When most people drive to church on Sunday, it’s to sit for an hour-long service on uncomfortable wooden pews. Not at the Daytona Beach Drive In Christian Church in Florida.
As church attendance continues to decline in the United States, some parishes are doing what they can to draw congregants: embracing social media, loosening dress codes and even altering service times for big sporting events. At this church, people park in rows on the grass facing an altar on the balcony of an old drive-in theater. To hear the service, they switch on their radios.
Pastor Bob Kemp-Baird was skeptical of the church’s approach when he was first recruited two years ago, but now says he understands that the worship style works for his congregation.
“Is there a feeling of the presence of the holy in this place?” Kemp-Baird asks. “Is there a feeling that Christ’s presence is made known? I do know: it lives here.”
Liturgical purists might balk at a worship style in which even Communion isn’t very communal. Parishioners in their cars drink wine from plastic ramekins with tiny rectangles of bread under the lids. As they do so, the radio pipes out instructions over organ music: “Remove this inner lid and, holding this cup, join me in prayer.”
But for the parishioners of the Drive In Christian Church, the drive-up approach works.
When Shirley Oenbrink was battling stage 4 cancer, attending church provided her with strength through her illness, she says. But during her year of chemotherapy, she says she could barely get out of bed, let alone into a church pew.
Now that she has beaten the cancer, having a private space during worship helps her cope with the emotional ups and downs of recovery.
“It the time to let the tears flow and you don’t get questioned,” she says. “I don’t like for people to feel sorry for me. And when I cry, my eyes get big, my nose swells up … I need to stay in my car.”
For Russell and Teresa Fry, who are legally blind, the ability to walk to the church and hear the service through speakers is important. They say they both carry wounds from discrimination at churches they’ve attended in the past, and Teresa Fry says that makes her “standoffish.”
“I don’t want to get hurt. So I stand back and wait for a second to see how they’re going to react to me with being visually impaired, because my eyes do jerk a lot,” she says. “People sometimes think I’m kind of crazy when I’m not crazy.”
The Frys say the church is a safe place for people who need privacy and healing, and that the congregation readily accepted them.
Other parishioners say the drive-in approach is perfect for those who have trouble walking or for antsy children who enjoy the open space. Others say they revel in the ocean air and Florida sunshine. And some say they like that the church welcomes the whole family, including pet dogs: When ushers hand out Communion, even the dogs get treats.
At the service’s close, things get even livelier when people use their car horns to “clap.”
Those who want human interaction can then gather in the fellowship hall, which used to be the theater’s concession stand. Today, it offers a Christian tradition that transcends even locked cars: doughnut hour.