When it was time to give the sermon, the Rev. Katie Day climbed into the back of a white Ford F150 and turned to face the rows of worshipers in cars and lawn chairs.

Dozens of masked congregants gazed back at her, some in Santa-themed headbands and others donning cowboy hats, while she squinted into the sun and scanned the length of her Georgia church’s parking lot. As she preached about joy in unprecedented times, children occasionally popped out of their cars’ sunroofs and her 3-year-old son quietly munched on pretzel sticks off to the side.

“When we can see that God will not cease to be God if we don’t gather inside the building, and the church surely won’t cease to be church if we don’t gather inside the building, then it seems to me if we can do something else, then we should,” Day said, recalling this Sunday in December.

For Day, a vibrant 41-year-old senior pastor, this is what it means to be a church when routines have been upended and the pandemic has forced faith communities to reimagine worship. Complicating her job is her newness to the church’s members, most of whom the coronavirus kept her from meeting for months after she moved to Duluth in March.

Day is preparing to lead Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church’s roughly 375 members through Christmas, one of the most theologically significant holidays in the Christian faith, while knowing most of her congregants only through Zoom calls and socially distanced outdoor greetings. An unprecedented surge of the virus simultaneously haunts the country, with more than 200,000 new cases a day on average and daily coronavirus-related deaths at their highest levels yet.

Day’s church is among hundreds of thousands of congregations nationwide whose worship has been radically changed by the pandemic. Among mainline Protestants who regularly attend services at least monthly, just nine percent told the Pew Research Center in July that they had worshiped only in person during the past month. More than half said they had participated solely online or via TV, and 12 percent reported attending both in-person and virtual services.

The crisis raises questions about how to maintain a church’s identity when members can’t meet under the conditions they’ve faced for decades. For many churches, being forced to rethink how to nurture faith and community could reshape their post-pandemic operations.

“It’s a challenge, and it’s different, and something is lost,” said Richard Flory, research and evaluation director at the University of Southern California’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture. “But at the same time, there’s some opportunities that people need to figure out.”

At Pleasant Hill, Day said that opportunity has come through realizing that 20 people trying to figure out how to unmute themselves on Zoom can be an expression of faith, as is refilling the Little Free Pantry outside the church multiple times a week and authorizing a donation to the church’s partner communities in Honduras and Guatemala.

“If gathering is really the end of what we do, then we’re lost,” Day said. “But if it’s something beyond that … that community — I think it looked different than we thought it did.”

The challenges of virtual ministry

Day’s path to Pleasant Hill began with an interview last December, when the only thing most people knew about the coronavirus was that an unidentified disease was causing alarm in central China. Then an assistant pastor in Monterey, Calif., she was looking to lead a team of pastors at a welcoming church committed to community outreach.

She thought she had found that in Duluth, a rapidly diversifying city of about 30,000 northeast of Atlanta. By the time she and her family arrived in March, states across the country were closing public venues and her new congregation was meeting only online.

Day initially came face to face with many of her members in May, when on her first Sunday on the job they drove by the church in decorated cars to greet her with waves and a few words from the window. When she later met for the first time with her staff members via video chat, she said some people couldn’t get their cameras to work and their faces stayed hidden.

Day, ordained in 2006, was undeterred. Faced with the challenge of leading online worship, she practiced making eye contact on Zoom. She worked with a voice teacher to learn how to focus her energy on camera.

And she took copious notes on church members’ families and histories so she could minister to them virtually on some of the hardest days of their lives. One of her first experiences of virtual pastoral care, she said, came when she prayed on the phone with a congregant whose father died of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Despite Day’s efforts, connecting through technology had its pitfalls. She couldn’t read people’s body language while she spoke to them, and she said she missed the spontaneous conversations in the church hallway that would normally help her forge connections.

After a few months of watching neighboring congregations host outdoor worship, Day said the option started to appeal to her. Gathering outside seemed like a way to fulfill people’s desire to attend services in person while limiting coronavirus risk.

When Day’s congregation began outdoor worship in October, it joined churches across the country that have come together on lawns or in parking lots in an attempt to balance a desire for togetherness with safety precautions meant to prevent the virus’s spread.

Pleasant Hill’s parking-lot services have drawn up to 100 people each Sunday, with aspects unique to that form of worship: a crackly sound system, thermoses of coffee and hands shooting out car windows when a pastor asks if anyone missed the Communion elements when they arrived. Unsure how long the services would last, Day said she decided not to invest in a riser and instead to preach from the back of a congregant’s truck.

The ability to talk with people face to face has helped solidify her previously virtual relationships, she said.

“It’s those in-between spaces that I was missing — the hallway conversations, the ‘show up early to a meeting and come sit in my office for a few minutes’ that just haven’t been happening,” Day said.

As cars pull into the back of the lot each Sunday, Becky Zinn, 51, hands out copies of the church bulletin. She said she’s drawn to the “come as you are” services that enable people to listen over their car radios or nestle blankets across their laps in lawn chairs. A few people even bring their dogs.

Sitting outside as birds chirp also brings Zinn close to God in a different way than the church’s indoor sanctuary does, she said: “It’s a whole different type of environment. But for me, nature is another type of sanctuary, so it fits in perfectly.”

After two years with interim pastors, Robin and Cordell Prater said they were excited to have a permanent minister, even if they could only get to know her over video at first. But the drive-in services have shown them new aspects of Day’s personality: How she hugs her son, that she has a strong sense of humor, and the way she makes church members feel like she’s talking directly to them.

“You can tell each Sunday, she gets more comfortable knowing people,” said Robin Prater, who joined the church with her husband in 1991. “It’s a process, and it’s a process that would happen no matter what. It’s just a little bit more difficult.”

A coronavirus Christmas

As the days grow shorter, Day is approaching Christmas with a bit of trepidation. Could a pandemic-altered celebration compare to the carefully choreographed services of years past?

“I knew that no matter what we did in terms of Christmas Eve, that it would be just a little bit disappointing,” Day said. “And so my hope was that whatever we did, we could do it well and we could figure out ways to help people claim some of those pieces that make the service important.”

Amid the liturgical season of Advent’s focus on waiting, Day said she wanted Pleasant Hill’s services to demonstrate her congregation was choosing hope that the coming year would bring joy.

The church’s traditional choir-led service on the Sunday before Christmas is almost as meaningful to many members as the holiday itself, she said. So this weekend, the staff offered an online service with recordings of music and dancing from previous years. In the evening, congregants convened outside the church for a “blue Christmas” service to mourn recent losses — more numerous this year than usual.

Day said she’s remaining focused on the forward-looking nature of the holiday.

“The gift of this season and the gift of that day is the miracle of the birth of Jesus,” she said. “And as long as we can tell that story and claim that hope, then I think we’re doing okay.”

On most Christmas Eves, Pleasant Hill members come together in the sanctuary for an evening candlelight service. This year, Day and her staff have deemed that kind of gathering not worth the risk.

So as congregants assemble outside, the parking-lot lamps will shut off and a single spotlight will shine on worship leaders. Buckets of water will sit at the ready for the end of the event, when masks will prevent people from blowing out their candles.

Then, as congregants sing “Silent Night” in subdued unison, ushers will walk between cars and lawn chairs to pass a flame from one candle to another underneath the open sky — light illuminating the darkness.

Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.