“We’re Going to Come Out of This Stronger”
“We’re Going to Come Out of This Stronger”
Tim Smith preaches at Preston Christian Church on Palm Sunday. (Photos by Tom Dempster)

By Jim Nieman

A small, country church in South Dakota is doing its best to meet the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the minister is convinced, “We’re going to come out of this stronger.”

Preston Christian Church in Bruce, S.D., has adopted the same strategy as many other churches across the country by incorporating a drive-in service in their parking lot on Sunday mornings. A difference is that Preston Christian has been worshipping with their sister church, Brookings (S.D.) Christian Church, which is located about 20 miles away, the last three Sundays.

PCC minister Tim Smith and BCC minister Mike Gerhardt are preaching on alternating weeks.

“I know Mike very well,” Smith said. “I just reached out to him.” Drive-in worship is something the Brookings church could have done, Smith said, except for that church’s limited parking lot size.

“It’s been a blessing . . . God’s hand is in this,” Gerhardt said, while still admitting he is eager to resume in-person services in Brookings. BCC will continue worshipping with Preston Christian for at least three more weeks, he said, and then assess the COVID-19 situation.

LAUNCHING THE DRIVE-IN SERVICE
After the severity of the coronavirus threat became known, Smith said Preston Christian didn’t meet for a week. (On that Sunday, March 22, staff still videotaped a sermon and a Communion meditation and sent it to the congregation via email.) But when Smith saw that Valley Christian Church in Lakeville, Minn., had conducted a drive-in service that particular weekend, he reached out to VCC minister Brad Dewing to learn how it was done.

Since that time, Preston Christian—which Smith describes as a very “social” church that averages about 90—has been worshipping in her parking lot on Sunday mornings.

“It [the drive-in service] was successful from the start,” Smith said. “The morale boost was the best thing. We’re very much a rural church. We draw from nine different communities” and from farms located in the surrounding area, he said. The remoteness makes it all the more important for people to connect with one another on Sundays.

Since being joined by the Brookings church for the second drive-in service (on April 5)—and by other area residents who are “just visiting”—the parking lot has been full and about 150 people are attending each week, Smith estimated.

Gerhardt said a percentage of the Brookings church has been making the 25-minute drive to Preston Christian each week, but it’s not something families with younger children can do because bathroom use is discouraged while there.

Smith and Gerhardt preach from a hay wagon loaned by a Preston church member/farmer. After the first drive-in service, a volunteer constructed a stand/stage that rests on the wagon, so that people in cars in the back row of the 60-space church parking lot can see the preaching minister. Car radios are tuned to 98.5 FM for a short-range broadcast of the service.

Various others who may have a speaking role during the service record their prayer, devotion, or meditation and email it to the church in advance so it can be incorporated into the service, Smith said.

FINDING WAYS TO CONNECT
Even though South Dakota is one of the few states not to adopt a stay-at-home order during this pandemic, Smith said the state’s governor has repeatedly stressed the importance of following guidelines to try and stop the spread of COVID-19.

Tim Smith preaching on Palm Sunday. (Photos by Tom Dempster)

“We take it seriously,” Smith said. “The rule is windows up. We Clorox everything. We discourage people from using the bathrooms [onsite].”

That said, people in the parking lot have found ways to connect with one another and participate in the service.

“You know a smile is a handshake, a wave is a hug, a honk is an amen, and windshield wipers are dancing,” Smith said. It’s an important part of people’s lives . . . “the acts of getting out of the house and going to church—it’s something many of these people have been doing all of their lives.”

Smith has reached out to area churches and offered to help them with similar outdoor services. He has even offered to share the Preston church’s equipment. Thus far, the only ones to accept were a Lutheran/United Church of Christ joint Easter service in Estelline, S.D., about 12 miles to the north.

“We made the church van into a mobile [broadcast] unit,” Smith said.

Circumstances have forced the Preston church to be nimble and creative. The Sunday-morning, drive-in services are broadcast simultaneously using Zoom. That app also is utilized for various virtual gatherings during the week.

Paper bulletins are not distributed on Sundays. Instead, the church has started using an app called Glide to create an electronic bulletin.

“This [pandemic] has forced [our] people to adopt technology” at a much faster rate, Smith said. When everything returns again to normal, “I think we’ll have more tools in our belt.”

But Smith anticipates there will be a period of transition for people after the Preston church returns to meeting in their sanctuary. He expects some folks will remain leery of the virus, and that they will remain in the parking lot—or home—listening to the service or watching it via Zoom.

“For now, the drive-in services have definitely been a boost for us,” Smith said. “But, that said, when we’re allowed back inside, we’re coming back inside.”

Jim Nieman serves as managing editor of Christian Standard.

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