A message of hope: Churches stay connected with drive-in Easter services

2020-04-12 | The Herald (Sharon, Pa.)

April 12-- Apr. 12--With the help of modern technology and a bit of ingenuity, churches throughout the Valley are holding Easter services a bit differently this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Our catchphrase is 'Come as you are, and stay in your car," said Hermitage's Gentle Shepherd Church of the Nazarene Senior Pastor Brian Burke.

Starting at 10:30 a.m., Burke said members of the congregation will park their cars in the church parking lot where, depending on the weather, the church will have a small worship band and live service. An FM transmitter donated by a community member will allow congregation members to adhere to social distancing guidelines by listening to the service in their cars.

"It's so important this time of year, especially with what we are going through now, that people get this message of hope," Burke said. "(The congregation) is dying to get out and hear a good message and be around people -- even if it is from their cars."

Burke said about 30-40 of his parishioners volunteered their time to help make the drive-in service a reality, chipping in by making signs to help direct parking lot traffic to helping to set up the broadcast.

"It's been a big group effort," he said. "I'm really blessed to have a congregation that is 'all in.'"

First Assembly of God and Miracle Valley churches in Hermitage are also having similar drive-in Easter services.

First Assembly typically holds two services, but will hold just one drive-in service at 9 a.m. Sunday. Prepackaged juice and crackers will be offered for those able to attend in person, and the service will be livestreamed online for those unable to attend.

"Thank the Lord that we have the technology to be able to do this and spread the message of hope," First Assembly of God Pastor Mike Sabella said.

David DeJoy, an ordained minister with Miracle Valley who handles the church's technical and audio/video departments, said the church has done a number of outdoor and remote services in the past, which should make for a smooth transition into Sunday's 10:30 a.m. drive-in Easter service.

"It's not completely out of our comfort zone, and we are fortunate to have an outdoor PA system," DeJoy said. "We want to let people know that we'll be there for them and pray for them."

While the drive-in services will be a first for many congregations throughout the county, church leaders have seen success streaming services live on their websites and social media since social distancing guidelines were implemented.

Though the transition to digital services has been relatively simple for churches already familiar with livestreaming their services, the final decision to close the sanctuary to the congregation last month proved far more complicated.

"It was a painful, difficult decision to not have worship in the sanctuary," said Sharon First United Methodist Church Pastor Doug Dyson. First United will not have a drive-in service Sunday, but will broadcast its service live at 11 a.m. on its website, Facebook page and PIC 790. "To have the community together physically, to hug each other, shake hands and see each other, it's very special."

Some churches, while missing the fellowship of a traditional in-person service, have actually seen their message extend beyond its normal reach through the use of livestreams.

Burke said in-person services at Gentle Shepherd typically attract about 120 people in the congregation, but the recent Facebook Live services have attracted as many as 900 viewers.

Christal Graham-Jones, pastor at the recently established Remnant Lighthouse International Ministries, was holding services at her dining room table before the COVID-19 outbreak, and was just beginning to search for a building to hold services when the statewide shutdown took place.

Now Graham-Jones has resorted to Zoom, a video conferencing app that allows as many as 150 people to interact simultaneously using their smartphone cameras, to conduct services.

"(Zoom) is good because it reaches people from anywhere," Graham-Jones said, adding that folks from as far away as California have joined in on the services over the past few weeks. "We're all listening to the worship together, then afterward we are able to fellowship on Zoom, kind of like you would when you stay after church."

Though Sunday's Easter services will be far from "business as usual," Dyson said the Easter message will be as timely as ever for his First United parishioners, as well as people all over the world experiencing pain as a result of the pandemic.

Dyson cited the Bible's book of John specifically, in which Jesus' disciples are locked away behind closed doors out of fear following the resurrection of Christ.

"It is so parallel to where we are now, where everyone is staying home behind closed doors, and so many doors that should be open are locked," he said. "It strikes me that even when behind closed doors, Jesus will show up and speak a word of peace."