MARIETTA, Ga. The preacher stood in the doorway of the picturesque church and looked out at the parking lot as his congregation gathered for the early morning service.
By the time the Rev. Norman Markle started his sermon, everyone was still in their vehicles just as planned. The 150-year-old New Hope United Methodist Church is offering a drive-in service, hoping to attract new visitors with an unusual worship experience.
"Maybe they don't have a church or don't care to get dressed up to go to church; let's find a way to eliminate all that," Markle said.
The service has all the markings of traditional worship hymns, a Scripture reading and a sermon but everything is broadcast over an AM radio station. Attendees can stay in their cars, spread a blanket on the ground or go inside the tiny chapel, depending on where they are most at ease.
Markle is hoping to draw attention to his 88-member church, which is off the beaten path in a suburban Atlanta area now crowded with automotive repair shops, car dealerships and fast-food restaurants. He plans to run the services through the fall, or until the weather gets too cold to sit outdoors.
The church hopes to add a monthly communion to the drive-in service, where attendees would be served the bread and grape juice in their cars. Some Sundays, coffee and doughnuts will be offered after worship.
A recent Sunday drew about 20 worshippers in 10 or so vehicles. Most of the group sat in their cars and trucks, enjoying the unseasonably cool morning. The crowd included three dogs and several people munching on breakfast as they sang along to "Just a Closer Walk with Thee."
One family piled on a blanket in the back of their pickup truck with their rat terrier, Kapone, and listened to the sermon.
"I think it's incredible," said Kapone's owner, Renee Ford-Murphy, who's been a member at New Hope for three years. "I've never had an opportunity to worship in the open air like this."
It's not a new concept. America has long accommodated its love of car culture with drive-in movies and drive-thru windows, to name just two examples. Since the 1950s, dozens of churches have tried drive-in worship.
The Crystal Cathedral, a 10,000-member megachurch in California, started at an Orange County drive-in movie theater in 1955. In Daytona Beach, Fla., the Drive In Christian Church has been offering car-based worship since 1953, marketing itself to tourists and physically disabled visitors.
Markle said there are 11 churches across the country that have drive-in services today, including Armbrust Wesleyan Church in Armbrust, Pa., where the Marietta pastor got the idea.
The Pennsylvania congregation started its drive-in service in the 1970s in addition to its regular service, and gets about 70 attendees each Sunday, said the Rev. Tim Stradling. Since the church is surrounded by homes, worshippers are encouraged to quietly respond to the sermon, he said.
"If you're saying 'amen' by beeping horns, you might be waking up a neighbor," Stradling said. "If I say something and I'm looking for response, they flash their lights or stick their arms out of the windows."
The Georgia church is still working out the kinks after just a few weeks of drive-in services. One recent Sunday, a sports radio show bled through on the church's AM channel, punctuating hymns and prayers with scores and stats.
The church has advertised the service in the newspaper and with signs along the winding roads that lead to the tiny, white chapel. "Come worship in your car, just as you are," the signs say.
Rebecca Ash-Allen and her husband, Chuck Allen, decided to try out the service after they saw the signs, which are close to the Chrysler dealership where Allen works. The couple likes to listen to the service with the top down on their green convertible."It allows me to have an enjoyable setting while praying," Ash-Allen said. "He and I both feel more comfortable in this setting."
On the Net: Drive In Christian Church: www.driveinchurch.net/
Crystal Cathedral: www.crystalcathedral.org/
Armbrust Wesleyan Church: armbrustwesleyan.com/