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Taking the Gospel outside, Colorado church extends outdoor services

BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. (BP) – For the last 17 years or so, The Church at Agape Outpost has held every summer Sunday service outside. It’s easy to see why, as its outdoor amphitheater on the bank of the Blue River joins views of Swan Mountain to the crisp Colorado morning air. The Creator’s work becomes just as apparent as the Gospel preached by Pastor Mike Atkinson.

Normally those services would have begun last weekend, as they customarily do near the Fourth of July. A decision was made this year, however, to move that point to Memorial Day weekend and end as usual at Labor Day. Atkinson said the reason was a sense that people wanted to be together more after a year where COVID largely prevented gatherings as usual.

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Pastor Mike Atkinson of The Church at Agape Outpost conducts a baptism in the Blue River on May 30. Photo by Jeannie Brewer

In the spring of 2020, the church met indoors, albeit with social distancing in place. When services moved outdoors that Fourth of July, people were more comfortable. But then in-person attendance struggled with the move back to indoors. Church leaders took note and decided to go outside five weeks earlier in 2021.

Still, the 9,400-foot elevation of Agape Outpost doesn’t make for a typical outdoor June morning.

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“We knew they were tired of not being together in person, so this year we told people to wear a coat,” Atkinson said. “When our worship team sets up at 7:30 we’re wearing jackets. Some days it was still in the 40s, but temperatures are typically in the 60s or 70s by then.”

In Atkinson’s 34 years as pastor most of the summer weather has been perfect for the outdoor services, and they’ve had to move inside only twice because of rain. However, he also has witnessed “a handful of times” when Fourth of July activities were cancelled because of snow.

The son of a career Navy man, Atkinson was born in Morocco and ended up moving around the southeastern United States growing up. He would go on to graduate from the University of Central Florida before attending Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. During his last semester he was introduced to The Church at Agape Outpost and its founding pastor, Dwane Jackson, who was preparing for another path in ministry. Jackson and the church’s elders eventually came to see Atkinson as the next pastor. 

Atkinson credits Jackson with establishing the church’s focus for reaching those in a resort ministry setting. He’s working to expand that through plans to build housing on the church’s property that will host interns and others for training in resort ministry.

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Worship at Agape Outpost typically draws around 200 attendees, with many of them seasonal guests and visitors to the resort town of Breckenridge. Photo by Jeannie Brewer

“You have people who live here and those who come in for seasonal work as well as guests here for a week or so,” he said on the various lengths at which people are in the area. “You also have people with second homes who stay a little longer.”

The cost of living is another hurdle, as Atkinson pointed out how prices are 25-30 percent higher in Breckenridge than 70 miles away in the Front Range cities of Golden and Boulder. When Atkinson and his wife Carolyn moved there in 1988 the lot “for a decent home would cost $20,000. Fifteen years later we bought one for $120,000. A few months ago the lot beside ours, which is a little smaller, sold for $450,000.

“Seasonality also wears people out,” he said, referring to the months of October, November and May when the area practically shuts down.

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“There’s no one here. It’s like a ghost town and you have to get used to that.”

That makes it difficult to maintain leadership, he added. The challenge is to acknowledge those factors and build something around it.

One factor is that around 30 percent of the population can’t go to a regular morning worship service because of work. So Agape started a Wednesday night gathering that began with a fellowship meal and was designed to replicate the Sunday service. Atkinson’s message those nights is more discussion-based and related to the previous Sunday’s sermon.

Most years Agape Outpost would host a concert with free food or enter a float with a Gospel theme in the Fourth of July parade. With the holiday falling on a Sunday this year, the church opted to forgo those and instead celebrate with a baptism in the Blue River behind the amphitheater stage.

The term “tourist” is frowned upon regarding those who are in Breckenridge for the world-class skiing or cool mountain air in the summer months and attend services like those at Agape Outpost.

“It’s really not just a matter of semantics but having an attitude of inclusion and value,” said Steve Hoekstra, a longtime friend of Atkinson’s and director of the Western Office for Colorado Baptists and statewide Resort and Leisure Ministries director. “We have guests and visitors in Colorado. The outdoor services at Agape Outpost are a recognition of the lifestyle in the mountains and not an attraction to any one particular audience.”

Atkinson estimates the church sees more than a thousand visitors and guests over a typical summer.

“We’re aware that a lot of people are only going to be there one time,” he said. “So, we keep that in mind when we preach and worship. The Gospel is presented clearly and when they go back home, we encourage them to join and serve in a local church.”