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Pastor Bob Swope, center, joins in the opening number of Westgate Assembly of God Church's weekly drive-in service from a heated booth built after the services took root three years ago.
March 27, 2012
WEST SALEM -- Church in your car?
At Westgate Assembly of God Church, it's more than just a curious idea.
No pews are needed for Westgate's 8:30 a.m. service -- just a radio tuned to an FM transmitter to listen to the message and a willingness to take an unconventional approach to church.
Each Sunday cars begin filing into the parking lot of the West Salem church at about 8 a.m. Their first stop is at the church's covered front entrance, where Lola Musil and her daughter, Teresa, are waiting to greet churchgoers with coffee, hot chocolate and doughnuts.
"We've been with drive-in church since the beginning," Lola Musil said.
As drivers pull up, the Nusils offer treats from a cart laden with apple fritters and chocolate and maple glazed doughnuts.
"It's fun," Teresa said. "You get to meet people and serve them."
Parking attendants then help churchgoers position their cars in a semicircle surrounding an elevated booth from where Pastor Bob Swope offers the week's message.
A contingent of at least 15 to 20 cars show up for the service each week. Busy weeks bring 40 to 50 cars.
"It doesn't matter whether its raining or sunshining, people come," Lola Musil said. "This is their church."
Swope said the idea for drive-in church came to him three years ago as something different to try on Easter Sunday.
Lola Musil grabs apple fritters and coffee as her daughter Teresa, left, greets a carload of parishioners as they arrive at Westgate.
He said churches often celebrate Easter with sunrise services, sometimes in outdoor venues.
Swope thought with a drive-in service people could worship at sunrise without being battered by the elements. He decided to give the idea a try and preached standing at a podium before a full parking lot in the chilly air.
He froze, barely able to hold the microphone. But the service resonated with members of Westgate's congregation.
Swope said people requested a second service the next week. Then another the following week, and the week after that.
"After about a month, I realized it wasn't going anywhere," Swope said.
Drive-in church was becoming a mainstay, so he had a heated booth built where he and musicians could be sheltered from the weather. Westgate had officially joined a handful of churches around the country offering drive-in church.
Swope soon discovered the services were reaching an audience that regular services couldn't.
For some people, staying in their cars made church less intimidating.
"There are people who would like to try church, but don't know what it is like," Swope said. "This is a good way to introduce them."
He said many who now attend regular Sunday services began by attending drive-in services.
Salem resident Jerry Barza is one of drive-in church's converts and a testament to the fellowship that can be found at the unique services.
Barza said he was given a home, spiritually and literally, after he began attending the drive-in service a few years ago. At the time, he was living in his 1986 Oldsmobile station wagon. After realizing Barza was living in the vehicle, Swope and Westgate members decided to sell a donated truck and trailer to help him find a permanent home. Hearing of the effort, a couple who attended the church purchased the vehicles and donated a mini-motor home and told Swope to give them to Barza.
Guitarist Rob Bray looks out over the "audience" March 18. Drivers sometimes flash their headlights and honk their horns as a form of applause during the drive-in church service.
"This church has been the loving family that I never had," Barza said. "I was overwhelmed by what they did."
Others, like West Salem residents Don and Marchia Goodwin, were not churchgoers until they found drive-in church.
"We wouldn't miss it for the world," Don said. "It's convenient. We can just get up and come."
Don Goodwin said they decided to stop in one Sunday a few years ago after being intrigued by the drive-in church sign.
"We were hooked," Don said.
While drive-in church is a convenience for some, it's a necessity for others.
Swope said police officers and other emergency workers who attend the service like the idea that they could be on the road within seconds if called away.
"They've told me, `If we leave, it isn't because we don't like your message,'" Swope said.
Vans from group homes whose residents may not be comfortable in traditional services are a regular sight each Sunday morning. Drive-in church also offers a safe option for people who avoid crowds due to illness.
Pastor Bob Swope delivers his sermon.
"I think it's a great way for God to use the pastor to reach people who would not be able to come to a regular service," drive-in church parking attendant Dan Bartel said.
For those reasons, Swope said drive-in church has become one of his favorites.
However, a notable challenge of offering the services is creating fellowship without the normal interaction between pastor (and musicians) and the congregation.
"You can't hear people participating," said Debbie Lamm Bray, who sings at the services. "That's a challenge you have to get used to."
Honking horns and flashing headlights act as "applause" or acknowledgment of an especially poignant point in Swope's sermon.
"They find a way to communicate," Lamm Bray said.
Lamm Bray added that Swope has a way of creating an environment where people feel connected, despite the fact that they are listening in their car.
"He sets an environment where we can relax and worship together," she said.
Swope isn't quite sure how it happens, but after three years of leading drive-in services, he can sense it, too.
"You get to feel like you are right there in the car with them," he said.
Check It Out
What: Westgate Assembly of God Church's drive-in church.
When: Each Sunday, 8:30 a.m.
Where: 1675 Wallace Road NW, West Salem.
For more information: 503-364-0002; www.westgateag.com.