Drive-in gatherings for Covid-secure worship

Andy PestellNews

The United Kingdom is making its way through a second lockdown. After several months of restrictions loosening, many churches began new plans and dared to imagine more in-person gatherings – admittedly without greeting your brother with a holy kiss.

The announcement of a Winter lockdown had the effect of a temporary cease-and-desist order for many of those plans; but, in spite of the advance of Covid-19, the body of Christ can find creative ways to gather while honouring restrictions to limited the virus’ spread.

One such congregation is Foundation Church in Wokingham, one of several Advance partner churches making disciples in the South of England. During the UK’s first lockdown, Foundation transformed land adjacent to their Sunday meeting space into a drive-in church – reminiscent of the open-air of the rural United States.  

In the beginning       

Foundation is led by Owen Hayward; the thought of a drive-in church was planted in his head by the local Henley Festival, after they swapped their usual regatta for a drive-thru event.

“I thought ‘Ah ha – maybe we could do thrive-in church!’ We checked with Wokingham Borough Council to make sure it was possible and legal and took it from there.

“We had moved to online services pretty immediately which served us well to keep us connected. But we wanted there to be a way for people to see each other and worship together.

“We’re in the privileged position of having access to quite a lot of land adjacent to the venue we meet on a Sunday.”

First steps

The idea was planted, the possibility existed, but pulling off drive-thru church off was going to involve a lot of groundwork and management of expectations. Owen and the leadership team began with the latter, consulting church members:

“We did a survey with all our members early in the process to gauge their attitude towards risk and gathering again, generally; it was going be a waste of time putting it on if no-one felt safe enough to be there.”

Blaze Church in Newquay, a fellow Advance partner church, had already delivered a drive-thru church; Chris Plant and the Blaze church members kindly shared their risk assessments and other detailed documents so the rubber could hit the road faster for Foundation.

Congregation crowd control

Once they established there was an appetite for gathering on four wheels, and a plan that could come together, the next step was to ensure Foundation members and potential visitors had the confidence to drive up.

“We were careful to set people’s expectations early; we knew people would be wondering ‘What’s it going to look like? How will I participate in the worship or hear the message if I’m in my car?’ and all those kinds of things.

“We were clear as possible in our messages about how it will work when you arrive, who would show you were to go – we just really spelt it out for people to make sure there wasn’t any mystery.

“Our desire was to make sure members and visitors alike knew exactly what they were coming to so they could make an informed decision on whether to come or not.”

The detailed stuff

Renting private land limited Wokingham Borough Council’s requirements and input; “They really just wanted to see we had completed a thorough risk assessment; check we were insured – pretty much the basics.

“That said, I think it would have been a different story if we had been on public land!”

Foundation found stewarding was the most intensive part of the day, but they were able to pull it off safely with 7 capable stewards plus a small team of first aiders – who fortunately weren’t called upon.

Other Foundation members were willing to step up and share their expertise: “One of our members manages safeguarding at the venue we use for our Sunday gatherings, and he made sure we were Covid compliant; another member who runs a sound and lighting company took those considerations off our hands and made them happen.”

The big day

38 cars containing about 90 people rolled up and by the time the day arrived; restrictions were relaxed enough that worshippers could stand outside their cars if they felt safe enough to.  

“We probably had about half our regulars there; we had some people who had begun joining our online gatherings during lockdown, others who were friends of regulars who thought it sounded like a good morning.”

The local press were grateful to have a good news story to share, and ran a story that highlighting the church doing something different and proactive in the Covid-19 crisis, too.     

“People on the day loved it; being able to see one another and worship people were like ‘Oh my goodness this is amazing!’ Gathering for the first time in months was really positive.”

The drive-in service raised people’s appetite for gathering again, enough that Foundation organised a picnic service: “We’re still thinking of safe, creative ways to get together as long as we’re out of the building.”