WASHOUGAL — Posters that read “welcome to drive-in church” hung from the eaves of St. Matthew Lutheran Church and flapped in the wind. People pulled into the parking lot and sat on the trunks or hoods of their cars or set out lawn chairs as the 10:30 a.m. service was about to begin.
“This is the first time that this whole thing started that we’re all together,” said Gerry Rolland, who leads music worship at the Washougal church.
The Rev. Robert Barber, pastor at St. Matthew, told The Columbian he was trying for a “soft return to church,” something more interactive than viewing church online while still being responsible in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“People have been missing that connection,” he said.
The church, which sees about 45 people on a typical Sunday, brought out a cross and a sound system and recorded the service live on Facebook using a cellphone attached to a tripod.
“We are family who are able to come back together again even in a parking lot,” Barber told his congregation, his words punctuated by the rumble of cars on Washougal River Road.
Beginning earlier this month, Phase 1 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s reopening plan allowed drive-in spiritual services, but few local faith groups have held them.
“It does take quite a bit of setup,” said the Rev. Neal Curtiss, lead pastor at Living Hope Church in central Vancouver. “It’s not an easy thing to do.”
He thinks for the most part churches are going to wait until they can meet in person. Bigger churches are comfortable doing services online and smaller churches generally don’t have the capacity to put on drive-in services.
For Living Hope, he believes it’s worth the effort to get back together in person.
“Church needs to keep going and reaching people and building that community spirit now more than ever,” Curtiss said.
Hailing from Southern California, he remembers how televangelist Robert Schuller got his start preaching at the Orange Drive-In Theater.
Living Hope held drive-in services before Washington’s lockdown, and then restarted the services Mother’s Day weekend. The response has been positive, Curtiss said.
“People have been anxious to, of course, get out of their houses and get back to some kind of meeting,” he said.
A deep parking lot fronts Living Hope, which used to be a K-Mart, so there’s room for dozens of cars. A tractor-trailer flatbed serves as the stage. Services are broadcast to Facebook and 102.7 FM.
“When they get excited, they honk their horns,” Curtiss said.
He heard other churches are offering drive-thru services where followers can take Communion. It’s unclear how long these kinds of gatherings will occur.
When local and state governments will allow congregant worship and how comfortable people will feel going back into a building are unknown variables, Curtiss said.
Whenever St. Matthew can gather as a group again, the plan is to stagger families within the pews to allow for 6-foot spacing and require churchgoers to wear masks. Barber doesn’t want to move too fast, though, as he worries about his elderly congregation.
“I don’t want to be doing a funeral a couple of months from now because I told people to come back too soon,” he said.
He acknowledged that people are looking for answers and want assurance that everything is going to be OK. When President Donald Trump on Friday declared houses of worship “essential,” Barber interpreted that to mean Trump was encouraging governors to allow churches to open rather than ordering all churches to open immediately.
One of Clark County’s largest churches, New Heights, responded by video to Trump’s announcement.
The Rev. David Whiting, lead pastor at the mega church, said people have strong and varying opinions about the situation. Technology allows New Heights to meet virtually for now, and it will continue to do so until the state gives large churches the OK to gather.
Whiting referenced the church’s mission to make more and better disciples when explaining the decision.
“The day will come when we think the best way for us to make more and better disciples is to gather in our buildings. We don’t think that is yet,” Whiting said in the video.
During Sunday’s drive-in service, Barber recited a familiar refrain to his flock: “The church is a not a building.”
For many people, their faith remains unchanged despite the inability to attend religious services in person. According to Pew Research Center, Americans are far more likely to say coronavirus has strengthened their faith rather than weakened it.