Car park carols to get through a bleak COVID Christmas

Christmas in the United Kingdom – and all across Europe – is looking a little grim this year. As much of the continent faces a second wave of coronavirus infections, the UK, France and Germany have called a month-long, nationwide lockdown.

Iain Barker has been vicar at St Thomas’ Anglican Church in Kidsgrove, in the West Midlands of the United Kingdom, for 17 years. He says this coming festive season is likely to be the hardest he has experienced.

Instead of a donkey, Mary and Jesus will travel to the supermarket’s Jerusalem by riding in trolleys.

“It’s the first day of this second lockdown,” he told Eternity. “We’ve just been rubbish at this. It’s frustrating to again not be allowed to meet in person for church. I long for the day that we can sing. I long for the day we can come together again as a community.”

St Thomas’ would usually be planning a lot of Christmas events. Barker says he would often have a Christmas calendar stuffed with 30-35 Christmas events.

“But we’re doing none of them this year. It’s bleak. Christmas is actually potentially quite miserable,” Barker told Eternity. 

But the team at St Thomas’ have a plan. Instead of trying to do a smaller carols event that fits with the current social restrictions, they’ve decided to do something completely different.

“We didn’t want a pale imitation of what we would usually do,” says Barker.

So … drive-in carols it is.

Barker has hired the local supermarket carpark and the church will take it over after it closes, one Sunday afternoon in December. The church has a good relationship with the supermarket managers, having conducted food banks and other charity events with them.

An average Christmas carol event for St Thomas’ would see about 150 visitors. Under social distancing restrictions (outside of full lockdown times), the church could only have had 30 people in their church venue. But the supermarket car park can hold more than 200 cars.

The church has hired a company to control the video, lights and sound. Guests will watch and listen via smart phones, while staying in their car at all times. Barker is planning to create a stage using a cherry-picker – a small hydraulic crane to carry him over the cars so he can be seen by his audience. It’s also where the angel will stand during a reading of the Christmas story.

“We want this to be as fun and engaging as possible,” says Barker. “We’ll have goody bags for all our guests, which will have lots of different things in there for them to participate in the Christmas story as we tell it. There will be a tea towel, for our person in the car to use as a shepherd’s headdress. There will be a roll of toilet paper for them to ‘swaddle’ one person in the car as the baby Jesus. It’s not meant to be disrespectful at all.

“To be honest, the idea of people trying to cover someone in toilet paper in the back of their cars just really amuses me.”

“We want to make this accessible and bring joy in a very dark year,” – Vicar Iain Barker, St Thomas’ Anglican Church UK

Barker plans to use the aisles between the cars to help tell the story. A motorbike with a giant star on a long stick will drive through the aisles, followed by wise men in a sports car. Instead of a donkey, Mary and Jesus will travel to the supermarket’s Jerusalem by riding in trolleys.

“We’re planning little ‘chicken nuggets’ of evangelism throughout the night, rather than a full-on sermon. We want to make this accessible and bring joy in a very dark year,” Barker says.

There will be a prize for the best-dressed car on the night, too.

Of course, all of these plans might still come to naught, dependent upon UK lockdown laws. Barker is preparing himself – and his team – for that. But they are praying the lockdown only lasts the four weeks announced, and that if they can pull off this drive-in carols while holding to all the restrictions, it could just save Christmas for plenty in their community.

And in other acts of creative ministry, Faith In Kids – a UK ministry seeking to support churches reaching out to children and young families – has released resources with ideas for how celebrate a COVID Christmas, including a pack specifically about hosting a carpark carols service. Check out the list of ideas here.