As states and businesses are cautiously reopening, churches also are transitioning back to in-person worship. Many United Methodist congregations expect to resume worshipping in their sanctuaries at limited capacity in late June or early July, while continuing to offer online worship. Some churches, however, are using another alternative – drive-in worship services.
“Every week since Palm Sunday, we have invited members to pull up into the parking lot, turn on their radios and listen to a full worship service with Communion,” said the Rev. Wesley Gabel at Osseo United Methodist Church in Minnesota. Oseeo lies in the middle of a COVID-19 hotspot. The coronavirus brought personal tragedy to the congregation when one of its own members died from it. “We knew safety was paramount when we began offering drive-in services.”
Producing the services was a team effort from the very beginning.
“One of our members had a dream one night where church members were sitting in their cars listening to worship on the radio. He shared his vision with me and worked with our staff to make it happen,” Gabel said. As luck would have it another church member had expertise in technology and helped them secure the necessary equipment.
“We record the music and other parts of the service ahead of time and use an FM transmitter to broadcast them on the radio,” he continued. “The sermon is live on the church lawn (unless it rains that morning). We offer sealed communion elements at every service.
“The response to the services has been overwhelmingly positive. People in the area who never attended our church before have started coming. Everyone I’ve talked to has expressed their joy at seeing each other in-person again and getting away from their computer screens.”
Cumming First United Methodist Church in the North Georgia conference began offering drive-in services a few weeks ago. Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson suggested it as a model for churches transitioning back to worship in-person. Cumming holds its drive-in services on Wednesday evenings rather than Sunday mornings. The service is all live and broadcasts via FM radio. A church band called the Circuit Riders plays bluegrass-style tunes. Instead of shouting amen, attendees honk their horns as a joyful noise.
“Our members love the cooler weather and casual atmosphere of the evening service,” said the Rev. Chris Laskey. “Some families bring their dogs along for the ride, so our associate pastor brought treats for them.
“We will continue to offer drive-in services for a while even after we move back into the sanctuary, since we have high-risk members who may still be uncomfortable coming in. We’re also going to start livestreaming the drive-in service on Facebook, so people can follow it from home.”
For the Rev. Marty Dunbar, drive-in worship began with a desire to offer communion safely to the members of John Wesley United Methodist in Houston during the pandemic. “At first we were just going to have people pick up communion from their cars, but quickly decided we wanted to give them more.”
The congregation decided to host a full service instead from the parking lot facing the Family Ministries building. Fortunately, the church already had a portable stage and Line Array speaker system. Instead of transmitting their outdoor service over the radio, the church asked members to roll down their windows to listen. The church staff make sure cars are spaced out across the lot to ensure proper social distancing.
“We don’t have any kind of outdoor screen, so one of the challenges was finding a way to offer people the lyrics to songs played during the service. We use a digital app to create online bulletins. We also have volunteers handing out printed bulletins to anyone who wants them, while wearing masks and gloves,” Dunbar explained.
The services have evolved over the weeks as the congregation became more accustomed to the idea. “When we realized cars were facing right into the sun during the service, we moved the time back by an hour-and-half, so they could see the stage better. As state restrictions have eased, we’ve begun encouraging people to bring chairs and sit outside their cars to listen while stilling wearing masks and staying far enough apart from each other,” he said
Though adopted specifically to meet the needs of congregations during COVID-19, the positive responses churches received are causing some of them to consider making drive-in services a regular practice.
“I think there is something really appealing to folks about having church outside and in less formal settings that makes these types of services good evangelistic tools. While we haven’t thought too far ahead, I could see us continuing to offer drive-in services to supplement our ministries indoors and online,” said Laskey.
Whether offered as a transitional model for churches re-opening in the aftermath of a global health crisis or as a way of reaching the unchurched in their community, drive-in worship services are answering a real need for hope and comradery during these difficult times.
Philip J. Brooks is a writer and content developer on the leader communications team at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tennessee, USA. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.