Coronavirus: Flashing, honking encouraged at church service

Bruce Jackson, pastor of First Grace Church in Butler Twp., told those gathered in vehicles Sunday to flash their lights to clap and honk horns to “praise the Lord.” CHRIS STEWART / STAFF
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Bruce Jackson, pastor of First Grace Church in Butler Twp., told those gathered in vehicles Sunday to flash their lights to clap and honk horns to “praise the Lord.” CHRIS STEWART / STAFF

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, faith groups around the region have put services on hold, moved them online — or out to the parking lot.

That’s where members of First Grace Church in Butler Twp. have gathered — sitting in their cars — the past few services.

“The way that we clap our hands as we worship is we flash our lights,” Bruce Jackson, pastor of the church, told those gathered in more than two dozen vehicles Sunday. “And also, if you want to say a great ‘praise the Lord’ and ‘amen,’ you can just honk your horn.”

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Even a rain-soaked parking lot can be “a place where we draw strength, and a place where God can do great work as we join together in fellowship and ultimately find him to be our strength,” Jackson told those sitting in Chevrolets, Fords and Toyotas.

Bryson Jackson dons a Star Wars storm trooper mask while welcoming people to First Grace Church’s drive-in service. During the coronavirus pandemic, members of the Butler Twp. church have met in the parking lot but stayed in their cars. CHRIS STEWART / STAFF
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Bryson Jackson dons a Star Wars storm trooper mask while welcoming people to First Grace Church’s drive-in service. During the coronavirus pandemic, members of the Butler Twp. church have met in the parking lot but stayed in their cars. CHRIS STEWART / STAFF

“The joy of the Lord, is your strength. Today, you have so much to be joyful about. We can be strong, even in the midst of a terrible crisis, strong in the midst of a storm.”

Houses of worship are exempted under the state’s stay at home order, but a majority have suspended in-person services and prayers and worked to find other ways to stay connected.

PHOTOS: Area church encourages honking, flashing during Sunday service

Jackson said members “braved” the first Sunday under the stay-at-home order together inside First Grace Church, but then moved to the parking lot where members could remain in vehicles and tune in the band and sermon via a local FM transmitter.

“We wanted to do what was best,” he said, while still following the book of Hebrews: “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together.”

“That it’s an important part of our of our Christian lives and fellowship,” he said.

Jackson said the number of people pulling into the lot behind the church on Stonequarry Road grew larger each Sunday.

Members of First Grace Church in Butler Twp. met in the church parking lot but kept in their cars for the fourth Sunday in a row. CHRIS STEWART / STAFF
Caption
Members of First Grace Church in Butler Twp. met in the church parking lot but kept in their cars for the fourth Sunday in a row. CHRIS STEWART / STAFF

Members of the church’s worship team don masks and pass coffee and doughnuts into arriving vehicles.

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“People are able to, at least temporarily pull away from their routine and feel hopeful about something when there’s so much that that seems be dragging us down a little bit, whether it’s the economy or our jobs or effects of the virus and infection,” Jackson said.

Brook Wirrig of Vandalia said the cool temperatures and light rain didn’t dampen her spirit or that of others in cars parked facing the church’s roofed rear entrance from where its band played and Jackson preached.

“It’s so fun to be able to see everyone together and still coming out as a community,” she said. We were concerned there would be a lesser amount of people. But people are showing up just the same.”

Jackson said the church is sharing a very specific message of hope – one preached in the past through other plagues and pandemics and natural disasters and man-made calamities.

“What we’ve dealt with in the Miami Valley in the last year — 15 tornadoes on one weekend, and things like the shootings — one of the things that that we want to stress is that just because terrible things happen, doesn’t mean that God’s not in control. And that sometimes there are things that happen that shape us in different ways. I know that Dayton is stronger as a community because of things that have happened. And I know that that there are a lot of people who have been touched in many, many ways who probably would have never risen up had we not had crisis moments here.”

Members of First Grace Church in Butler Twp. met in the church parking lot but kept in their cars for the fourth Sunday in a row. CHRIS STEWART / STAFF
Caption
Members of First Grace Church in Butler Twp. met in the church parking lot but kept in their cars for the fourth Sunday in a row. CHRIS STEWART / STAFF

As Ramadan began last week for Muslims, area mosques are also taking precautions. Imams at Islamic Society of Greater mosques are leading prayers on Facebook and Zoom and answering questions via WhatsApp.

The Catholic Conference of Ohio has extended a suspension of masses and liturgies through May 3.

The Solid Rock Church in Monroe has scaled back some programming but kept its doors open Sunday mornings during the state’s stay-at-home order.

While exempted, religious groups that gather in person defy the spirit of the order, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a practicing Catholic, said before Easter.

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“We’re not going to interfere with your First Amendment rights to practice your religion,” DeWine said. “But I don’t know any religion that teaches that you should do things that endanger — seriously endanger — other people. I don’t know any religion that says that, ‘It’s just OK not to worry about your neighbor, it’s OK not to worry about other people.’”

Jackson said moving to the parking lot strikes a balance that allows members to keep their distance together.

“It is a way to comply with things passed down by the governor and also at the same time give people an alternative instead of being quarantined at home and not being able to get out at all,” Jackson said.

Dick Edwards, a longtime First Grace member from Englewood, said the Sunday service provided not only an opportunity for spiritual change, but for a change of scenery.

“I get away from four walls,” Edwards said.

Jackson said about 90 percent of churches’ within the Charis Fellowship, known before 2018 as the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches, were conducting services online.

Bruce Jackson, pastor of First Grace Church in Butler Twp., told those gathered in vehicles Sunday to flash their lights to clap and honk horns to “praise the Lord.” CHRIS STEWART / STAFF
Caption
Bruce Jackson, pastor of First Grace Church in Butler Twp., told those gathered in vehicles Sunday to flash their lights to clap and honk horns to “praise the Lord.” CHRIS STEWART / STAFF

More than half of churches across the country did not have in-person services as of March 15, according to a survey of 269 churches by CDF Capital, formerly known as the Church Development Fund. The nonprofit later surveyed another 93 churches later, finding the number increased to 86% for March 22 services, though many moved worship services online.

Churches that tracked online attendance found online attendance was 8% higher than in-person attendance before the coronavirus pandemic, according to the study. Although online attendance may have increased, tithing and offerings were reportedly lower. Of churches responding to the survey, 43% said they received lower offerings. Half of the churches asked gave no response to the question.

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As First Grace members left the parking lot Sunday, a blue bucket held up to their car windows served as a collection plate.

Jackson said the crisis has been a time of both reflection and awakening for many.

“It’s a wonderful thing to be able focus on your family, to get a set of priorities that are not empty and shallow, that could pass away so easily if someone’s security was in the stock market or their job or other things that have so quickly gone away within the last month,” he said.

“God is in control and people can feel hopeful in the fact that sometime in the future, this too shall pass.”