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Big or Small Drive-In Churches Work

Big or Small, Drive-In Churches Work

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Church planters John and Stephanie Van Pay have a congregation of more than 3,400 attending the multiple campuses of Gateway Church in San Antonio. Meanwhile, Mark and Rachel Chumney who are pastoring in Palatka, Florida, see about 95 on a weekly basis attending Victory Christian Fellowship. Two vastly different-sized congregations that during the COVID-19 pandemic are finding great success hosting their own drive-in church services.

Van Pay says he started out with an online service, but he wanted the church to somehow come together without violating any of the city, state, or national directives concerning social distancing.

Chumney was in a similar dilemma, but he started out with the drive-in church in the midst of a series of revival services. He says his idea came from talking to a couple who had mentioned when they first started out, their church was an old drive-in theater and until they had a building, people came to church just like they were attending a drive-in movie.

Chris and Davi Brooks were holding revival services at Victory Christian Fellowship when the word came down about social distancing on March 18. That Wednesday evening, the Brooks had their first drive-in revival service at the church. It went so well, Chumney says, that they extended the revival two more days, with the Brookses returning to speak to a drive-in crowd on Sunday as well.

While Chumney will continue to minister from a covered patio in front of the church, Van Pay has a bit more of a climb when he ministers. Gateway’s facility that Van Pay ministers from is a 50,000-square-foot building. His “platform” is 35 feet in the air on the roof of the church. But just like with Victory Christian Fellowship, the congregation of Gateway drive in to hear the message.

“We have services at 9, 10, 11, and 12 and a live band leading worship,” Van Pay says. “We also had a drive-in service at the Bandera campus with a good response there as well.”

Chumney and Van Pay both have taken advantage of FM radio transmitters so their congregations can listen to the message in the comfort and safety of their cars on their radio.

Chumney originally was afraid that obtaining a radio signal was going to be prohibitively expensive, but he still did a lot of research, especially on FCC Part 15 rules and regulations.

“You are permitted to go online and purchase devices that are Part 15 compliant,” Chumney says. “We bought our transmitter for about $230 and it covers a total of 25,000 square feet. You can get one for as little as $70, but it depends on the range and quality of transmitter you need.”

Chumney says the research and investment in the FM signal to hold drive-in church has definitely been worth the effort.

“We’ve had a lot of positive feedback, a lot of people are really enjoying it — coming in, seeing each other, honking their horns,” Chumney says. “People are experiencing the presence of the Holy Spirit even while sitting in their cars in the parking lot . . . God is still radically changing and shifting our lives.”

Through their online services, Van Pay says that people are watching their services in a big way. Although the church has a total attendance of less than 4,000, they had more than 32,000 views of the Sunday message.

“We’ve had 54 people surrender their lives to Jesus,” Van Pay says. “When viewing online, people can let us know through a comment or email. Those who let us know are then connected to one of our 120 small groups, which are currently meeting virtually.”

Van Pay observes that this period of time in history may be beneficial for families and the church.

“We’re wired to be relational,” he says. “Even though we can’t physically touch, the sense of being together (through drive-in church or online) resonates in people’s hearts. Church can bring comfort and encouragement to people facing a lot of discouragement. We’re also seeing people attend who haven’t been coming to church because of sports leagues and other events often held on the weekend. I believe people are more excited about and open to the gospel than ever before.”

At Victory Christian Fellowship, Chumney says that people express praise throughout the service by honking their horns. When a commitment for Christ is made, people are asked to flash their car lights. Offerings are urged to be given online, but for those who prefer, a properly protected volunteer holds a bucket at the exit for people to place their tithes and offerings as they leave.

Chumney adds that he’s on the phone regularly, helping pastors — especially ones leading smaller churches — from across the country in setting up their own drive-in ministry. He shared a post about the drive-in church on Facebook; to date, it has had a reach of more than seven million people.

“If this idea (drive-in church) is not for their area, God can give them the idea for their area,” Chumney says. “If it’s a God idea, He’ll be able to use it to minister.”

The church has already announced plans for its Easter service, inviting people to bring their own communion elements, as well as a participate in a drive-thru Easter egg hunt for kids.

“Olivia Roberts, our children’s pastor, got the idea of hiding eggs in different line-of-sight areas. When kids spot an egg, they take a picture,” Chumney says. “Then, when they’re all done, they send the pictures to Olivia in a kind of fun competition for our kids to see who finds the most eggs.”

Gateway is holding seven drive-in services over Easter weekend. The church is also partnering with Convoy of Hope and Children Hunger Fund on Easter Sunday to provide 800 families in need with enough groceries to feed them for a week.

However, what both Van Pay and Chumney have found is that when the focus is on God, it’s becomes clear that God is still at work.

“That’s the biggest key to success,” Chumney says, “making sure that we are directing our attention to what God is doing, not the things that we have lost . . . Think of the children of Israel, begging to go back to Egypt while in the very middle of all the miraculous things God was doing.

“If we fix our thoughts on what God is doing right now, we’ll watch Him bless and move — even in the middle of a pandemic.”

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