JOHNS CREEK, Ga. — Johns Creek Presbyterian Church has turned its west parking lot into a spiritual studio.
The worship space is equipped with a public address system, live music and a local FM receiver with enough power to spread the Gospel to cars in the back rows.
Few institutions face quite the challenges presented by the pandemic as houses of worship.
Gone are the backslapping, the hugs, the handshakes common to many congregations. For the most part, religious observance hinges on internet bandwidth and apps designed for business meetings now connecting followers to their faith.
The methodology for Johns Creek Presbyterian Church’s “drive-in” service is straightforward.
Churchgoers pull their cars into rows, windows roll down, engines turn off, and radios are tuned to 89.9 FM. Announcements, hymns, scripture and the sermon are delivered from a scaffolding turned pulpit. If the forecast calls for rain, the clergy move to the sanctuary and the broadcast continues on the radio.
Sunday crowds average around 80 people. When an especially joyous moment arrives, arms stick outside windows, hands waving. No car horns, though, in deference to the surrounding community.
For weeks, the Rev. Dr. C. Grey Norsworthy leads the 9:30 a.m. Sunday drive-in worship service.
Church Elder Dennis McLynn had initial doubts.
“Why would I want to drive up and sit in the parking lot when I can stay home and watch the online service?” he said.
But as word spread, he and his wife decided to check it out.
“We were very pleasantly surprised!” McLynn said.
Turns out he was longing for in-person worship, and this “was truly the next best thing.”
“The pastors, the live music, reading passages and responding in the car suddenly replaced sitting in a pew, and it was OK,” he said.
Word has spread to the surrounding community.
The operation drew an inquiry from nearby Congregation Dor Tamid synagogue, which wanted to replicate the setup for its upcoming new year services, Rosh Hashanah. Instead, the church extended the synagogue an invitation to use their lot with the setup already in place.
The connection came from a tragic backstory. After the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh two years ago, Rabbi Jacob Ottenstein founded the Johns Creek Interfaith Alliance. He said the group meets “regularly to promote collegiality, relationships, and good will amongst our houses of worship.”
The Alliance consists of 14 clergy from different faiths. Norsworthy and Ottenstein originally met through the organization.
The group recently met to discuss their faith’s response to the pandemic. From that discussion, clergy from the Presbyterian church described the success of the drive-in service where social distance guidelines could be followed.
Rosh Hashanah celebrates the beginning of the Jewish new year and begins a 10-day High Holy Day observance that concludes on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement with fasting. During the observance, Jews renew their relationship with God and humanity through repentance, self-examination, and charity.
The High Holy Days are the most attended and meaningful services of the year, often drawing hundreds. Rosh Hashanah begins at sundown, Sept. 18, and Yom Kippur observance begins at sundown, Sept. 27.
“This is why it is so meaningful that JCPC has invited us to use the campus so that the members of my community will have the opportunity to pray, in-person, together,” Ottenstein said.
The new year is welcomed with shofar blasts made from a ram’s horn. It is customary to eat apples dipped in honey symbolizing hope for a good and sweet year.
Dor Tamid has decided to hold the second day of Rosh Hashanah service at the Presbyterian church parking lot.
“It has been a gift to me to build friendships and trust with the religious leaders from across Johns Creek.” Norsworthy said. “We have found that we have many shared values and common challenges in taking care of our congregations.”