Masked volunteers wearing Christmas light necklaces and festive accessories bundled up for two hours of spreading holiday cheer at First MB Church in Wichita, Kan., where volunteers distributed Christmas Light Tour Kits to the 250 vehicles that came to the drive-thru event Dec. 16.
In a season filled with cancellations, heightened anxiety and COVID-19 precautions—the church had already cancelled its traditional Christmas Eve service—First MB staff sought a meaningful way to connect with people, especially young families, during the holiday season.
So the church decided to host a drive-thru event, inviting families, individuals and members of the community to hop in their vehicles and enjoy a tour of Christmas lights in Wichita with an accompanying “Christmas Light Tour Kit” and free pizza provided by the church.
“Our staff was just kind of evaluating 2020 and praying through it,” says Student Ministry Pastor Kyle Goings, adding that staff sensed a need to serve young families who may be overwhelmed without the usual babysitting and nights out as a result of COVID-19. “So we’re like, what can we provide that is fun for the whole family, free and yet safe?”
The event began with collaboration between Goings and Cynthia Young, Kids’ Ministry director, who created a map of the best Christmas lights in Wichita, including 12 stops on a route starting at the church. The idea grew from there, spreading to include outreach coordinator Jana Hildebrandt and eventually the entire church.
“Our goal was to provide a night for families to spend together,” Young says. “We’ve watched many parents feel overwhelmed and wanted to do something to help them. Putting together dinner, hot chocolate and a light-looking map seemed like a great way to help parents relax and enjoy the night.
“This event also provided us a great way to connect with families who haven’t yet come back to church in person,” she says. “We were able to say hi to families we haven’t seen since COVID.”
What started small quickly grew as First MB Church advertised the event on Facebook. With a deal on pizza from Pizza Hut, the church ordered as many pizzas as possible and put them on warmers.
“Pizza Hut (gave) us a great deal on pizzas because they’re really excited for this, so it’s just great to see everyone coming together for a single event,” Goings says.
Using strings of 1,500 feet of Christmas lights to direct vehicles, members of the First MB congregation set up various stations in the church parking lot where 50 to 60 volunteers distributed a variety of goodies to people in a safe way.
Volunteers distributed the map of Christmas lights, candy canes, hot cocoa, a Christmas gospel message, invitation cards for church ministries, Christmas light 3D glasses and a free medium pizza as supplies lasted.
“You never had to leave your car, and it was totally free,” Goings says. “It’s just our way of saying, ‘Hey families, we know it’s stressful and you have to worry about so many other things in 2020, maybe you can have a night out as a family and enjoy the Christmas lights.’”
Each family also received a Christmas Family Kit with activities to do at home, including a cake mix so families could make a birthday cake for Jesus.
The event provided an opportunity for the congregation to get involved.
“It’s also fun for our church because we haven’t had a lot of big events in 2020,” Goings says, adding, “We’re seeing a lot of people (say), ‘Hey, I want to serve. I don’t care what I do. How can I help?’”
With First MB’s Christmas Eve service cancelled as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the drive-thru evening turned into the church’s big event of the season.
“It’s our big event of the year, and it kind of just started out with, ‘How can we help young families celebrate Christmas without adding stress?’” Goings says, adding it may become an annual event.
“This is our first year, but so many people are gravitating and getting behind this—it’s kind of the situation—maybe we start doing this every year, just something for families,” Goings says. “Now that COVID has kind of changed how we do outreach for a little bit, not having people get out of the cars is actually easier because we don’t have to make sure doors are unlocked at the church and this space is ready. They can just drive through and go.”
At the end of the evening, First MB had distributed 290 pizzas and 480 cups of hot cocoa.
“Both our volunteers and families had a great night,” Young says. “We’ve received multiple comments and ‘thank-you’s’ from families in our community. It was a great night of hope and joy.”
For Christmas Eve, First MB Church staff put together a 10-minute video called “Christmas at Home,” for families to watch before opening presents. Going digital was easier this year, without the added stress of social distancing.
“It’s not our ideal,” Goings says. “We would love to still meet and love to still get together, but there’s just so (many) hurdles that people have to go through and safety precautions and even perception of safety that we don’t want a tainted Christmas experience. So that’s why we switched it up this year.”