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Drive-in worshipers opt for bucket seats over pews

Chuck Allen and his wife, Rebecca, attend New Hope United Methodist Church in Marietta, Ga., from the comfort of their car. UMNS photos by Reed Galin.

By Reed Galin*
Sept. 24, 2008 | MARIETTA, Ga. (UMNS)

Chuck Allen and his wife, Rebecca, pull into the parking lot of New Hope United Methodist Church in their green convertible, top down.

The Rev. Norman Markle greets a drive-in worshiper.

The small, picturesque white church is framed in their windshield, with tall old pine trees on either side. It's Sunday morning but, as Allen shuts off the engine, he doesn’t reach for the door handle to head inside for worship.

In shorts and sandals, he doesn’t have to.

"Hey, glad ya could make it this morning!" says the Rev. Norman Markle as he walks to the Allens' car and leans down to chat awhile. The pastor mentions a few details that will be different about today's worship order because New Hope’s early morning drive-in service, which debuted in June, is a work in progress.

Surrounded by other cars and SUVs, the Allens are among those who had never attended New Hope before Markle added an outdoor drive-in service before its traditional indoor service. And they are among the reasons for the unique worship approach. While New Hope is old enough to have survived General Sherman's march on Atlanta during the Civil War, its graying members worried the congregation might not be viable much longer.

"We have to change," Markle declares, citing a need to be less formal. "We’re a wonderful little church; we’re just in a bad location."

Most New Hope members grew up around the church, but those residential neighborhoods gave way to commercial development as Marietta grew into a city.

The congregation is mostly elderly and needs new blood, says Markle. When talk focused on what the church could do, he spoke up. "Every Sunday morning, we hear these cars going up and down that road beside the church. What if we did some sort of advertising and we could entice 'em to just come into the parking lot?" he asked.

Signs invite drivers to worship in
a unique setting.

So one day, as Chuck Allen drove past New Hope on his way to work, he spied several small signs on the church property inviting passersby to "come as you are" to an early morning drive-in service. The Allens recently had moved here and liked the idea of worshiping with the top down. "We spend all week indoors," says Rebecca Ash-Allen. "This is very appealing to us, and we like the pastor’s message."

Each week, the church's front steps become Markle's pulpit and, this morning, he preaches about the virtue of forgiveness. There are 18 vehicles in the parking lot, hardly a traffic jam—yet.

Holding her Bible and carrying her dog in her lap, Linda Martin is among the new congregants. "We’ve got all the comforts of home," she says of the outdoor sanctuary. "I can almost roll out of bed on Sunday morning and just throw on some clothes and come to church. … And it’s early, so if we still want to go out on the boat on Sunday we’ve still got the rest of the day left."

But it's not just about convenience and comfort. The setting gives participants a greater sense of control over their worship experience. And most, like long-time New Hope member Cheryl Ellis, just like being outdoors. "When the preacher is preaching about all the earthly things, you’re really out here visualizing it. From the cloudy days to the sunshine, you just know you’re out there with God. Not that you’re not when you’re inside, but you know it’s just a totally different environment."

The church choir gathers on the lawn and sings an upbeat standard just as the sun finally breaks through, melting off early morning clouds that had threatened drizzle.

Markle preaches from the
church’s front steps.

As he concludes the service, Pastor Markle strolls through the parking lot to say hello to those he didn't greet earlier. He’s relieved that the weather held, and that at least a few of the cars passing have ventured into his parking lot.

"My philosophy has been when you’re ready, you’ll come. But I have to give you some feed," he says.

Markle points out that he didn’t make any pitch during the service about officially joining New Hope, and notes with humor that some folks seem to like the quick getaway possible with a drive-in service.

"If you like what you hear, then you’ll want to hear more and maybe you’ll come in when the weather turns cold out here," he says. "Success to me is not in numbers and how many we get to join the church. If we get just one person that has changed their life and lives more honestly with the word of God, than we have a winner."

*Galin is a freelance producer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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