Some call it the “summer slump” — the time between Memorial Day and Labor Day when worship attendance drops for the summer.
But two ELCA congregations in Janesville, Wis., have figured out a way to keep the flock from going astray, especially when the beach beckons.
For the past 20 years, members of First Lutheran Church in Janesville have held “drive-in” worship services every Sunday morning on the church parking lot.
For those who remember, think “drive-in movies.” The concept is simple.
Members park their cars in the church parking lot. While remaining in their cars, members tune in to 90.1 FM and experience the sounds of worship.
The pastor, musicians and others lead worship on a stage. But only those cars parked in the first few rows can see the service. For those inclined to get out of their cars, there’s coffee and treats after worship.
“It’s an odd thing but it works,” says Naomi Garber, pastor of First Lutheran.
“There’s a sermon, hymn singing, Scripture readings and prayers. We distribute communion once a month,” she says. Along with assistants, Naomi visits each car to distribute communion.
“We get as many as 120 cars,” she says.
By the time fall comes around, Naomi is ready to experience worship and the sense of community back inside the sanctuary.
She admits that the congregation’s drive-in service is somewhat pandering to some consumerism. But she’s OK with that.
“I would rather have and welcome families to worship,” Naomi says. “We do not put God on vacation for the next three months. God is part of our lives for 12 months of the year.”
She says it’s also about reminding people that church is a part of who we are and hearing the word of God.
Keeping children engaged
For summer 2011, the congregation is adding something new to Sunday mornings. Following the drive-in service, another service will be held on the church lawn. It’s called the Family Express.
“I’ve received a lot of positive feedback” about the idea, says Naomi. “In theory it seems like it will work, but we’ll see.”
Family Express is primarily designed for families with young children. There will be songs, a Bible story and some activity based on the story.
“I want kids to know that God resides with us all the time. It’s important that they understand that from the beginning,” says Naomi. “We want to help our young people say to their parents, ‘We want to go to church,’ even in June, July and August.”
For those members yearning for the more traditional worship, a service is also held the sanctuary later Sunday morning.
Across town, members of Faith Lutheran Church have also moved one of their Sunday morning worship services onto their parking lot.
“Everyone brings their lawn chairs, or we supply a fold-up chair. It’s a casual service, a come-as-you-are. So people show up in shorts and flip-flops,” says Dawn Clark, who provides administrative services at Faith Lutheran.
“I’m not a member of Faith Lutheran but I do worship here,” says Dawn, who is a member of Hope Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Milton, Wis.
Dawn helps Faith Lutheran keep an ear to the ground for ways to keep members interested in church and worship attendance up during the summer months.
“Worship outdoors works for us. It’s been very popular. People who live in the surrounding area also participate and that’s been another big plus for us,” says Dawn.
She is convinced that some people have joined Faith Lutheran because of their experience with the outdoor service.
“People enjoy nature, and many of our members don’t have many opportunities to experience the outdoors due to very busy schedules. So people connect in an entirely different way when they worship outdoors,” she says. “This is what has worked for us!”