Churches Go Back in Time with Drive-in Services to Reach their Flock
By Lindsay Peyton
Imagine a drive-in movie theatre – but replace the silver screen with a Pastor on a pulpit. A couple of churches in the Texas Annual Conference were looking for a creative way to continue to worship – and to celebrate Easter – while maintaining social distancing in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. They decided that drive-in church might be the perfect vehicle.
The COVID19 outbreak limited the size of worship at Spring Woods UMC. When gatherings were limited to 200, Senior Pastor Steffon Arrington continued to hold two small Sunday services. By the time the sermons ended, on Sunday afternoon, the CDC recommendations for social gatherings dropped down to 50 people.
“Then it went down to just 10, with 6 feet of space between them,” Arrington said.
He started to worry – not just about weekly sermons but also future events. “What are we going to do for Easter?” he thought.
Arrington started brainstorming. Then, he got a call from his youth director Crystal Fonseca. “Pastor, I have an idea,” she said. “Why don’t we do a drive-in worship.”
He liked the idea – and wanted to take it for a test drive. “Let’s put it in motion this Sunday,” he said.
The youth director’s husband Jesse Fonseca is also the praise band director. Together with Arrington, they met with the choir director Austin Ishee and put their heads together. Then, Spring Woods UMC announced plans on Facebook.
The church turned the parking lot into their drive-in theater, roping off the spots for the cars on Sunday, March 22. The marquee outside the church announced the drive-in worship would start at 11 a.m.
“We had no idea how many people would roll onto the parking lot,” Arrington said.
He stood on a stage and waited, with the praise band. “If no one else came, at least we would have worship,” he recalled thinking.
Then the cars started driving into the lot. About 50 vehicles showed up, each with two or more people inside. “It was awesome,” Arrington said. “I was able to walk up and down the aisle and wave at people, just praying and giving the glory to God. He was the one who brought all of us together.”
The congregants in the parked cars were also waving at each other. “They were seeing people they hadn’t seen in two weeks,” Arrington said.
The pastor encouraged the cars to honk instead of saying amen. Children peaked out of sunroofs. Baskets were placed at parking lots exits allowing members to make offerings as they drove away.
“It was an opportunity to say, when we worship, it’s not about the building,” Arrington said. “It’s about the people. We’re the church. We’re just worshiping on four-wheels now.”
Some members of the community who had not attended Spring Woods in the past also showed up. “They’ve already said that they’ll be back next week,” Arrington said.
Already, congregants have told Arrington that the service was exactly what they needed. The pastor plans to continue the drive-in service – and bring it back for Easter.
Arrington has ordered pre-sealed communion packs for Palm Sunday. “We’re taking all of the safety precautions,” he said. “We have to celebrate Easter, the resurrection.”
The Easter service will begin at noon. A Spanish service will be held at 3 p.m. also in the parking lot.
Arrington said that the church was faced with a challenge – the need to come together for its members. “This is God saying, I’m going to solve the problem,” the pastor explained. “Remember that God is in control. We are a people of God.”
Honks of praise were also sounding in Port Arthur on Sunday. The Temple hosted its first drive-in service as well.
Senior pastor Phil Chamberlin said as soon as churches started shutting down services to preserve social distancing, he began brainstorming how he could offer services outside the box.
“I just had this feeling that there was more that we can do,” he said. “I thought we could do something better than just going with the flow.”
Chamberlin met with staff at the Temple, and the suggestion for a drive-in service came up. “I stopped, and was like, ‘Wait. That’s brilliant.”
Already, the church purchased outdoor speakers and an FM transmitter. “We started to strategize,” Chamberlin said.
By Sunday, the Temple was ready to roll, using the FM transmitters so cars could dial in the service on their radios. “The response was absolutely overwhelming,” Chamberlin said. “We had hundreds of cars in our parking lot. We ended up with a really large turn out.”
Visitors from the community attended and enjoyed the service. “I went out and visited with people through their windshields,” Chamberlin said. “As they went out, I gave them the ‘V’ sign. We have to keep remembering that Jesus is victorious.”
Everyone is affected by coronavirus, he said, regardless of health risks. There are economic effects and the loss of social gatherings.
“We can have fear or we can have faith,” Chamberlin said. “Fear drives out faith, and faith drives out fear. We have to pick one over the other.”
The Temple plans to continue to offer drive-in worship for as needed – and also for Easter Sunday.
“There’s a greater word out there – and it’s the word of the Lord,” Chamberlin said. “God’s got us. He will never leave us.”
Rev. Steve Woody, senior pastor at Livingston FUMC, is also planning a drive-in service for Easter.
Already, the church livestreams its worship service on Sundays – and offers a worship each week on the radio at 102.3 the Eagle.
Still, Woody wanted to bring congregants together. “I’m convinced that we’re created to be in relationship,” he said. “First, we’re meant to be in relationship with God, and then we’re meant to be in relationships with each other. I’m also convinced that God intended us to worship as a community.”
Reading the Bible, Woody found countless examples of individuals who gathered to pray and worship, even in the most difficult situations. “They found a way,” he said.
Woody wanted to find a way to continue to celebrate Easter. “I cannot imagine having an Easter where we’re not in community,” he said. “And that’s what this is all about. We’re still promoting social distancing and staying safe. But we’re together – even if it’s through a car window.”
A local trailer supply company donated two flat-beds that will serve as a large stage, ensuring enough room for the pastor, as well as members of the praise band and a small choir to stand more than 6 feet apart.
The radio station agreed to bring its mobile unit to broadcast live. A sound company also donated its services to ensure everyone in the parking lot can hear.
The Easter service will begin at 10:30 a.m. The children’s ministry will provide Easter packages, complete with activities, for kids in the cars. A food service will offer pulled pork sandwiches, and Woody has ordered sealed communion packages to give.
The church plans to relocate its traditional flower cross into a clearing in the woods, where families can take turns standing for photos. “I’ve got people who have done that for 20 to 30 years,” Woody said.
The pastor said that coming together – while still staying safely at a distance – is a great way to stay connected. “I think there’s a sense of urgency to maintain community,” he said. “People need that. I don’t want people to get out of touch.”
Woody said that the message of Easter is also needed in this time, where so many unknowns exist and uncertainty has created a high level of anxiety. He likes to think of the Gospel of John, which describes Mary Magdalene going to Jesus’ tomb while it was still dark to find stones removed from the entrance.
“He rose while it was still dark,” Woody said. “Sometimes God does his best work in the dark.”
For more information about Spring Woods UMC, got to springwoodsumc.org. To learn about Livingston FUMC, visit livingstonfumc.org and the Temple is online at templeonline.org.