Drive-thru at church: The easy-pray lane

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."

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..

At Hope, the idea came about when a bank became available on the adjacent property at the corner of Cooper and Centennial Roads. As congregants brainstormed ways to utilize the bank, someone suggested, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, drive-through prayer.

With its motto being "God wants to meet people. People want to meet God. Hope is a meeting place," it made sense. They called the building the Meeting Place, which hosts recovery and support meetings throughout the week, and opened the drive-through for a three-month trial at the end of 2012. After addressing a code issue with their sign, it officially opened in April, Thursday evenings from 5 to 7.

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).

"You don't have to be a member here, it doesn't cost you anything, and you don't even have to get out of your car," Bills said.

Don't worry about time spent, either.

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.

"About 10 years ago, I was going through a rough time in my life and there was a cashier at the grocery store. I didn't know her name but when I was at my lowest, I knew that this stranger would not judge me. She smiled and wished me well and said 'God bless you.' " Fritz says that small gesture encouraged him to become more positive about his life, and he hopes drive-through prayer will offer a similarly meaningful experience to others.

Volunteers attend three hours of training focused on listening techniques, appropriate things to pray for, and ways to pray whatever a person's particular faith. They also have to master the mechanics of the microphone. When the window isn't staffed, patrons can fill out a card describing their prayer needs and place it into a locked box that is emptied regularly by church staff.

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."

Despite its detractors, drive-through prayer is popping up in cities throughout the country.

In Lancaster, a nearby sign advertising its hours has brought in an average of six people each week between 1 and 4 p.m. since it opened in 2012, says associate pastor Mark Trimble.

"It's very important for the church to get out beyond its walls to reach the people where they are," Trimble said. "They'll come by, share a need, get prayed for, and they're off and we might never see them again. People stop by for anything that's important for them." They've had repeat customers who came back to let Trimble know how things worked out after their last visit.

JoAnne Kramer, a member of Hope United, applauds the idea.

"A lot of people are struggling and just will not come into a church," she said. "It's too intimidating, they don't feel like they fit, they feel unworthy or judged. More than the convenience, drive-through prayer is a way people can be private."

Bills hopes more people will come through on a regular basis, leading to increased numbers of volunteers and hours.

"If there's a greater need, we'll respond to it," he said. "It begins with a desire to bless the community and help people connect with one another and to God."