TULSA, Okla. (AP) - Pamela Amburgy usually attends church every Ash Wednesday to mark the beginning of Lent, but this year, the Tulsa banker’s schedule made going to a service nearly impossible. The solution? Drive through.
She was part of the steady stream of worshippers who lined up in cars and in person at churches across the country Wednesday and waited for a priest to walk out and apply a cross of ashes on their foreheads.
With church attendance on a steep decline over the past 50 years as American lives have become more mobile and high-tech, some churches are trying to pack empty pews by putting a new twist on centuries-old evangelism: Instead of administering the rite in a formal church setting, pastors in recent years have been taking the ceremony to the masses in parking lots, shopping centers, college campuses, street corners and, in this case, the porte-cochere at Trinity Episcopal Church.
“In Oklahoma, we have cowboy church, and (there are) all ways to find God,” said Amburgy, seated in her toasty SUV on a 33-degree morning. “He can be found in conventional ways and unconventional ways.”
The process typically took around a minute at Trinity and sometimes had the feel of a quick-turn restaurant, as the Rev. Kristi Maulden accompanied the act with a phrase taken from the book of Genesis: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, the 40-day period for penance leading up to Easter.
The twist is nothing entirely brand new. Convenience-based religious services have seen preachers take religion to the people by bestowing blessings over shrimp boats, crops, animals and offer drive-up communion, said Gerald Smith, who has taught on numerous religious and cultural topics for nearly 50 years at The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.
“Drive-through ashes can be negatively compared to ‘fast food’ and other drive-through conveniences, like paying your electric bill, dropping off a rental product,” Smith said. “The world has changed; people are far less sit-down than before.”
Churches have also tried to adapt with the changing times, tailoring services to attract teenagers, beer-drinkers, hunters and Halloween trick-or-treaters, to name a few.
“Churches have to market themselves like anybody else,” said Sage Elwell, assistant professor of religion and culture at Texas Christian University. “The need for churches to meet their people where they are is increasing.”
About 75 people took part in the drive-up service at Trinity, and a spokeswoman there estimated late Wednesday that as many as 70 percent of them were new to the church- perhaps a sign that the new blend of speed and spirituality was having some effect.
“It’s breaking out of the stained-glass barrier,” Maulden said.
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