A Georgia church tries drive-in worship
Attendees like the informality of listening to a sermon on their car radios in the parking lot, where they can sit in shorts and sandals and bring along the family beagle.
The brown and white beagle peers intently at her owner, watching as he swigs V-8 juice and dials his car radio to 1640 AM. On an ordinary Sunday morning in Marietta, Ga., Barry Hopkins would be getting ready for church. Today, dressed in shorts and an Atlanta Braves T-shirt, he’s already there – in his car.Skip to next paragraph
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A few vehicles dot the parking lot of New Hope Methodist Church in suburban Atlanta, but there’s no sound except the rumble of idling motors. Slow rain becomes a torrent, blowing in wide sheets, obscuring the pastor standing on the church steps as he delivers his sermon. Drivers flick their windshield wipers to life and stare straight ahead. They won’t leave their steel cocoons any time soon. They won’t need to: The sermon booms from their radios like Carrie Underwood.
Drive-ins have given us movies delivered to our cars with popcorn and notions of front-seat romance. They have given us fries and malts delivered by teens on roller skates. Now they’re giving us the word of God, or at least of preachers, delivered out of our dashboards in the hope of attracting a new multitude of worshipers.
Across the country, a handful of churches are trying to unite two fundamental forces – religion and Americans’ love affair with the automobile – to offset the dearth of people sitting in pews.
Usually, as here at New Hope, attendees can be as involved or uninvolved as they want. Either way is just fine with the Rev. Norman Markle. He stands in the outdoor alcove that is his pulpit and preaches, hoping his message carries clearly through his lapel microphone.
“A lot of people still feel the only way they’ll be accepted is if they come to church with a suit and tie,” he says. “But that’s changed. If we don’t change, we’re losing out to the new churches.”
Tucked inside his office after the sermon, Mr. Markle peels open a McDonald’s wrapper and spreads grape jelly over a sausage biscuit. His regular indoor service begins soon, and for this one, he’ll wear his starched white robe emblazoned with a gold cross. It’ll be a completely different sermon. The drive-in service is only 45 minutes – people won’t sit in their cars much longer. In the church, with its pine floors and luminous stained-glass windows, Markle can preach as long as he likes – usually about two hours.
Markle’s dream of a drive-in church was inspired by one in Pennsylvania. While the concept has been around since the days of tail fins – the Crystal Cathedral in southern California began holding drive-in services in the 1950s – New Hope is the only one doing it in the Atlanta area.
The parishioners are predominantly over 65, holding ideals taught by their parents, including dressing up on Sundays. But with scattered signs proclaiming, “Worship in Your Car, Just as You Are,” times are changing for the 152-year-old congregation and its 88 members.
On sunny days, families listen to the service from lawn chairs while children play nearby. Today, Markle is pleased at the sight of five new cars and four familiar ones. Still, rain may have kept some people away. “I don’t care about the numbers,” he says, looking down at his desk. “The DS [district superintendent] asks how many I gained. Well, I gained eight but I lost nine.”
He’s proud of the “great little church” he’s led for 12 years and isn’t worried about the mixed reactions the new service has generated. “Some people say this isn’t really church, but what is the church? It’s the people,” he says. “We have to figure out a way to bring people in and not make them feel uncomfortable.”