MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Empty pews are forcing churches across America to get creative. Pastors are experimenting with all kinds of innovative ways to entice the faithful back into the flock - embracing social media, loosening dress codes, even moving service times around big sporting events.
BLOCK: Amy Kiley of member station WMFE paid a visit to a Florida church that lets congregants attend Sunday service without having to get out of the car.
AMY KILEY, BYLINE: Most people drive to church on Sunday get out of their cars and sit through an hour-long service on uncomfortable wooden pews. But not at the Daytona Beach Drive-in Christian Church.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN)
KILEY: People park on the grass in rows facing not a screen but an altar from on the balcony of a building at an old drive-in theater. To hear the service, they switch on their radios.
BOB KEMP-BAIRD: Even as we go forth to build in this world of hope and peace...
KILEY: Liturgical purists might balk at a worship style in which even communion isn't very communal. Parishioners in their cars drink wine from plastic ramekins with tiny rectangles of bread under the lids.
KEMP-BAIRD: And now, with me, if you'll remove this inner lid and, holding this cup, join me in prayer.
KILEY: Pastor Bob Kemp-Baird says even he was skeptical when the church recruited him two years ago. Now, he understands the worship style works for his congregation.
KEMP-BAIRD: That was the big question I had. Is there a feeling of the presence of the holy in this place, even though people are coming to worship in their cars? Is there a feeling that Christ's presence is made known? I do know. It lives here.
KILEY: The parishioners of the Drive-in Christian Church agree. Shirley Oenbrink is a stage four cancer survivor. She says attending church gave her strength through her illness. But during her year of chemotherapy, she could barely get out of bed, let alone into a church pew. She says having a private space during worship helps her cope with the emotional ups and downs of recovery.
SHIRLEY OENBRINK: It's the time to let the tears flow, and you don't get questioned. I don't like to be questioned, if you've noticed. And I don't like for people to feel sorry for me. And when I cry, my eyes get big, my nose swells up, and I've to put on my dark glasses, and I'm saying, no, I need to stay in my car.
KILEY: Russell and Teresa Fry are legally blind, so the ability to walk to the church and hear the service through the speakers is important to them. They both carry wounds from past discrimination at churches. And Teresa Fry says that makes her standoffish.
TERESA FRY: I don't like it that I'm that way at first, but I don't want to get hurt, so I stand back and wait for a second to see how they're going to react to me with being visually impaired because my eyes do jerk a lot. And I think people sometimes think I'm kind of crazy when I'm not crazy.
KILEY: The Frys say the church is a safe place for people who need privacy and healing, and the congregation readily accepted them. Parishioners say the drive-in approach is perfect for those who have trouble walking or for antsy children who enjoy the open space. Others say they revel in the ocean air and Florida sunshine. And some say they like that the church welcomes the whole family.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes. Yes. Yeah.
KILEY: When ushers hand out communion, even the dogs get treats. At the end of the service, people use their car horns to clap.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORNS)
KILEY: Then those who want human interaction can gather in the fellowship hall. The building used to be the theater's concession stand. Now, it feeds a Christian tradition that transcends even locked cars, donut hour. For NPR News, I'm Amy Kiley in Orlando.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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