Church in the Park–No Steeple

(Author’s note: I’ve never aspired to be a religious columnist, but because this newspaper no longer publishes such columns, I decided to try my hand at one today. Definitely the first time, probably the last.)

Those of us who attended Sunday School as young children still know how to make a church with our hands. Put your palms together. Lace your middle fingers, ring fingers and pinkies. Aim your pointer fingers to heaven. Keep thumbs together. Then say these words.

“Here is the church

Here is the steeple

Open the doors

(Now separate your thumbs and, with eight fingers laced, rotate hands toward you)

And see all the people.”

During these strange coronavirus times, my church—First United Methodist in Cookeville—has not been meeting in our building with the steeple. We’re a Covid-cautious congregation, reluctant to gather in person. Instead, our pastors and music staff put together a beautiful and meaningful worship service inside our empty sanctuary every week. It’s recorded and posted to You Tube by our hard working technology folks and is available any time after 7:00 on Sunday mornings.

On the first Sunday in August, we tried something different. We rented the amphitheater at Dogwood Park and held a “camp meeting” service there. It was wonderful. Despite masks and sunglasses and wide-brimmed hats, we recognized each other. There were no hugs or handshakes but there were lots of waves and some I’m-so-glad-to-see-you jumping up and down. Even the weather co-operated. The sun was still low enough in the sky to allow for lots of shade and a pleasant breeze blew the humidity away.

With lawn chairs positioned to follow social distancing guidelines, we sang old-time gospel songs and prayed and listened to a wonderful sermon. The hour passed all too soon. Though this worship service wasn’t held in a building, it was church nonetheless. And it was a blessing.

All of which leads to the age-old question “What is church?” We all know that a church isn’t the building represented by children’s small hands pressed together. A church is the people revealed when those little hands are opened and turned upside down. People who gather together for Sunday School. For Wednesday night Bible study. For coffee and donuts or hikes to Burgess Falls or a hundred other reasons. People striving to be the hands and feet of Jesus by handing out groceries at a food pantry. By loading chain saws into pick-up trucks and traveling to areas devastated by weather disasters. By helping schoolchildren learn their multiplication tables. By visiting the sick and lonely and those in prison.

Many of the people of the United Methodist Church, both in Cookeville and in other parts of the country, have not been gathering inside buildings during this pandemic. While we long to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the pews to pray and sing and shout (just kidding, Methodists don’t shout), we don’t believe the time is right to do those things.

So we seek alternatives. For my church, that means meeting in Dogwood Park as often as is feasible. Rental fees are expensive. It’s labor-intensive to move sound equipment and cameras and all the other stuff necessary for an outdoor worship service. And unpredictable weather is always a factor. But we plan to do it again at 9:00 a.m. on September 20, October 4 and October 25. We’re an “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” church. We’d love to have you join us in the park, on You Tube or—sometime soon, we hope—back in our sanctuary at the corner of Broad Street and North Dixie Avenue.

(Jennie Ivey is a Cookeville writer. Her e-mail address is