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Drive-in Service: Grace Baptist delivers unique way to come to church

The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing us all to find new ways of doing things. It has altered lives and will continue to do so for the near future.

New ways of doing things require new ideas, however, and at Grace Baptist Church in Austin, the staff were not about to do away with Sunday services if they could at all avoid it.

Most every church is looking for ways to still continue services, but generally they are being done in front of a camera and then piped out through online platforms, and while producing services through this way is innovative, it takes away from the fellowship of an in-person service.

So at Grace Baptist the thought became, why not conduct a service like a drive-in Theater.

“Without the popcorn,” joked Senior Pastor Dan Meilke.

And so they came.

More than 100 cars filled the parking lot of Ashley Homestore and Hobby Lobby in Austin on Sunday, radios tuned in for the service with help from KAUS radio.

The idea originated with conversation with his wife Christa about how services were going to be conducted going forward  in the face of the coronavirus outbreak and still be able to adhere to social distancing protocols.

“My first thought was I love the idea, but oh my, what a lot of work,” Mielke said. “The first step was to contact the Minnesota Department of Health and the lady I talked to there actually said, ‘let us know how this works.’ That hurdle was pretty easy to get over.”

The basic idea was this: treat Sunday services like a drive-in theater. Mielke’s sermon, as well as readings and music, would be broadcast through the radios of cars attending the service. Added to this would be a large screen that would allow people towards the back to see the services as it was unfolding.

But the steps to get to that point wouldn’t be easy, starting with where to have it. The first choice was the Mower County Fairgrounds, but spring in Minnesota would have produced a muddy mess, so the church turned to the idea of business parking lots.

“Many of the businesses were open to the idea, but we didn’t know the logistics,” Mielke said. “Would we get 50 cars or 500 cars — we didn’t really know, but we decided, let’s go big and shoot for the moon.”

Once the location was decided upon, it was time to find the technology, none of which Grace Baptist had. They first needed a transmitter and so purchased one, but as they got closer to the date of the first sermon, things started to unravel.

“Everything fell apart Friday (March 20) at 10 a.m.,” Mielke said.

The items the church ordered were set to come in on the 25th, but then word came to the church that what they ordered was no longer in stock wouldn’t be available until well after when they needed it. That’s when the church approached KAUS, who said they would be interested in helping with the transmission and the broadcasting.

Nearly there, Grace Baptist then had to get a camera and crew to handle the broadcasting, which came from Grace’s daughter church Emmanuel Gospel Burmese Church, which also meets in Grace Baptist.

Then came the next challenge. On Wednesday of last week, Gov. Tim Walz announced a two week shelter-in-place executive order, and while it doesn’t forbid people from going outside, it does suggest that people only leave for essential things.

Another call was made to MDH just to make sure everything was still good and finally, the drive-in service was ready so long as people stayed in their cars.

“God’s plan was to meet in a parking lot, open to the people of Austin,” Mielke said. “We’re just sitting here thinking, ‘God, this is pretty amazing.’”

Over 100 cars were parked in the Ashley parking lot  for the service Sunday, which went off without a hitch save for not being able to use the screen because of the high wind.

The process of Sunday services will continue this coming Sunday with the hope that this can stretch through Easter. Either way, the hope is to continue spreading the Word of God as a way to help people through a particularly trying time.

“It’s incredibly exciting and encouraging,” Mielke said. “We’re hurt and trying to help those with lives turned on their ears. There is still some normal left, but we’re also looking at ways we can encourage through this and listen to what God says during times like this.”