It's not exactly a stairway to heaven.

But when the worship team at Gethsemane Lutheran Church in Hopkins climbs the steps, they feel a little bit closer to God.

The Rev. John D.F. Nelson has been preaching his good news from the rooftop during the COVID-19 pandemic as a way to bring the congregation together in a time of widespread isolation.

Like many churches, Gethsemane began offering online worship services shortly after the pandemic forced a shutdown of many in-person activities last year. But for Nelson, the church's pastor for 14 years, the remote services lacked a crucial element.

"Church is a communal experience," he said. "When you're isolated at home, you lose so much of what church is. And we are always trying to create an in-person, connected worship experience."

Gethsemane offered outdoor services last summer, with congregants bringing their own lawn chairs. When cold weather arrived, they began holding drive-in worship services in the parking lot, with worshipers listening on their car radios. But even though the officiants preached from a raised stage, only the first few rows of cars could really see what was going on.

When Christmas approached, church leaders wanted the service to feel special. They decorated the parking lot, put lights on the trees and simulated a giant outdoor stained-glass window.

But being held at night, how could the event be visible to everyone?

"And I thought, 'Why not go on the roof?' " Nelson recalled. "We got spotlights. We shoveled a path all the way across the roof to the edge.

"We turned on the lights and there we were on the roof, like the angels to the shepherds in the Christmas story."

The night was bitter, with the thermometer at zero degrees and a windchill of minus 10. Nelson and the other worship team members, bundled up against the cold, "looked like the Michelin man," he said.

But the congregation loved the idea, with many commenting on it afterward. So the church decided to keep offering the rooftop service every three weeks, to coincide with regular communion.

Not everyone embraced it eagerly, Nelson said with a laugh.

"I am an extreme skier. I am very used to being on a mountaintop or a cliff edge in the bitter cold," he said. "So the challenge of leading worship in that space was not a big deal to me. My staff took some convincing, however."

There's no railing along the flat rooftop, which is about 20 feet high. Nelson and the others stand 4 to 5 feet back from the edge; the other team members said they've now gotten comfortable with the setup.

On a recent March Sunday, Nelson, along with associate pastor the Rev. Sarah Moat and lay assistant Michele Lehmbecker, headed to the roof on a pleasant spring morning with temperatures in the 30s.

They kept the outdoor service moving briskly, mostly by cutting back on hymns and musical offerings. After about 30 minutes, the 75 cars in the parking lot moved on to a drive-through communion, receiving small, sealed containers with wine and wafers. Many parishioners bring their dogs along, so the pastors handed out doggy treats along with communion wine.

Gethsemane will probably be able to hold indoor services soon, but Nelson plans to keep the rooftop worship going through the fall.

"We will do parking lot worship in remembrance of the year we had to close our doors," he said. "Was it just some crazy idea to go on the rooftop? No, it's this constant yearning to be together."

John Reinan • 612-673-7402