After months of online worship, Barbara Aikens Walker was relieved finally to gather in-person with her church on July 5 — even if it was from inside her Jeep Cherokee parked inside a California parking garage.
Walker said First Baptist Church of Pasadena’s “Drive-in Church” felt like real worship and fellowship. “I was with my brothers and sisters, and we could wave and blow our horns. Just being together was spiritually uplifting.”
It was equally as powerful for John Jay Alvaro, lead pastor at FBC Pasadena. “I spoke live for the first time in four months,” he said. “It was a really rich experience to speak to people who are in the same space.”
And even if that space happens to be a six-story, city-owned parking garage attached to the church building, it functioned well liturgically while providing the needed social separation, he added. “I think we stumbled onto something scalable and safely intimate.”
The Sunday experiment — which becomes weekly in August — comes at a time when churches nationwide are deciding if, how and when to return to in-person gatherings even as COVID-19 rates skyrocket in many states. Still others are contemplating closing spaces after a period of reopening.
Both approaches pose dilemmas: reopening risks contributing to the spread of the coronavirus; closing risks losing touch with members, many of whom, research shows, are not attending virtual services.
“I was with my brothers and sisters, and we could wave and blow our horns. Just being together was spiritually uplifting.”
Leadership at FBC Pasadena had those issues in mind when, earlier this month, they rolled out the garage service to a small group on a trial basis. On July 5, they invited the entire congregation, and they will again on July 19.
Since early March, the church has offered audio-only services through the church website. But the membership wants and needs fellowship, Alvaro said. “Our church is very warm and hospitable, and the lack of being together is difficult. People are really ready to see one another.”
“Drive-in Church” enables members to park in spaces with open spots on either side of their vehicles. A section of socially distanced seating is provided for those who ride bikes or walk to the service.
Standing on one floor of the garage, Alvaro speaks into a microphone with a long cord that enables him to pace as he preaches. For those parked or seated on different floors of the garage, the pastor’s voice is broadcast on an open FM channel, which also carries prerecorded Scripture readings and prayers.
Recorded hymns are broadcast with lyrics available online through smartphones. Communion was available to participants who brought their own elements, although pre-packaged Communion may be available when the weekly city-wide services launch Aug. 2.
Alvaro said he hopes a live choir and children’s programming will become available in the future. The infrastructure and buy-in are in place. “We have a shaded garage and a young team on the audio visual side. It’s unique, and logistically we can pull it off.”
The first drive-in service worked for Walker, who serves as moderator of First Baptist’s deacon board. She also served as a greeter on July 5, which took her out of the vehicle — mask on — to wave at those arriving. “It was very different, but it was so enjoyable just to see my brothers and sisters.”
There were a few oddities, she added, like bringing the elements of Communion in a Tupperware cup and sandwich bag. Those wishing to give an offering during the service flashed their car lights to have a “pit crew” member bring a basket.
Singing alone in the car also was different, Walker said, but “you could hear people singing in their cars.”
This experience recalled for her stories of the early Christians improvising to worship, she said. “My soul felt nourished. This experience has taught us we are the church and that when we are together, God is there.”
That yearning is natural given that the members of the congregation haven’t been together in four months, Alvaro added. In that sense, the pandemic period so far evokes a certain biblical theme.
“We are all in exile,” he said.
Learn more about the creative ways First Baptist Church of Pasadena is responding to the coronavirus pandemic on the church’s website.