Drive-in restaurants. Drive-in oil changes. Drive-in car washes. And for those old enough to remember, drive-in theaters.
Big Creek EPC in Hannibal, Mo., has added “drive-in church” to the list.
Nathan Markley serves as pastor of the congregation of less than 50 in rural northeastern Missouri. When a deacon proposed it as a way to gather during the coronavirus pandemic, he thought she was joking.
“When we first cancelled our regular worship gatherings, we shifted to a home worship,” Markley said. “I did the bulletins and mailed them to our members by Wednesday. I was not preparing a sermon the rest of the week, so I called everyone in the church to check on them and find out if they had any prayer needs. One of our deacons mentioned that someone in her family went to a big church that was meeting this way. She said I could stand on the fire escape and everyone could just stay in their cars and listen.”
Janet Taylor suggested the idea, and said she was serious.
“We’ve been doing in-home church which worked out really good, but you just need that fellowship and your fellow Christians,” she said. “To be with your friends and family and hear Nathan preach—it’s just not the same on TV or Facetime. I’m glad Nathan was energetic and said, ‘let’s try this.’”
Despite what seemed like an outlandish idea for their small congregation, Markley researched what it would take.
“A house in our little community of about 200 people has Christmas decorations with music tuned to it—you drive by and they have signs to tune your radio to a certain station to hear the music. I thought that if a house can do that, surely a church can do it.”
For about $100, Markley purchased an FCC-compliant transmitter that sends a low-power signal throughout the church property.
“I am not a technical person at all. We don’t have a sound guy, and it’s not like I could call people in to help either,” he said. “I very nearly dismissed this as an option, but I found this device online and literally plugged it in to our sound system and turned it on. That was it. I almost bypassed this because I didn’t think we could figure it out, and it was easier than I ever imagined.”
Big Creek launched their drive-in service on Palm Sunday.
“It wasn’t like a huge, super-packed out, hyped event,” Markley said with a laugh. “We also didn’t do it for Holy Week. It just worked out that way because Palm Sunday was the first Sunday that we had it set up.”
Markley estimated that 50-100 people showed up.
“I knew some people from the other churches in town were joining us, because we were the only ones doing this,” he said. “But I couldn’t see everything, and I couldn’t see in all the cars either.”
But he knew they were there, which was the whole idea.
“Our goal was that we could gather in a way that was safe and healthy, but still gather to worship,” Markley said. “Home worship in the weeks prior was good. There is a spiritual union—if I could call it that—in that, but it’s not the same. We want to worship as a body if possible.”
Markley said the morning had some challenges, including being so windy that he had to stand inside the window leading to the fire escape instead of outside.
“I could hear myself through the church speakers and I could hear the wind, so I preached from just inside the window,” he said. “I’m sure many of the people only saw my arms and hands.”
Taylor laughed that her brother-in-law was one of those with a somewhat restricted view. “He told me. ‘I never realized Nathan talks with his hands so much!’”
But the act of gathering together was worth it.
“One of our members told me last week that she knew it wouldn’t feel the same as a regular Sunday, but she told me after that it was ‘a lot more like a regular Sunday than I expected,’” Markley said. “She said, ‘I need that,’ and to be honest, so did I. To have them see their church family was really beautiful, even though they were in the car with the windows up. I saw some people holding their babies up to the car windows and people were waving. To see one another was just…good.”
“One lady I talked to said she couldn’t see Nathan but told me, ‘I felt that I was at church,’” she said. “You can’t hug them, but you’re still in fellowship with them. Especially during this time and Holy Week. I can’t express what a feeling it was. It felt like a true Sunday.”
Markley noted that as a pastor, “I want to shepherd them as best I can, and to have some semblance of that was so very important. The whole time I thought this would be helpful for the people in the congregation, but I didn’t realize how much I needed to see them also. It’s been fine talking to them through the screen and the phone, but I realized that I needed them in person. Watching the cars pull in before we started, I was just in tears. But then I had to pull myself together so I could lead us through a service.”
At the conclusion of the morning, those who attended were encouraged to honk their car horns following the benediction.
“It was a chorus of car horns,” Marley said. “I know they were singing and praying with me during the service, but I couldn’t hear them. But when I heard the horns, it was like ‘this is the Lord’s church.’ And it was stunning.”