MARYSVILLE — Pastor Aaron Thompson was on the pulpit, speaking into his headset microphone like all the other Sunday church services he led there for the past five years or the 20 before that with another congregation.
But the seats at Marysville Foursquare Church were empty, except two in the sound booth.
Just outside the doors, dozens of people sat in their cars, SUVs and trucks. The parking lot parish watched Thompson deliver his sermon on a 15-second delay via Facebook Live video on their smartphones.
“The church forever has preached that it’s not a building, it’s a community,” he said before members of the church arrived.
Some of them indulged in an ice pop handed out by church leaders and youth members on an unusually warm early May day. A few brought folding chairs and propped them on a truck’s tailgate.
It was the first Sunday that drive-in church services were allowed since Gov. Jay Inslee issued his “stay home, stay healthy” order in March that banned social gatherings, including religious and spiritual ones.
“It offers a level of connection,” Thompson said. “We also have to deal with our souls, the need to be seen, to be heard, to belong.”
Church leaders bought and installed devices to extend the wifi to almost every inch of their property, from a grass field behind the annex to the sidewalk.
Art Bender, a member of the church meets visitors as they drive up with a sign that says “high 5 4 Jesus” and “stay safe Jesus loves you” pic.twitter.com/GZbpNR6S4l— Ben Watanabe (@benwatanabe) May 10, 2020
They greeted members as they arrived. Art Bender, an associate pastor with the church, waved a hand-shaped sign that said “High 5 4 Jesus” on one side and “Stay safe Jesus loves you” on the other at guests and got a distance dap.
“Can I get a High 5 for Jesus?” he asked several attendees.
Cars were parked in every other spot and guests were asked to stay in their vehicles, per public health guidelines due to the new coronavirus and COVID-19. Thompson donned his mask when he spoke with them through rolled down windows.
One woman, a Marysville Foursquare member for about four years, came with her two children. The boys, with smiles on their faces, in unison told one of the church leaders, “Happy Mother’s Day.” She said they showed up for the drive-in for the interactions with people they love and miss.
The Marysville church has existed for decades and has offered virtual services for many years. Its doors are closed for now, but the work continues. Marysville Foursquare volunteers are available to pick up groceries or drive people to medical appointments. So far the church has more volunteers than people who used the offers, Thompson said.
But the stay-home guidelines disrupted other interpersonal parts of the congregation, especially the ministry for people in recovery from addiction.
“Digital can’t meet all those needs,” he said. “We’re really languishing the recovery community.”
Chad Brazell, who leads the church’s junior high school and recovery ministries, said the social media connections work great for a lot of people in their congregation. But it’s more challenging for people who struggle with substance use disorder and rely on anonymity.
“It would be great to meet again and get people healthy again,” Brazell said.
The church band, faintly heard from outside the building, rocked Christian worship music for the video stream, then joined the rest of the members in the parking lot. Thompson continued his series “Quarantine Christianity” reading from Philippians, the letters from Paul the Apostle to a church in Greece. In the letters, Paul laments his absence and distance from the believers there.
“We’re learning some lessons that apply directly to us today,” he said during his sermon. “One of the things about this time is it’s putting pressure on everybody.”