Outdoor Drive-Up Service in Marshall

Pastor Loy Hoskins of First Christian Church in Marshall explains
their unique summertime church service.

It began here in Marshall almost 35 years ago when one of the members owned the drive-in theater. He approached the minister about having the early (8:00 a.m.) service out there at the drive-in during the summer. By the end of that first summer, they averaged more than 100 people per Sunday (this at a time when the same service inside had been averaging about 50). 

The minister would climb up a ladder to stand on top of the concession stand with a microphone and the cars would park backwards - facing the concession stand, and using the speakers on the car windows for the audio. In the 90's the owner of the church sold the theater, and the church leadership came up with the plan to move the service to our church parking lot. They installed an FM transmitter system that reaches about three blocks in any direction.

This summer we averaged 46 people attending the service for the 21 weeks we held it in the parking lot. When we meet inside, we average about 25 people at the same 8:00 time slot. All of our 8:00 regulars will come when it is held outside, but in addition we also will see members that do not come inside for services because they have difficulty getting in and out of their cars. We also have people from other congregations in town that will join us outside for the summer, and we see about a carload of people each week that are just curious visitors.

Here is how we do it. Our Sunday custodian has a table set up under an overhang (portico) which is over an entrance door to the church. He runs extension cords from inside the church to plug in coffee pots and a boom box to be used as a monitor. The sound system is located in a locked cabinet just inside the church doors. It has a mixer with four inputs. We use one input for a microphone and another to play cassette tapes and a third for a CD player. The system is hardwired to the FM antenna, which is mounted on top of the overhang. The custodian has this all set up by the time I arrive at 7:05.

People drive their cars up to the overhang and greeters give them a bulletin, communion (the plastic cup type with the bread over the cup between two pieces of plastic), coffee if they desire, and dog biscuits for their dogs (yes, we have about 3-4 regulars that bring their dogs). The bulletins inform worshippers which radio station to tune in.

Other than the table with coffee and supplies and the monitor, we also have the microphone on a stand in front of a music stand (with clips on the sides and top to hold my manuscripts and notes) under the overhang. We have a wired microphone, so the cord for that is run into the church and plugged into the mixer. I am the only speaker during the service which typically lasts about 25-30 minutes. Before we have the first service, I supply our pianist with a list of two songs for each service for the summer. She plays them and records them on a cassette tape. Outdoors, we tend to sing only one verse of each (a gathering song and a hymn of invitation).

This summer we ran this service from May 1 - September 17. There are always some Sunday mornings when the wind is blowing a bit and I have to react fast to catch some things blowing around. There are on occasions some rain, but it really only comes into play when the wind blows it under the overhang to soak my papers. In early May the temperature can be in the high 40's and in August it can be 85 degrees and more by 8:30, but that can be prepared for with extra layers of clothes or lightweight clothing. In the latter September mornings the rising sun hits me in the eyes as I face east, but I just squint more.

After going over the sermon and announcements, I am usually outside by 20-15 minutes before 8:00. That gives me time to go car to car to greet people. After the service, I also walk over to the main exit to stand and greet people as they drive out. Just like a sanctuary service, there are other exits if the worshippers choose not to talk to the pastor.  The times for interaction are important because they are the only real interaction between preacher and congregation...other than when I might ask people to honk their horns for certain reasons or the one guy who tends to turn on his windshield wipers as a way of saying "Amen!" to something said.

When it is time for communion and during the time that offering is being collected (we have the greeters turn into ushers and they go car to car to collect offering in old theater popcorn buckets left over from the drive-in theater days), music from CDs is played. The bottom portion of our bulletin includes a registration of attendance to be torn off and placed in the offering buckets as well (this way no one is embarrassed about not having an offering - they still have something to put in the bucket).

This was my fourth summer here in Marshall. I have heard that some ministers here in the past did not like this service because they could not receive feedback from 'those in the pews' or interact with them. I have heard that some referred to this service as "preaching to the windshields", but I am able to make out a few faces through the glass. Overall, I am very pleased with this unique service because it meets the worship needs of so many people. Beginning this year, we are now broadcasting out 8:00 service held in the chapel to the parking lot using the same system and our chapel hearing assistance system. The custodian keeps an eye on anyone in the parking lot and takes the bulletin and communion cups out to them.

Those who attend say they do so for various reasons. Again, not needing to leave the car is one. Others say they life the fact that they can control the temperature and volume of the sound in their own car. I have seen people come in gear ready to go directly to a baseball or football game, ready to go hunting or fishing, wearing flannel nightgowns, eating their McDonald's breakfast, reading a newspaper, etc. As you can imagine, it is a very relaxed service and people tend to invite others to it more than a typical worship service. We have one member that comes regularly from his home a mile away - on his motorized wheelchair...with his dog. The rest of the year he attends the 10:00 service in the sanctuary with family members.

Now...there are some drawbacks other than weather related ones. This summer a neighbor across the street began working on his yard with a loud weed-eater during the communion meditation. This forced me to stop and ask one of the greeters to ask him to hold off on that. He was willing to wait and when I spoke to him after the service to thank him, he asked me about the service. The following weeks I saw him sitting on his porch with a small radio listening to us. There is the occasional train that will pass by two blocks away or a semi-truck that will roar by on the street next to us. When that happens I just wait or talk louder. This summer two boys walked through the parking lot, right in front of me, bouncing a basketball and talking on their way to some fun. A greeter again pointed out that they were walking right through a worship service. I loved the looks on their faces when they realized that.

Not long ago a minister friend from my days in Kansas called me to ask about this service. He said that he heard about it and no one in his area was doing anything like it. He plans to begin it at the congregation there next summer. 

Photo courtesy of Hope Miller in the church office.