to unquestionably follow the rulings (whether consistently applied or not) of every left-wing mayor and governor. Thus, they go along with everything that our secular politicians and our secular media tell them, without even a hint of skepticism. So, just wear your mask, stay in your home, obey the state, and don’t ask too many questions. Why? Because SCIENCE.

        1. Once again Sams, you clearly exhibit your complete obedience to the state and to the secular authorities. But there is still hope, even for you (I think). Keep following the SCIENCE!

      1. Good grief, Daniel.

        In their response to the pandemic, many Christians are following the advice of their own doctor.
        And their own pastor (not all of them are Covid deniers).
        And their mayor and governor who could be a Democrat OR a Republican (not all of them are Covid deniers either).
        And the advice of many experts, because the Bible urges us to seek wise counsel.
        And their own hearts, as they seek to protect their family and other people’s families from the spread of disease.

        Please stop accusing everyone that disagrees with you of being unquestioning.

        Because meanwhile, you are here repeating everything secular right-wing pundits tell you, without even a hint of skepticism.

        1. Lea, thanks for trying to speak some wisdom to Daniel. You would not believe the numbers of Christians I know that really believe the Corona virus is a big joke. They say things like I’m covered in the blood of Christ so I’ve got nothing to worry about and then walk into a packed-out indoor/outdoor grocery store or worship service with no mask or distancing for their own protection or that of others. Medical experts (key word experts) are very necessary even critical to the health and well-being of our society and the world at large, don’t you think? Many of the people in my daughter’s congregation have fallen very ill and some have died because they refuse sound medical advise, even if it means following the easy proticalls to at least slow down the spread of the virus until it’s under control. And science is not a dirty word as Daniel seems to think. Without science, we would never have the technology we all enjoy and are even blessed with today. And as far as obeying secular authorities goes, just think if we didn’t have compliance to law and order (which it seems clear right now that we don’t). Thanks again for your wise comments to Daniel but I’m sure it fell on deaf ears.

          1. Keep following the SCIENCE, Sam.

            Most scientists believe that we have evolved from apes.

            Most scientists don’t believe that God created the universe.

            Most scientists don’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead.

            Are you still following the SCIENCE, Sam? These are “experts” after all.

            Many scientists in our day now believe there’s no such as male and female. Instead, male and female are merely gender constructs, not biological realities. So apparently, the “expert” scientists of yesterday were wrong about biology, whereas the “expert” scientists of today are right about biology. Are you still following the SCIENCE?

            Many scientists, especially Democrat ones, believe it’s not only okay to abort a baby, but to abort a baby right up until the moment of birth. After all, doctors are considered “people of science.” One has to be quite knowledgeable in science to become a doctor, right? Yet, who’s performing all these abortions? Well, doctors are, of course. But who are we to disagree with them, right? After all, SCIENCE.

            Many scientists believe in the existential threat of climate change. Every Democrat candidate running for President this year said they believe in the existential threat of climate change. Every left-wing celebrity tells us constantly about the threat of climate change. So it must be true, right? The waters are continuing to rise, and some day in the not-too-distant future the oceans will rise to the point where it will be too late to stop it. Why, because SCIENCE, right?

            However, I look at what people do, not what they say. The Obamas, of course, believe in the existential threat of climate change, since they are people of SCIENCE (just like you are). The “experts” have convinced them, right? And how can an “expert” ever be wrong?

            Yet, in light of the impending doom that awaits the Obamas and the rest of us in the near future, where did the Obamas decide to settle down? If you answered: “Martha’s Vineyard” you would be correct. Yep, they now live in a 12 million dollar waterfront estate on Martha’s Vineyard — an ISLAND IN THE ATLANTIC OCEAN. For a climate change alarmist like Barack Obama, I can’t think of a SAFER place to live than on an island in the Atlantic Ocean, can you? Won’t his new waterfront estate be under water in, say, ten years?

            So, Sam, there’s your “climate change” and there’s your SCIENCE. In reality, the Obamas have no more fear about the existential threat of climate change than I do. So why the ruse? I’ll let you think about it.

            Lastly, the whole point of this laborious exercise was simply to put SCIENCE in its proper perspective. You see, SCIENCE is merely a tool, a methodology. It is not a “thing in itself” that we must BELIEVE in. There is no such thing as “believing in science” since science is merely a methodology. But of course no one goes around saying “I believe in methodology.” So instead, they invoke the “I believe in science” mantra, where they, in turn, can call someone else a “science denier.” Thus, anyone who doesn’t adhere to the left-wing views on climate change, macro-evolution, transgender theory, or whatever else, is now labeled a “science denier.” It is a meaningless statement, of course, as well as bad philosophy. Also, it is a LAZY way to argue in a debate.

            For the record, Sam, I have NEVER (not even once) said that Covid-19 is not real, or that it’s not a serious threat. But I disagree with you (and Lea) significantly regarding how our politicians and media have been dealing with it. And I disagree with you (and Lea) significantly regarding how you have been characterizing any pastors who don’t agree with you. But that is okay. You don’t have to agree with me, and I don’t have to agree with you. It is a free country, and we’re both allowed to share our perspectives in it. Peace.

        2. There are A LOT of generalizations getting in the way of constructive dialogue.
          My mother is a Bible-believing Christian – who is a retired doctor. (She credits her time in medical school, where she learned about the wonders of human body, with her growing faith in an all-knowing Creator.) She also has kidney disease, and is a transplant recipient with a compromised immune system. (In case it matters, she is a Democrat)
          She lives in a VERY conservative “retiree” town in North Carolina, where the REPUBLICAN mayor has enforced tight covid19 restrictions, especially given the advanced age and vulnerabilities of the town’s population. He was going off of the FACTS learned about covid19.
          My mom goes to church in Charlotte, where the DEMOCRATIC mayor has looser restrictions that allow for her church to convene either outdoors or in small groups with proper social distancing in place. Upon the counsel of her doctor and pastor, my mom continues to attend services and Bible study via zoom due to her condition.
          See how we have a mixture of politics, faith, and science that can come together constructively? You can be a faithful Christian and look at the facts that science unveils. You can be in a place run by a Republican or Democrat and have varying levels of covid restrictions. It’s not “one size fits all” or an “either/or”. Generalizations are simply ways to be intellectually lazy and lump those who disagree with you into one big category of “others” to be vilified.

          BTW, you can believe in climate change yet still live on the coast, especialy since climate change is about the gradual impacts of our poor stewardship of the environment on our natural resources and the resulting shifts in weather. (Yes, I am a Christian who believes God calls us to be good stewards of what He gave us, which includes the environment). Last report I read was talking about catastrophic ocean levels in well over 100 years. I like the Obamas, but I don’t see them living that long. That’s just a reach to “vilify” an “other”.

          I do think that this article is proof of the creative ways we can STILL advance the gospel, and I am inspired by the churches doing so. I’ve said it before, but I have friends who are “hesitant” to step into a traditional church (for a number of reasons) who admitted that they have found Christian podcasts and stumbled upon park services that they “like” and are “more open” to talking about the Bible. And to that, I say, Praise God and Amen.

          1. M H,

            Thanks for your reply. Regarding my comment, you said that’s just a reach to “vilify” an “other”. I didn’t vilify the Obamas (not at all), but I did point out that they have no more fear of the existential threat of climate change than I do. I believe that 100 percent, but of course you don’t have to agree with me.

            So it seems your politics is influencing you here, which is why you felt compelled to come to the Obamas’ defense in some way. However, they don’t need your defense, do they? They are intelligent and fine people who can speak for themselves. I can believe they are fine people while strongly disagreeing with them on many issues, right?

            You also said: “since climate change is about the gradual impacts of our poor stewardship of the environment on our natural resources and the resulting shifts in weather.” I disagree with respect to the “climate change” part. That is the perpetual “ruse” here. Inserting the “climate change” part in the beginning of your statement is merely a philosophical assumption, not an empirically verifiable conclusion. It is merely a working hypothesis, not a fact. Any more than the working hypothesis that all humans evolved from apes due to a gradual, random process of natural selection. Most “scientists” believe that too, of course.

            However, I do agree with your statement: “I am a Christian who believes God calls us to be good stewards of what He gave us, which includes the environment.” To me, this is a no-brainer for every Christian, and I do not know any Christian who disagrees with this notion. Not one. But of course, once someone inserts “climate change,” then the whole argument, and more importantly the “proposed solutions” to the problem of climate change, take center stage.

            Therefore, in my opinion, while we may not agree on WHY the climate changes, and while we may not agree that man is directly causing the climate to change, we CAN all agree that it is in everyone’s interest to work to reduce pollution in order to have a cleaner planet. There it is, plain and simple. EVERYONE agrees on this, so what’s the problem?

            Thus, instead of the Left and the secular-progressives continuing to force man-made climate change down our throats, let’s all stop the nonsense and agree that in the meantime, we can still reduce pollution and strive toward having a cleaner planet. Yet it makes me wonder: why does such an agreement NOT gain more traction? What is the benefit of having this constant polarization over man-made climate change?

            There are obviously vested interests and massive funding that’s involved, which contributes to the ongoing fear-mongering by climate alarmists who are trying to convince the rest of us to just be quiet and accept the SCIENCE. Never mind that it is not just SCIENCE that undergirds their conclusions, but theory and much speculation. And never mind that many other well-respected scientists don’t agree with their conclusions.

            Therefore, why can’t we set aside the climate change fear-mongering and find common cause on reducing pollution and pursuing a cleaner planet? Wouldn’t that make more sense? And as Christians, can we accept the premise that God is in control of the universe? And perhaps God has more control over the climate of earth than man does? Just food for thought.

          2. Daniel –

            I was merely responding to your interjecting politics into this conversation about covid. YOU brought up the Obamas, then suddenly have an issue when I pointed out that buying a coastal home and “believing in” climate change are not mutually exclusive. It was more speaking to the behavior than anything else (I’d say that for anyone living on the coast), but you went on some tirade as if I’m ride or die for anything the Obamas ever did…. all because I said, ‘I like the Obamas but I don’t see them living that long”? Here I thought I was just stating a fact – that they won’t be alive in 100 years (which is when many of the catastrophes brought up in climate change discussions would take place).

            It’s interesting you say my politics blind me when YOU interjected politics into this discussion by blaming the covid restrictions you disagree with on Democrats, using degrading terms like “lefty secularist” (unless that’s a compliment, in which case, please clarify). Anyone who reads your posts can see you WILL find a way to blame the “lefty secularist Democrats”, when the point of my post is that this covid19 tragedy is NOT one party’s doing. It is WAY more nuanced than that. I provided a clear example countering your generalizations, yet it went ignored. Not surprising, as it didn’t support a “blame the lefties” narrative.

            And speaking for my experience, EVERY TIME I have mentioned the importance of being a good steward of the environment, EVERY conservative Christian around me has challenge me on it, saying that I need to stop “idolizing the environment”, or “thinking God needs my help maintaining His creation” and “start trusting God to care for the environment”. I was actually told I needed discipling and prayer because I recycle. (Apparently gathering items for the recycle bin is “worldly” – I apparently missed that Bible study LOL) I have never understood what was so triggering about responsible stewardship of the planet among the Christian community, so good to know I’m not that alone in my stance.

            As for the rest, I also believe faith and science can coexist; not that you have to “believe in one or the other”, partially because I believe God created (and is therefore, outside of) all of it. In the Bible, Luke was a doctor. I also believe a lot of the scientic accomplishments and advancements we have made since the beginning of time are due to God blessing certain people with extraordinary skills and intellect, and gave them a purpose on how to share it with the world. So just as I challenge any scientist who mocks or belittles faith, I challenge any Christian who mocks or belittles science.
            I say that because I think there lies the rub. Everyone is so into “taking sides” in this alleged battle of faith versus science, that few come together and realize we are all trying to find ways to lower pollution, have cleaner water, and take better care of the planet. It’s like if you say “but I’m doing it because God calls me to”, the scientists suddenly discredit you, or if you say, “I’m doing it because of climate change”, the faith community suddenly discredits you.
            Exchange the argument above for anything about covid. Same thing.
            It’s disheartening and childish.

  2. “…a 4-year-old church that draws on a number of Christian traditions for it’s….mantras…”

    I am aware of the fact that the Hindu/Buddhist term “mantra” has started to be used in applications other than its original usage, but it truly is appalling to me to hear it used on a Christian website, referring to a Christian church service.

    It’s lovely to hear of churches using available methods to preach the gospel and worship, but please don’t refer to Christian services as having “mantras”. There’s enough muddying of the religious waters already. We don’t all worship the same God.

  3. It’s great to hear that some churches see the pandemic as a providential opportunity to spread the Gospel in new places and different ways.

    1. I agree Lea. For instance…I still share Christ in my community and surrounding areas. Now I place Bible Tracts in ziplock bags, add 3 disposable masks and a pair of disposable gloves.
      3,000 and counting! I’ve only been turned down 5 times!!
      Buildings may be closed per say…but HIS CHURCH is ALWAYS open!

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