Methodist bishop cancels Dunlap drive-in church services due to COVID-19 concerns, upsetting some lay leaders

Staff photo by Tim Barber/ Chapel Hill United Methodist Church has drive-in church on the ridgetop parking lot in the Sequatchie Valley. The Bishop broadcast his message via FM radio with more than one-hundred attendees on the lot in Sequatchie County, near Dunlap.

Less than a week after being highlighted for finding an innovative way to gather and worship during the COVID-19 pandemic, Chapel Hill United Methodist Church's drive-in services are canceled indefinitely.

Dindy Taylor, resident bishop of the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church, announced the decision for the area on April 3, upending the Dunlap church's plans during the holiest week in the faith.

The congregation of Chapel Hill last gathered in the pews on March 15, days after neighboring Hamilton County announced its first confirmed case of the coronavirus and the same week Taylor announced the shutdown of all Methodist church services for at least two weeks.

With the doors forced to close, the church's leadership began brainstorming ways to keep sharing the message of God during these moments of fear and uncertainy, said Jeff Jones, chairman of finance.

"We got to scratching our heads to see what we could do, then we realized we used to have an old drive-in theater here," he said.

Jones got radio transmitters, found an open channel and the church invited everyone to come to the parking lot to listen the next Sunday. The Rev. Jared Wood delivered his sermon from the back of a pickup truck. People texted prayer requests to the pastor. The church held the drive-in style service on March 22, March 29 and April 5. Around 150 people were coming to the parking lot, a total that in normal times would be a great Sunday turnout, Jones said.

(READ MORE: Livestreams, empty pews and the few Chattanooga places that kept their doors open Sunday)

Lay church leaders said the workaround was a way to keep families safe, yet still allow them to hear the word of God and see one another, just with a few car windows between them. The services ensured people without social media or internet, where most churches are now broadcasting, could still take part.

Chapel Hill's idea was featured in a Holston Conference blog post in late March about innovative services. Other churches began calling about the technological set-up, Jones said.

Then, last Friday, Taylor issued her directive to end all drive-in services, saying the services put families at increased risk of infecting one another in the car. The bishop cited two recent blog posts on the topic by Steve Gardner, a theologian and lawyer.

"Putting a family in such a small and mostly sealed space as a vehicle for such a long time makes it likely that if any one member of the family is infected, then they will all be infected before the closing prayer in many instances," Gardner wrote in one post.

Several other states in the region stopped drive-in services because they break rules of holding gatherings of more than 10 people. Religious functions are considered an essential service in Gov. Bill Lee's executive orders. However, on March 22 the governor ordered people to not gather in groups of 10 or more.

Some lay leaders at Chapel Hill are upset with the bishop's decision. They admit there is a risk of spreading COVID-19 to other family members in the car, they said, but living in the same house, sharing a bed, bathroom or a kitchen with family members is also a riskd. People need breaks from the isolation, and the drive-in services provided that in a relatively safe way, Jones said.

"I have to weigh the medical part of this against the psychological part, and I think the psychological part wins," he said. "People need hope these days."

The Rev. Wood did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga churches struggle to stay afloat, keep serving their communities amid coronavirus crisis)

The bishop's decision upends the Dunlap church's plans just days before the holiest moments on the Christian calendar. More than half of Americans want to go to church on Sunday if in-person services are available, according to a survey published this week by Wallethub.

In Chattanooga, with the state under a "stay at home" order and the city under a stricter "shelter in place" directive, the most churchgoing city in America will celebrate the holiest day on the Christian calendar at home. There will be no sunrise service at the Chattanooga National Cemetery or Easter Egg hunt in Coolidge Park this year.

COVID-19, which has infected more than 3,800 people and killed at least 65 in Tennessee, has already affected the region's religious community. Hamilton County's first confirmed case was the rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church and, last month, a professor at the Pentecostal Theological Seminary in Cleveland tested positive.

Around a quarter of those surveyed by Wallethub said they would donate less to their church this Easter, a fear becoming a reality for many churches and faith-based organizations on the front lines helping their communities weather the pandemic even as the threat of their own financial survival looms.

Contact Wyatt Massey at or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.