Have you been trying to figure out how to interject a fresh format into your church during this COVID-19 context?  I have recently gotten more feedback from the following post on social than anything else:

“In my humble opinion, drive-in service beats virtual anything!”

For full disclosure, that comment and the following ones are intended not to knock live-stream services whatsoever (I just wrote a requested post for another blog on “how to” for virtual services yesterday). Instead it is meant to plant a growing idea in your mind to address the gaps between shepherds and sheep that appear to be widening the longer we minister exclusively on a digital platform.  May I begin by thanking the other churches who were ahead of us on this format and whose leadership teams greatly helped us get started.  In light of the multiple questions I have been fielding recently, I would share a few things that we are still learning at North Life:

Be upfront in your communication with local authorities.  Typically all that is required is contacting your local health department and law enforcement. (This heads off any complaints or concerns from the community as well as even your church family.) For us, all that was asked was an email listing the guidelines we would be following during the service.  In response, we are grateful that they have been nothing but understanding and respective. (Obviously if your region’s health situation is worse and/or policies are stricter, please proceed in a way that is uniquely submissive and appropriate.) Here’s what our email looked like:

Thank you for taking our phone call today regarding potential drive-in services at 10:30 AM and/or 5:30p on our church campus located at 2437 Back Orrville Road Wooster.

Here are the specific guidelines we will be following:

  • Attendees must be inside vehicles at all times.
  • Attendees should not interact physically with clergy, staff, or participants in other vehicles.
  • Vehicles should contain only members of a single household.
  • Car must be spaced the equivalent of every other parking spot.
  • No one may exit the vehicle at any time.

We appreciate all your department is doing to help our community safely navigate this challenging season.”

It has to be a max of 45 minutes in length.  This is a non-negotiable when you consider travel time/sit time for young kids that cannot use the bathroom while at church (Number one concern for parents with young children and senior citizens).  For emergency bathroom situations that have yet to occur, our plan is to make available for a single use every bathroom in our buidling.  (It would then be sanitized before used again in a subsequent week. (We chose to host our drive-in on Sunday evenings to protect our longer-format service via livestream on Sunday mornings.). Our service includes opening prayer, four songs, twenty-five minute sermon, and closing prayer.  That’s it and it’s simply sweet!

Park the cars of your attendees in a very intentional manner.  Have your ushers or guest services folks greet the vehicles the moment they enter the parking lot, show them the radio frequency, and guide them to a specific spot in the parking lot.  Each layout is going to be unique, but I would recommend doing the “checkerboard pattern.” This allows them to have windows down and interact with those beside them with a parking spot between them but not a car in front of them obstructing their view of the platform. (See video link at bottom to get a feel of this layout.)

Wind is your biggest audio enemy.  Despite my presuppositions, it’s not rain or snow.  We are using an enclosed trailer with ramp that goes down in the back where we stand to lead worship, preach. This all but eliminates the wind that crosses our campus.  (Basically, you need a wall of your building or trailer between the wind and your mics.)

Develop a setup that is not limited or cancelled by weather.  I would recommend having the audio mix coming through monitors/speakers near platform and use an FM transmitter to car radios. With this setup I mentioned you can conduct drive-in even if it rains.  This is key to the viability of a semi-normal service to which your folks can develop an attendance rhythm and be able to invite guests.  I want to give a special word of thanks to our Assistant Pastor, David Cotner, who has invested countless hours to develop not only our virtual services but drive-in format.

The platform should be elevated for folks to see through the tight visual window between dashboard and roofline of their vehicles.  To get this right, you need to actually park your own cars and get a feel for it beforehand. For us, we have one section of our parking lost that is elevated about 15 feet above (platform) another section (attendees).  I am seeing several other churches are using a scissor lift, church roof, or flatbed trailer/truck. 

Your microphone selection is key.  We are running audio through an audio snake to our main board in the auditorium and then back to fm transmitter and monitors.  I use windscreens on all mics and only used wired mics.  They may work for you, but our wireless applications were sketchy at best for us.

Design a simple but robust “drive-in service” webpage.  This allows you to facilitate the lyrics of worship songs, sermon outline, and other “bulletin elements” for your people and guests.  (We do print out physical bulletins for those who want one, but the webpage eliminates any “social distancing” reservations for those who would attend.). Here is a link to ours.

Lastly, the pastor (it brings me to tears/smiles regularly) loves it and so do our people!  We have senior citizens coming.  Families with young, rambunctious kids are coming.  We have teenagers and young professionals coming.  Even complete strangers coming.  And then…they are coming back!  After only week one of our drive-in service, with all of its trials and errors, I received a text from one of our dear church men who was not so sure about it on the front end.  This text capture the overwhelming response that we are getting and you likely could be as well.

“Good evening Pastor. Tonight truly was a blessing. Just a few things from my family’s experience tonight: Any concerns I had going into tonight were erased. (My wife) was a little skeptical as well and now she can’t wait til next week’s drive-in service.  We were actually able to focus with less distraction.  Even though we could only smile and wave at our fellow church family it made it all the worth while over live-stream only. Even though it’s not the same it had more of the church feel.  I feel it’s a “must have” until we get back in our building.  In short we are all in. Looking forward to gathering together again next week. Thank you. Praying for you.”

I rest my case.  If you put the preparation in ahead of time and are willing to adjust/improve it one week at a time, this format can be a vital bridge between the initial novelty/necessity of digital church and resumption of full-blown, on-site services.

For those who want a basic visual, here is a video on our Facebook Page that captures the first drive-in service for us and essence of this post.