Janesville church has longstanding service in its parking lot
JANESVILLE If you sat in the pews at the early Sunday service this summer at First Lutheran Church, you would be a lonely soul.
But try having a dead car battery in the parking lot along East Milwaukee Street and North Randall Avenue, where the Janesville church holds a 7:45 a.m. drive-in worship every Sunday morning from Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Out there, you could get mobbed by good Samaritans offering jumper cables.
"It's how we do fellowship here," churchgoer Jim Schuenke said, lowering the hood of a female congregation member's Honda sedan after helping to give the car a jumpstart.
The woman apparently had run down the battery while listening to the drive-in worship broadcast on the car's radio.
She had been parked among the vehicles of about 200 congregants Sunday at the parking lot service.
First Lutheran Church holds the first of its two Sunday services as a drive-in worship in the church parking lot as a way to offer people with hectic summer schedules or mobility problems flexibility and something different, church officials say.
Congregation members can pray, sing hymns, listen to Scripture and a live sermon and even receive Holy Communion—all from the comfort of their air-conditioned cars. They even get a church bulletin handed to them by an usher as they pull in the lot.
In fact, the only difference between the church's drive-in worship and the regular indoor service later on Sunday is that the drive-in service is 15 minutes shorter.
"It's the same, we just compress it. Honestly, it's convenience, but with people still worshiping," said First Lutheran Church pastor Naomi Garber.
Garber and others involved in the drive-in services speak from a metal stage at the front of the parking lot, using a loudspeaker and an FM radio transmitter that pipes the service into people's vehicles in the parking lot.
There's even a keyboard player who accompanies hymns. At the end of worship, people give an offering as they leave the parking lot, where ushers are stationed at exits with bright plastic buckets.
Garber said the church has been holding drive-in services in the parking lot for more than a decade, and they remain popular.
Every week, between 90 and 120 cars—or about 180 to 200 people—turn out for the services.
Carole Van Galder attends the drive-in services weekly. Sometimes, she knits in her vehicle during the services, and other times she watches nature.
"It's just really enjoyable to worship in the sunshine, in nature. With coffee," she said.
Sally Schuenke of Janesville said the church's drive-in services have allowed her to dress down, yet continue to worship while she recovers from a recent surgery.
"You can come as you are," Schuenke said. "Some people even come wearing their pajamas. Who'd know?"
That's why many who take in the drive-in services like them so much, Garber said.
"People love it. It's early, short and they can run along before you get into the heat of the day," she said.
Vehicles on Sunday filled the church parking lot. There were convertibles, pickup trucks and SUVs. Some carried elderly people; others had families with young children, and others were vacationers passing through. Some were visiting members of other churches who like the convenience of the unusual service.
Garber said the drive-in worship is its own church community. Some people even park in the same spot, by the same person every week.
For Garber, who's been at First Lutheran Church four years, it's been a unique experience.
"It's like preaching to headlights, not people. But you get to recognize the cars. Like the PT Cruiser in the way back. I end up preaching to the cars," said Garber.
She said the services help bolster attendance at the church, which in summer can dip 20 percent or 30 percent.
"In the summer, if it wasn't for the drive-in services…" she said.
Yet Garber admitted she still looks forward to the fall, when many of the parking lot faithful are back inside, in the pews.
"I start to miss seeing people's faces," she said.