The Lake Harriet Band Shell is best known for its popular summer concerts and movies. But on Sunday mornings, the shorts-and-sandals crowd gathers under the skies not for entertainment, but for inspiration.
The band shell stage is transformed into an open-air religious service, complete with church musicians, youth leaders and casual-dress ministers. It’s an ecumenical affair, with varied Minneapolis faith communities sharing the roughly 15 Sundays on the summer calendar.
The services attract not just church members but a community of folks who have built it into a spiritual and neighborhood tradition.
“We’ve been coming here since she was a little girl,” said Gail Feichtinger, gesturing to her college-aged daughter sharing a blanket on the grass with her and her husband. “It’s so welcoming.”
Like many people here, Feichtinger started out attending just for services for her own church, Bethlehem Lutheran. It evolved into a weekly tradition that the entire family enjoyed.
“It feels comfortable. It’s not like this is someone’s space,” said daughter Elena Geiger. “And you can sit in the grass, not pews.”
The band shell worship is pushing 30 years, according to the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, which issues permits for the faith communities from southwest Minneapolis. It’s been so popular that churches in southeast Minneapolis launched similar worship services several years ago at Minnehaha Falls Park.
It helps that there’s a natural weekend audience of runners, bikers and lake lovers. Churches adhere to certain guidelines that make the services inclusive, such as not offering communion and not reciting certain affirmations of faith such as the Apostles Creed.
“The goal is to make people want to stop and be part of it,” said the Rev. Bill MacLean of Mount Olivet Lutheran Church, who coordinates the band shell services.
First Universalist Church of Minneapolis took the stage on a recent, picture-perfect Sunday that drew a crowd of at least 450 folks on bleachers, blankets and even bikes. The Rev. Justin Schroeder welcomed the crowd.
“Good morning Lake Harriet!” he yelled out.
“Good morning!” many yelled back.
For the next hour, the band shell was the stage for an upbeat children’s skit, songs from guest musicians Ghost Revival, and a sermon exploring the theme “Love is Calling,” all followed by a free picnic in the park behind them.
The informal setting, with lake winds blowing and sun often blazing, prompts many ministers to offer a lighter service than usual.
“It forces us to be more creative, to sharpen our message — and engage both children and adults,” said Schroeder.
The Rev. John Sommerville of City Church agreed. His church offers a bluegrass folk service at Lake Harriet, music he hopes is universal to both church members and others. He shortens his sermon, and shortens the service, to keep the pace moving. City Church also offers a free picnic afterward.
The public event offers a rich opportunity for faith communities, he said.
“We typically have 350 people in church during the school year and about 250 in the summer,” he added. “There can be more than 500 people at the band shell.”
Kelly White will be among those attending the 10 a.m. service Sunday. It’s been a family affair for about 20 years, she said. On a recent Sunday, she sat with “my husband, my daughter, my sister, her two grandchildren and my 92-year-old mother.”
The family enjoys the camaraderie of seeing the same faces year after year. They make new friends, especially folks with dogs. And they enjoy the variety.
“It really isn’t about which church is there,” said White. “They are all upbeat. And they have the same tone — that everyone is welcome. We really like it.”