Just a few short years ago, a young preacher by the name of Jordan Kersey was inspired to hold worship services in an open park in Perry. It was an eccentric platform of worship, but it worked. And the name he gave it was simple and befitting: Church in the Park. The membership outgrew the limited outdoor space, and the fellowship of believers eventually acquired a building in which to hold their services. Now, it seems—through no plan of their own—God has brought them back to their roots and given them a new reminder of from where they came.
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Five years have passed. Kersey is now 33 years old and still thinking outside the box. "Our churches and business owners are being forced to either overcome or be overcome. We have to find a way to adapt or we’ll be overcome by all this,” the pastor said. "Two weeks ago, when we were still able to meet at church, our attendance dropped by about 95%. Nobody came. It was very sad, but I understood. At that point, we hadn’t been told not to meet, but people were scared.”
Kersey stated that he reached out to other pastors, and they revealed that they’d had the same experience. The news of the rapidly spreading Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) had placed deep concern in the hearts of those who would have normally been in attendance. The known and the unknown surrounding the pandemic were causing people to make the decision to stay away from something that they truly loved—corporate worship.
"I spent that next week just really trying to think out of the box,” the pastor said. "This was the hand we’d been dealt and everyone else had been dealt. So, I really spent that next week wondering how we could adapt and overcome this. And then it just hit me,” Kersey declared. "Drive-in movie theatres! Back in the day, that’s how they would watch movies, and as soon as that hit me, I started making some phone calls. I called the tech team from the church and our audio-video guys.”
Setting up an emergency meeting, Kersey said he and those key individuals gathered that night in their staff room. "I told them, I didn’t know how to do it, and I didn’t know what would have to take place for this to happen, but that I wanted to do this.” The staff members didn’t hesitate to embrace the idea, but Kersey admitted that when they asked him how soon, and he told them that he wanted everything pulled together in a four-and-a-half-day period so that it would all be ready for a Sunday morning worship experience, his team was caught off-guard.
"They made it happen though,” Kersey said of the church staff and volunteers. "We went all over the state to get the equipment we needed, and we installed it,” he explained. "Leading up to Sunday morning, we let the community know that we were going to do a drive-in church service.” Up to that point, Kersey said it was going to be just a one-time thing. He admitted that he did not expect it to be nearly as well-received as it was. "The service was to begin at 10:30 a.m., and at 10 a.m., I looked around to our guys and said, ‘Y’all, I did not expect half this crowd for the entire service, much less 30 minutes before go-time." It was incredible.”
In the five years that Church in the Park has been in existence, Kersey said seeing the results of the drive-in service was by far his favorite moment. "Just given the context of the temperature of our nation, and everything that’s going on; to see so many people be impacted by that service has been amazing.” Kersey said he’s been contacted by pastors from all over the country asking him for directions and insight on how they could do the same thing in their areas. "Anybody who’s wanted to know, we’ve told them what we did.”
What was initially intended to be a one-time drive-in service, will now be something that will continue even after the COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted. Members of Kersey’s congregation have expressed the desire to do a drive-in service at least once a month on a continuous basis. Kersey has already agreed to the idea. With a higher number of community residents coming to the drive-in worship service, the church now foresees it as an effective form of outreach ministry.
According to Kersey’s estimate, about 300 to 400 people physically attended the drive-in church services (not to mention the thousands more who watched by way of their live Facebook feed) versus 200 to 250 that come on a normal Sunday when they worship in the sanctuary. Kersey laughed when he told the story of how Lindsey, his wife of almost nine years, had to reel him back in to reality. "I went home and told her that I didn’t think we’d ever have another service in our building again. I honestly thought, if this is how it’s going to be attended, I’d rather just do this. My wife had to calm me down and say, ‘Honey, that’s not realistic. We’ve got to take the services back inside.’”
As unconventional as a drive-in service may sound, the response of the community was eye-opening for Kersey, and they are already making plans to continue long-term on a monthly basis. "We have one strict rule in place for the drive-in service, and it’s simply that under no set of circumstances can anyone get out of their car,” the pastor said. "I have three kids, so I understand the challenge. But I tell parents to have their kids go potty 10 times, if necessary, before they leave to come to the service, because as bad as this
Kersey said that his team is fine-tuning the service as they go. In the kick-off gathering last Sunday, he and those who were leading the worship were on the flat rooftop of their church building while attendees watched and participated from their cars in the parking lot. "We won’t do that again,” Kersey said, laughing. "I went back and watched the video and saw that when I got to preaching and really got into it, and I was hearing people shouting from their vehicles and honking their horns—I was so caught up that I didn’t realize I was literally inches away from the edge of the building. When I saw that on the video, I thought to myself… you idiot. Who does that?”
In the future, Kersey said they will be building an elevated stage from which to carry on the service so that everyone who drives up, whether they are in the front row or the back row of the church’s descending parking lot, will be able to clearly see and hear.
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"Five years ago, we actually started this ministry in a park—hence the name, Church in the Park,” Kersey said. "And now because of what’s going on in our nation, we are now a ministry in a parking lot. On some level, we’ve come full circle. Where we came from, in some ways, prepared us for where we are right now. It’s a testament for churches and small businesses alike,” he continued. "The ones that make it are the ones that learn to morph and adapt to their surroundings. My desire is that small business owners and other churches will read this article and take hope. The world is going to keep chomping along. The church has got to learn how to hold our chin up and keep going too.”
For more information about Church in the Park, Kersey encourages online browsers to visit the Facebook page.