Racetrack Church Sets the Pace for Easter Firsts

April 13, 2020

It wasn't something people were used to seeing at Dominion Raceway. Instead of souped-up NASCARs, the lanes were replaced by hundreds of ordinary trucks and sedans, parked all across the asphalt. For once, the cameras weren't trained on lap-leaders but a worship team, singing with families from their cars. When Pastor Ernest Custalow got up to preach, separated by pit row, the Virginia congregation honked appreciatively. Despite a challenging few weeks, Grace Church could take a victory lap. They managed to keep people safe and still celebrate the holiest day of the year -- together.

Across the country, pastors embraced the new normal -- delivering Easter messages from second-story roofs, flat-top trucks, even forklifts. For some, like Franklin Graham, it wasn't what they were standing on, but where they were standing. In the middle of Central Park, the head of Samaritan's Purse used the field hospital behind him to reassure people: "Jesus knows how to take the hopeless situations and turn them around... He can do it in your life too."

Elsewhere, people packed into drive-in movie theaters or anywhere with big enough lots to accommodate them. Albuquerque's Nat Heitzig was blown away by the attendance. "I think this shows that people still want to be together, even if it's not person to person. Being in their car is enough for them, they just want the ability to congregate, to be together, to worship Jesus."

On military bases like Camp Zama in Japan, chaplains got together and decided to do "some remarkable and creative things." Things might have unfolded a little differently than past years, Lt. Colonel Donald Ehrke agreed, "but the community has really responded well to it." Soldiers had the chance to take drive-in communion or pull over for a blessing, which was unconventional -- he admitted -- but it worked. "They stayed together with one another inside their cars but [were] still together as a community. People felt like they had an opportunity to worship together as a group... there was a sense of belonging and togetherness that we so long for," he explained. "It's just people coming up with good ideas and implementing those good ideas and taking advantage of what there is still available for us to do, even as we are practicing social distancing."

Once the church service was over, the real service began. In places like New Jersey, congregations used the holiday to bless other families. Liquid Church worked with a group called Convoy of Hope to deliver the world's biggest Easter basket to locals in need -- more than 26,000 pounds of supplies like diapers, wipes, toilet paper, hygiene kits, bottled water, bleach, paper towels and food. "As people who love Christ," one of the church staffers said, "it's our joy to serve our neighbors across New Jersey in any way we can during this crisis... While our weekly new normal is virtual community, we are also committed to loving and caring for the various needs of our church and neighbors during this time."

Other congregations had unique ways of getting the good news out -- like the dozens of cars who lined up in Chesapeake, Virginia to spell "He Is Risen" with their vehicles. In West Virginia, churches led a parade of traffic through the Beckley streets to mark the day, some passengers even sticking their heads out of the sunroof to send well-wishes. They were joyful reminders that lives can be shaken and changed, but the hope offered by Jesus is as real in the midst of this crisis as it was the first day of His empty tomb.

In my community, just outside of Baton Rouge, hundreds gathered in their cars for a sunrise service hosted by the local Christian radio station, SoundRadio, the Central Area Pastors Association and Family Research Council. I was privileged to lead the service from an elevated trailer in the local high school football stadium parking lot. As the pastors prayed, read scripture and as the praise team led in worship the horns replaced the verbal amens and emergency flashers took the place of raised hands. It may have been untraditional, but it was still a blessing for all who participated.

For more on Easter in the age of COVID-19, check out my new op-ed in the Washington Examiner. Also, don't miss Peter Sprigg's column, "God in the Midst of Coronavirus Pandemic."