Boy, you got a prayer in … the drive-thru lane

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I’ll never forget a sermon I heard as a young boy — mainly because I found the message extremely humorous.

In Churches of Christ, we observe the Lord’s Supper every Sunday. But some folks were showing up and quickly leaving after the communion service. So the minister got up one week and proposed distributing the grape juice and crackers through a drive-through so people wouldn’t even need to get out of their cars.

Fast-forward 35 years, and the idea of a drive-thru faith connection isn’t theoretical.

This story (which I came across via the Pew Research Center’s daily religion news email) caught my attention this week:

Drive-thru at church: The easy-pray lane

As a journalist who once wrote a national Associated Press story on 1-800 prayer lines, I found the headline intriguing. Honestly, though, I expected to find “shallow” and “cheesy” on this story’s menu. Instead, the Philadelphia Inquirer treated the subject in a thoughtful, meaty — and yet still interesting — way:

Have it your way.

No, not your fast-food burger. Your prayer.

In an age when convenience is king and religion is often ridiculed, some churches looking to widen their outreach efforts are embracing what community banks and pharmacies have utilized for decades: the drive-through.

The latest to offer a bit of spiritual uplift in the comfort of your car is Hope United Methodist Church in Voorhees.

“People go to Dunkin’ Donuts for coffee, not because it’s the best coffee, but because it’s the most convenient,” reasoned Hope’s lead pastor, Jeff Bills. “In a similar way, this is a port of entry for somebody to begin to connect with God in an intentional kind of way.”

(Dunkin’ Donuts doesn’t get a chance to respond in this story. Call me old school, but they should. Surely a Dunkin’ PR person could come up with a nice quip about coffee and prayer that fits with the story’s tone. But I digress.)

Back to the story: Three things I liked about this piece:

1. It considers the big picture: The Inquirer provides details both about the trend involved and the context in which drive-thru prayer has a chance to thrive.

The trend:

In Lancaster, there are drive-through hours Wednesday afternoons from the steps of Lancaster First Assembly of God during spring, summer, and fall months, when it’s not too cold to sit outside. Sonrise Worship Center in Lutz, Fla., extends coffee with its comfort the third Saturday of every month. Other drive-through churches have opened in Wichita, Kan.; Richmond, Va.; Aurora, Ill.; and Modesto, Calif..


The context:

Hope’s target audience is the one-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults younger than 30 – who are religiously unaffiliated. According to a Pew Research Center study, the unaffiliated population has increased from just more than 15 percent in 2007 to just less than 20 percent in 2012. That includes more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6 percent of the population), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14 percent).

2. It takes the subject seriously: This would be an easy story to turn into a Saturday Night Live skit. The Inquirer avoids that temptation:

Situated at a busy intersection where cars must stop for a traffic light, a sign advertising the drive-through beckons people to spontaneously pull in.

On any given Thursday, about three or four cars drive up, roll down the window, and describe a worry or concern. The volunteer offers a prayer on the spot. The whole process takes a minute or two, and patrons, from all religious denominations, remain anonymous.

“We had a woman who was Jewish and her daughter had moved back to Israel and was entering the Israeli army,” Bills recalled. “She was concerned about her daughter’s safety.”

For those preferring to simply write down their thoughts without a conversation, one of the lanes utilizes the old bank’s deposit tube that now shuttles pencil and card between patron and volunteer.

“One evening a person quietly came up and wrote a note about her mother who had cancer and her concerns for her health,” said Andy Fritz, a volunteer from Somerdale. “Without a word being spoken, she drove away.”

Fritz knows firsthand how even a brief spiritual connection can affect a person.

3. It allows for an opposing point of view: Just when drive-thru prayer starts sounding like the best thing since television preachers, a detractor enters the scene:

Christian Piatt, a Portland, Ore.-based author and religious blogger on the site “Father, Son, and Holy Heretic,” is not sold on the idea.

“It emphasizes the individual, which is counter to the fundamental message of Christianity,” he said. “It also reinforces this idea of prayer being more like a vending machine. We drive up to the window, make our selection, put in our order, and get our request fulfilled. That’s a self-serving distortion of the Christian experience.”

Tired of fast-food journalism? Pull up to the speaker, place your order and enjoy this rare treat on the 1,000-word value menu.


About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.


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