The last few months have brought many changes in the church. They have also offered an opportunity to re-imagine what church looks like. Our church is a typical, western PA rural congregation. We have the proverbial white steeple, rolling hills, and family cemetery that so often accompany the churches in our small communities. The congregation is made up of wonderful people, who love God and love each other, but at our heart, we are not the best at the mission of Matthew 28. So, when the COVID-19 scare started, it became a chance to see how to serve the community in some unconventional ways.
Adapting To A New Reality
For EastBrook Presbyterian Church, this season started with a live stream of our worship team and pastor, but we felt like we were missing something in the process. As we reflected on Acts 2, we began to feel like we needed a way to gather in fellowship, prayer, and encouragement. Amid the March changes, we had seen some churches in the south and far west hold drive-in services. As we prayed through the next steps, we felt this option would be the best way to serve our community, and at the same time a chance to think outside of the traditional box on what church could be. As Easter approached, our session decided that Easter Sunday would be the prime opportunity to gather again and worship.
Our first drive in was anything but polished; however, we felt the Holy Spirit show up in some incredible ways. On Easter, we gathered with a parking lot full of fellowship, all while respecting the times and listening from our cars. Through the wind, rain, and honking horns our voices were raised to praise a living savior of love and grace. In the weeks ahead we have worked on perfecting the process, but the real story is in the resurgence of community that has resulted from this endeavor to worship.
A Season of Growth
The first big story for me is the attendance, and not only in numbers. Our attendance has been an answered prayer in both the quantity and the diversity. The idea of a drive-in service has allowed our older members and opportunity to worship with the community. Even before COVID-19, we had some elderly members dealing with cancer that had been unable to attend due to risk of infection. With the risk mitigated, they have been able to rejoin our community in person, not just in spirit. The smiles on their faces the first Sunday we were together were soul changing. It was a sign that the importance of the gathering of the Body cannot be underestimated.
We have also seen a rise in attendance from visitors—both those seeking church while theirs is closed as well as those seeking church who have been absent for some time. The informality of worshiping in your vehicle without judgment has opened the door for many to worship that would not have attended in another format. For each of the past five weeks, we have had the blessing to minister to roughly 30 visitors from the community, each of them with a story and each of them returning for the opportunity to worship together.
A Chance to Re-Imagine Corporate Worship
The second big part of this is the opportunity to change the way we think about worship. In our church we have, like many, come to think of church as the building, pews, and time on Sunday. This, while not all bad, has restricted our movement toward mission in our community. The church has in large part become a time and place, not a people and a movement. In the aftermath of COVID-19, our idea of worship has had to change. The place is not so important, nor is the pew in which we sit. In fact, the building has become non-essential, and the true meaning of worship has become the focus on Christ that it has always been intended for.
Amid turmoil, God has found a way to bring common ground and fellowship to the flock. This has brought about an increase in our giving, an attention to ministry and what it means, as well as a transition in our combined focus. Through the change in focus, our social hall has become a makeshift food pantry for 25 families, our parking lot, the center of worship on Sunday’s, and our Facebook page a ministry tool for viewers around the nation.
A Surprising Work of God
In the end, the great story of drive-in church is in the spiritual awakening that seems to be happening at EastBrook. Fellowship is found in new ways. Worship is centered on God, and, as the distractions of routine have been abandoned, the mission of the church is as outside as our pulpit.
The rural context of our church has become the spark to ignite a new focus for us as we move through the changes of life in 2020. Our neighbors can hear the gospel through the valley on Sundays, our members have learned to make a joyful noise in worship, and praise has become heartfelt and meaningful in this transition. So for us, the necessity of change has born a renewal of faith through the windshields of our cars as we come to cross through the drive in.
Jason Schepp is a member of the Project on Rural Ministry's Rust Belt Cohort and the pastor at EastBrook Presbyterian Church, where he has been blessed to serve for 13 years. He serves along with his wife and two kids as they strive to share the gospel through the gifts God has blessed them with. When not at the church, Jason can be found in the woods or out with family living life to its fullest.