The pandemic has forced numerous faith leaders out of the pulpit and into the homes of many via computer screens and other devices. But for some worshipers, internet sermons just aren’t enough.
The King James version of the Bible said, “And he said unto them, ‘Go ye unto all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.’” That’s Mark 16:15.
Walter Blalark is the senior pastor of the Living Gospel Church of God in Christ located at 1515 Dundee Ave. in Elgin. He also pastors at Cole Temple Church of God in Christ in Ford Heights. He said his ministry started in the streets more than 30 years ago.
“Because we did what the Bible told us to do; go out into all the world and witness. And so, it was comfortable for me,” he said. “So, when the pandemic hit, I asked my audio people, ‘Are we ready to have service in the parking lot?’”
And that’s just what they did starting the last week of March.
A recent survey from the Barna Group, an organization that tracks the role of faith in America, suggests that one in three practicing Christians stopped attending church services altogether when COVID-19 showed up. It states that online worship is not a popular option for everyone.
Jeneen Smith-Underwood used to live in Elgin but now stays in Round Lake. She drives close to an hour to the northwest city for parking lot service. She said she’s been a member of the congregation for 30 years. She explained that online worship services are difficult for her. She said she was ecstatic when in-person gatherings started in the parking lot.
“I like coming here. You know, this is my ministry. This is my church home. But I needed to feel safe. So, I feel very safe, because I'm out in my car. And for a long time, we didn't even get outside our cars,” she explained. “As the governor started lessening the rules, then we started getting outside our cars and so forth. But when they get tighter, we get tighter.”
Rebecca White Newgren is the pastor of the SecondFirst Church in Rockford. Her church went digital right away after the onset of the pandemic. But when Illinois went into Phase 4 of the “Restore Illinois” plan, she said they decided to have service outside in front of a recent community mural at the church.
“And it was lovely and beautiful,” she said. “And then we realized it was just harder to drag all of those sound carts through the grass. And so, we moved to the parking lot.”
Newgren said that the crowd gathered in a large circle. Those who participated in the service stayed in the middle and everyone else sat in chairs about 10 feet apart. She added that some people stayed in their cars during the service.
Blalark’s set-up was similar this summer. Audio equipment was set up in the parking lot much like an outdoor concert. He preached in front of a small podium as the crowd interacted by blowing car horns. These sounds took the place of people saying amen and other encouraging words.
Outside worship seems like the perfect set-up during a pandemic, but what happens when the weather changes? Newgren said that since the temperatures have dropped, about 10 people are welcomed inside of the church. The rest have to watch online. She shared that SecondFirst is trying to figure out a way to continue outdoor services.
“We've got to figure out the technology of it,” she admitted. “But I hope to be able to preach as long as I can in this frigid temperature outside.”
Blalark said the cold weather won’t cover his outreach with frostbite. He plans to continue outdoor services even during glove and hat season. He explained that those in Elgin can tune their FM dial to 100.1 and listen right from their cars.
This past Sunday morning Blalark preached inside the Elgin church due to personal reasons. Some parishioners joined him there while a few stayed in their cars.
A few minutes before the service ended, church member Glen Miller came out of the building with a bucket. He handed out church literature and collected offerings from those sitting in their cars.
Miller’s been a member of the Elgin church for about 12 years. He said he will continue to come to service even it is in the parking lot.
“As long as I feel that I'm still safe, I'll come out. But at the same time, I just miss being with my fellow saints as well,” Miller said. “So even saying that, I still try to maintain a six feet distance and still wear my mask.”
Smith-Underwood said the colder weather will not deter her. She doesn’t mind leaving her car running during the duration of the service. Like Miller, she confirmed that she loves being around other church members. She said she isn’t able to touch them but being able to see them is nourishing enough for her.
Patsy Dunigan also attends the Elgin church. She said online worship does satisfy her spiritual hunger but said if we can travel to other places in the cold, why not come to the church parking lot?
“But you think about it, we go to work in the snow. We go to work in the rain and sleet," she explained. "So why not come in the parking lot and listen to God’s word?"
Both Blalark and Newgren will continue to offer church service over the internet as well. In addition to that, Blalark has a call option for seniors who aren’t technically savvy.
Blalark added that while online services can get the job done some faith leaders aren’t adapting well.
“And I've seen even the mega-ministers, who are not effective just talking to an empty church. I've seen them. And it looks like they’re lost,” he shared. “Their sermon…you can’t fully follow their sermon. Because they’re lost because they're used to the crowd, they’re used to the ‘Amens’ -- they feed off the crowd.”
The temperature in Elgin was about 37 degrees on the first Sunday in November and as time goes on the temperatures will drop even lower. But for many churchgoers, neither colder temperatures nor a pandemic will keep them at home.
- Yvonne Boose is a 2020 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. It's a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms like WNIJ. You can learn more about Report for America at wnij.org.