Church in the parking lot includes safety, gospel
By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
JOHNSON CITY— Five years before COVID-19 took the world by storm, University Parkway Baptist Church had recognized the need for a service for people with health issues and other concerns that prevented them from going to church.
“Our drive-in church is designed to offer a worship service to people in our region that might not be physically able or might not be comfortable coming into our building,” said Scott Thompson, associate pastor of University Parkway Baptist.
Among people who might prefer a drive-in service include people who struggle with anxiety, people having surgery, people on call who may need to answer their phone, people with a myriad of health concerns who need to avoid contact with others, people with children who deal with autism and the list goes on, Thompson said.
The drive-in church allows them to worship from “the comfort of their vehicle,” he said.
Once they park, attendees tune into radio channel 91.3 to listen to the service (channel would vary depending on location). The senior pastor (Michael Oaks) and the vocalists are outside. The only difference is that the band/instruments are inside, but it is not noticeable as to the sound of the music, Thompson said.
In the five years the drive-in church has been open, the church has seen a number of people take advantage of it, Thompson said.
The drive-in service has removed barriers for people who want to attend church but cannot be around other people for various health reasons. This was prevalent long before the coronavirus pandemic, Thompson said.
“We have found out that people can worship God anywhere. But being inside their car, people feel safe and secure and have less distractions than our inside worship services with lights and people moving around and talking,” Thompson observed. “We have witnessed a great environment for God to quiet people’s hearts so they can hear the message,” he added.
Thompson learned about the concept while in Daytona Beach, Fla., on a family vacation in 2015. He attended a drive-in service at a church across from their hotel at the urging of his wife. “I thought it was a corny idea but I was blown away by how God’s spirit moved in such a special way,” he recalled.
Thompson shared the idea with University Parkway members and they decided to give it a try, he recalled.
The drive-in church has definitely met a need, he affirmed. The church normally draws about 80 to 120 weekly to the church parking lot but Thompson expects the number to swell as a result of the coronavirus.
One attender noted the drive-in church “allows my father, who is seriously ill, to attend church. He doesn’t have the energy to go inside. … It’s a true blessing to have this option for him to receive the Word of God,” she said.
Another regular attender said the drive-in church “brings hope and joy into my life. I always enjoy the music and the message,” she said.
The primary difference between the drive-in church service and the regular service is that people don’t have to leave their car if they don’t want to.
When people arrive, they drive by a shelter where they are greeted by one of the church’s ministers and a greeting team. They also are given a bulletin and a song sheet. The bulletin includes a tear off sheet where they can provide prayer requests, register a decision for Christ or request more information about the church.
Like any other service, an offering is taken for those who want to give, Thompson said. The church has had many people join through the drive-in church and they are full members and take advantage of various church ministries, he noted.
“They want to be involved in the life of our church,” he said.
Like many other congregations, University Parkway has canceled live services but the drive-in church will continue along with livestreaming. In fact, the church had an additional drive-in service on Sunday, March 22. Thompson said there were about 280 people for both services.
By comparison, approximately 137 watched the livestreaming service. “The people were excited to get out of their homes and worship with their church family,” he noted. Thompson emphasized they are taking extra precautions to limit contact with greeters and those who assist in parking.
On Sunday, March 29, they will not distribute a bulletin or song sheet, but will make it available so they can access it from their cell phones.
The great thing about the drive-in church is that any church can do it.
Because University Parkway already had sound equipment, they only had to purchase a small, low power FM transmitter kit and antenna. The range is only a half mile or so, Thompson said. Anything larger would require an FCC license, he noted.
He said University Parkway purchased an external outside antenna to extend its reach. Including the antenna, their total cost was about $250, he said.
Thompson said it is his dream to see every church begin a drive-in church. “It’s another tool to reach someone for Christ,” he affirmed.
University already has helped a congregation in a neighboring county (Fishery Community Church in Unicoi County) begin a weekly drive-in service and Thompson is willing to assist other congregations.
Since the coronavirus pandemic, Thompson has fielded numerous calls from churches across the country and has talked with numerous churches who plan to begin a similar service.
“It’s amazing how churches are getting set up and ready,” he observed.
If interested, contact Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org.