We gather in nature’s sanctuary beneath an oak tree. Under its dense canopy, we find solace and inspiration in our shared journey of faith.

Far from the confines of traditional church walls, New Life Lutheran Church in Dripping Springs, Texas, is an open expanse where the earth becomes the sacred floor and the sky the cathedral ceiling.

As I find myself in this serene setting, just 30 minutes away from Austin, I am struck by a profound sense of belonging. Curiosity initially drew me here. My love for nature, coupled with a conflicted relationship with the capitalistic mindset that often dominates traditional church structures, led me here in search of authenticity and focus.

Birds serenade us, their melodies harmonizing with the prayers and hymns. With the high-pitched notes of the Northern cardinal, the song of the Carolina wren and the trills of the Bewick’s wren, we are reminded of the presence of God in the natural world.

The folks at New Life Lutheran don’t want to be inside. They typically meet rain or shine, often shortening or delaying the services if the weather is bad. They make the call Sunday morning and let the congregation know by text.

The pulpit is rustic, formed with stacked limestone bricks. The baptismal font is a ceramic bowl made by a local potter, resting on a tripod of cedar posts from the church’s property. The ground is carpeted with grass and fallen leaves. We wear comfortable clothes and shoes, sit at picnic tables, stand up or walk as we choose.

metal cross sculpture on altar
A metal sculpture of crosses on a stone altar.

The Rev. Candice Combs is the pastor of New Life Lutheran Church, which began in 2004 as a new mission start of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). She arrived in 2021, after serving as a pastor during four hard years.

She says she has found the congregation at New Life to be an authentic community in a divine space that feels right. Worshipping outdoors in the Texas Hill Country grows the connection to creation as well as the Creator, she says. We experience the Spirit moving in, with and through everything.

And it’s open to everyone. Brant, who lives in a nearby halfway house, rides his bike to New Life. Children roam; they can hear the whole worship service from the playground. Family dogs get pats on the head from visitors.

During the service, Combs invites people to share what she calls ”milestones,” significant experiences they wish to offer up in prayer.

On this Sunday, a woman named Suzin talks about her lifelong dream of working with donkeys. She is pursuing that dream, working now with a trainer for her donkey, Too Cute. She even brought Too Cute to church on Palm Sunday, and the children got to ride.

By voicing these moments, the congregation strengthens its sense of community. Then, through collective prayer, they lift each other up, seeking divine guidance and comfort and joy in the blessings and lessons that each week brings.

When Combs finishes the last sentence of her sermon, the cicadas start playing their music, as if planned. It’s the perfect ending. After the service, adults meet for discipleship. Children gather in a circle under an oak tree with the Sunday school teacher for Godly Play.

Worshipping outdoors in the Texas Hill Country grows the connection to creation as well as the Creator.

pastor and children's sermon
A child at the baptismal font during communion; a group of kids listens to the children's sermon.

Combs walks a group of us through the 12-acre church property, which was purchased for the church in 2010 by the ELCA. When the congregation had to choose between investing in rent and investing in land, they chose the land.

We walk away from the sanctuary under the oaks toward a path filled with wildflowers. We find a labyrinth with winding paths marked by pale weathered stones, a symbol of the spiritual journey.

We pass a bird blind, and a few feet away, a garden takes root, cultivated to grow fresh produce for the food pantry across the street. Plans are being made for strategically placed beehives that will contribute to the garden’s vitality and promote the essential role of pollinators in our ecosystem.

Combs also announces plans to transform the grounds into a vibrant hub of both worship and altruism. At the heart of this endeavor lies the construction of an amphitheater, where congregants, visitors and community members can come together under the open sky to partake in worship services, storytelling about diverse and pressing topics, performances, and community events.

At the center of it all will stand a one-of-a-kind sanctuary, a barnlike structure with high ceilings and no walls. With this design, the outdoor church seeks to nurture a deeper sense of communion with both the earth and the divine, a place of peace and belonging for all who enter.

New Life members describe it as an “inside-out church,” where all the sacred things are outside and not locked behind a door. Combs says that they do not want to ever have walls or doors that keep people out.

A space with no walls and no doors, where people are always welcome. Isn’t that the true meaning of church — made up, not of buildings, but of people?

The maintenance and preservation of physical structures can overshadow the core mission of churches: to provide sanctuary, support and guidance to those in need. And the stress of paying for upkeep has become one of the most pressing challenges for many congregations today.

It feels refreshing to gather in New Life Lutheran Church, where we seem free from those worldly constraints — where we the people are the temple and the spirit of worship intertwines seamlessly with the rhythms of creation, inviting all who seek to commune with the divine to find peace, renewal and connection.

Under the oak tree with branches extending outward like welcoming arms, I find sanctuary for my spirit, the true essence of the church, found not in the edifices we construct but in the bonds of kinship and the commitment to living out the teachings of love and compassion in our daily lives.