Driving Home the Message: Churches Find Fresh Ways to Communicate Jesus
By Jaymie Dieterle
Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 will forever be remembered as the year of the “pivot.” When church buildings were closed to slow the spread, congregations pivoted to new or enhanced online services. Families shifted vacations and holiday gatherings to smaller or virtual options in an effort to care for those at high risk for the virus. And when case numbers spiked during the final months of the year, churches pivoted once again to drive-through events that would celebrate Christmas in ways that both honored this core season in the Christian calendar, as well as keep their communities safe.
Madison Park Church of God in Anderson, Indiana, launched “Celebrate the Light” in 2019 as a gift to the community. Children’s pastor Ali Robinson said, “We were looking for a way to connect with area families who might not otherwise come to a church building at Christmas.” When another area light display closed, Madison Park stepped into the gap. That proved prescient.
“For a while, we weren’t sure we were going to have the light display again this year. But when we saw all the cancellations and restrictions thanks to COVID, we felt like this was something we could do for our community while still keeping people safe,” Pastor Robinson said. Families could drive through the display without ever leaving their cars. Volunteers directed traffic and waved, while staying physically distanced. The church staff had “birthday bags for Jesus” for the first fifty cars each day of the event for those who felt comfortable taking one. “The bags had cake mix, icing, a candle, and information to celebrate Jesus’ birthday as a family.”
Three other Anderson churches pooled their resources to create another no-contact event for families that also pointed a spotlight on the ministry of Children of Promise. Pastor (of Youth Ministries) Preston Kegley said the staff at East Side Church of God were looking to host a family-friendly event that wouldn’t compromise the health restrictions of the pandemic. They created “A Christmas Adventure,” a virtual scavenger hunt around the city of Anderson that included East Side, Park Place Church of God, South Meridian Church of God, Jackrabbit Coffee, and the home office for Children of Promise. The leadership from the three congregations, as well as staff from Children of Promise, worked together to promote the event and to develop videos and graphics, as well as signage for each of the stops along the way.
The scavenger hunt ran for three weeks, including the Christmas and New Year’s weekends. Community members could work through the scavenger hunt in an hour or so if they did each stop in one trip, but the hunt could also be broken up over time. Families watched the first of the videos which explained the event, told the first part of the Christmas story, and pointed participants to the next stop. At each subsequent station, participants could scan a QR code for the next video with more of the Christmas story, as well as directions to the next destination.
Pastor Kegley said the overarching goal of the event was “to give families, and specifically children, a way to experience the beauty of the Christmas story that Jesus entered into the brokenness of humanity to bring new life, joy, and wholeness to the whole world. We wanted to point people to Children of Promise because they are an obvious expression of that truth.” The video clues as well as the Children of Promise station informed families about ways to get involved with the ministry’s work around the world. Families could sponsor a child, contribute to the ministry, or color a picture that Children of Promise would send to a sponsored child who might not otherwise receive mail.
First Church in St. Joseph, Michigan, also hosted a drive-through event for Christmas 2020. On December 19, the church invited the community to drive through a winter wonderland on their St. Joseph campus. Santa was there for the kids, as well as Olaf (from the movie Frozen), and there were also elves passing out candy canes; carolers; inflatable decorations; and 300 luminaries. Guests also received a Christmas bag filled with family activities, including an Advent wreath kit that would tie into the Christmas Eve service First Church would stream online. The bags included instructions for accessing the Christmas Eve service and sharing what families could expect from the 30-minute event.
Kate Ott, director of communications and guest experiences, said the church had been contemplating a December community outreach event for some time. The pandemic gave them the push to develop the event for this year. “The goal was to bless our community and to share the message that all are welcome here.” Around 500 cars came through the event on the 19th, and the church continued to pass out goodie bags in the days leading up to Christmas. Of the 350 RSVPs the church received in advance of the celebration, over 300 were from individuals with no previous relationship with the congregation. One of the texts read, “I am so excited for the Christmas Drive Thru. I have no family in the area, and I usually spend the holidays alone. This will be a little pick-me-up. Thank you for doing something special for me.”
The hope is that each visitor will remember this positive holiday experience, during a difficult year, every time they drive past the church. And maybe, in time, they will decide to walk in the doors and find out more. Lead pastor David Colp said, “The Christmas Drive Thru became a wonderful outreach to our community. We brought lots of joy and planted lots of seeds for Christ to grow!”
While Christmas 2020 looked different for a lot of churches, the celebration of Jesus’ birth, and the message that he is Emmanuel—God with us—was proclaimed, and individuals and families discovered Christ in a new way.
Jaymie Dieterle is a freelance writer with a passion for books, reading, and life-long learning. Jaymie and her family live in Anderson, Indiana, and they are actively involved at Madison Park Church of God.
Learn more about the Church of God at www.JesusIsTheSubject.org.
*Feature (top) photo: First Church of God (St. Joseph, Michigan) drive-through Christmas event.