virus drive-in church

Bible Baptist Church Pastor Mark Smith stands in the parking lot at his church Tuesday, April 7, 2020, at 4001 W. Kirby Ave., C. Smith is planning a drive-in service for Easter this Sunday.

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CHAMPAIGN — After weeks of online services caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Bible Baptist Church Pastor Mark Smith went looking for a unique way to celebrate Easter.

How about an old-school drive-in?

“Easter is a special day, and we wanted to do something different,” said Smith, who is in his eighth year at the Champaign church at 4001 W. Kirby Ave. “I preferred the people not be at home in their pajamas watching the online service.”

Longtime parishioner Ernie Porter read about a church in Oregon holding drive-in-like services and shared the idea with Smith. Porter, who has been attending Bible Baptist since 1972, is a fan of the idea, which allows the church to follow social distancing guidelines.

“I think it’s fantastic,” Porter said. “I think it’s going to be exciting.”

What was Smith’s initial reaction?

“I thought it was ridiculous at first,” he said.

But he warmed up to the idea.

Sunday’s celebration is scheduled for 10:15 a.m. — rain or shine, though Smith is hoping for the latter.

Forecasts call for temperatures in the low 50s with a chance for precipitation.

Porter, 80, and wife Jeanette will be there in their blue Honda van. Next week, they’ll celebrate their 59th wedding anniversary.

“It is very comforting to have” the service, Porter said.

The pastor will preach from the flat roof on top of the church building.

“I’m climbing up there,” the 54-year-old Smith said. “I’ve already been up there several times. It’s as safe as it can be. I’m not really worried about it.”

Smith will be on the roof even if it rains. If there are thunderstorms, his backup plan is to work from the youth building.

Parishioners can drive to the church’s large parking lot, sit in their cars and tune in to the service on their AM radios.

The planning started about two weeks ago. Smith ordered a transmitter from a business in Michigan. An antenna was installed on the top of Bible Baptist’s youth building.

Smith received technical support from parishioners Dwayne Lowry and Kim Proemmel.

The overall response from parishioners has been “overwhelmingly positive,” Smith said.

He doesn’t know what kind of crowd to expect at a parking lot with at least 100 spots. The church is getting the word out about the service, including advertising in The News-Gazette.

“Potentially, we could fill the whole parking lot up,” Smith said.

Attendants will be there to help. The buildings will be closed.

Smith plans to keep the service to about 45 minutes.

“People will not have to open their windows unless they want to,” Smith said. “We’re not even taking an offering. We want everyone to know this is going to be as safe as it can possibly be.”

The only people outside their vehicles will be Smith and the parking attendants.

Before the COVID-19 outbreak, Bible Baptist averaged about 110 people for Sunday services.

Smith welcomes the chance to be in front of his parishioners again.

“We’ll never forget about this Easter for as long as we live,” he said. “Not simply because of the coronavirus, but because of what we’re going to do with the service.”

Will Smith consider drive-in services in the future?

“I’m going to have to see how it goes Sunday before I would go down that road,” Smith said. “If it is well-received, that is definitely a possibility.”

When Smith lived in St. Petersburg, Fla., years ago, there was a ministry there called Drive-in Cinema. Christian movies would be shown, followed by a brief talk from a preacher.

“This is different because there is no movie, there is no entertainment,” Smith said. “We’re not going to put musicians on the roof. It’s just going to be me.”

The pastor plans for music during the ceremony, with him leading the songs.

College Football Reporter/Columnist

Bob Asmussen is a college football reporter and columnist for The News-Gazette. His email is asmussen@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@BobAsmussen).